Today’s guest is science fiction and fantasy author Fonda Lee! Her recently released debut novel Zeroboxer, a young adult science fiction book whose main protagonist is a zero gravity fighter, is a 2015 Andre Norton Award nominee and a Junior Library Guild selection for 2015. It will be joined by her second book (also science fiction!) in 2017.
Yes, I Write “Boy Books.” No, I Don’t Have a Male Pen Name.
Let me begin by saying that I hold a special fury in my heart for the unrelenting gender assigning of books, media, and toys. In a myriad of insidious ways, young people are told that only certain types of characters and stories are for boys and others are for girls.
I resented it as a child, when I was that little girl who wanted Transformers and Ninja Turtles toys that society and my classmates told me in no kind terms were “for boys.” I resent it now, as a mother, when my daughter’s birthday present haul consists of half a dozen variations on “make your own jewelry” kits even though she loves science and Star Wars. And I resent it as an author, hearing about authors like Shannon Hale, who has had school visits in which only girls were allowed to come hear her talk about her books, which are “for girls.”
I write books that I’m told are “for boys.” Science fiction and fantasy with loads of fighting. Stories about prizefighters, soldiers, gangsters. Magic and weapons and martial arts. Romance is usually there as a sub plot, but come on, no one reads my books to get their romance kick. My novels published so far have had male protagonists. Zeroboxer featured combat sports in space. My next YA novel is about bio-enhanced soldiers fighting terrorists on an Earth governed by aliens. I worship prose that’s straightforward and crisp and delivers smart, propulsive action. If you were to open my creative brain, you’d see one continuous film festival playing movies like The Matrix and Minority Report and Mad Mad: Fury Road and Kill Bill. So yeah. “Boy books.”
Except that I’m not a boy. Never been one neither. I’m a grown woman, a mom, and a minority at that. And I’ve faced more than a few occasions when I’ve been questioned by others, or have secretly wondered myself, if I’ll be “allowed” to succeed in writing what I love to write.
The first questions came before my debut novel was published, when well meaning friends and a few fellow authors asked, “So are you going to use a male pen name?”
I hadn’t thought to use a male or gender neutral pen name. In all my dreams of becoming a published author, I’d always envisioned my own name on the cover of my books. They were my books, dammit. They’d have my name on the spine. But doubt crept in.
“JK Rowling used a gender neutral pseudonym,” people reminded me. Her publisher thought that boys would be less likely to want to read a book written by a woman. Here I was, writing young adult novels meant to appeal to teenage boys. (Not only them, of course, but they were a core demographic.) Would some of my target readers pick up my book, go, “Cool, futuristic zero gravity prizefighting,” but then think, perhaps unconsciously, “Yeah, but it’s written by a chick. Probably full of fluff and romance. No thanks,” and put it back down?
The idea nagged at me. Infuriated me. Boys tend to read books about boys, written by men—that’s what statistics told me was true. But was the societal prejudice so strong that I was shooting myself in the foot by not hiding my gender from my readers? Did boys read books written by male authors simply because more male authors tended to write the types of action adventure stories that appealed to them? (The exact same sorts of stories that I wanted to write?) Did they not believe a woman could write convincingly from a male point of view? Had the idea been so strongly engrained that women wrote for girls, and men for boys, that seeing a female author’s name or photo on a book automatically led to snap judgments at the point of purchase about the sort of stories and characters one could expect to find within the covers?
Should I try to change that perception, or give into it?
“You’re going to have a challenge,” a film producer told me at a writing conference. He’d read Zeroboxer. “You have a very masculine writing style. This’ll do great with teenage boys. But it’s published as YA. Boys don’t read YA.” I was told that more than once. Boys don’t read YA because YA is filled with female writers who write about female protagonists.
I didn’t know which assumption to be more discouraged by: the idea that boys aren’t interested in reading female writers or protagonists, or the idea that girls wouldn’t like a book about punching people in space just as much as boys would.
I didn’t take a male pen name.
Maybe I’m underestimating the force of gender prejudice. Maybe I’m losing sales. Who knows. Everyone knows JK Rowling is a woman and it hasn’t hurt the appeal of Harry Potter to people of all genders and ages. SE Hinton, who wrote the The Outsiders in 1967, probably wouldn’t have seen as much success if “Susan Hinton” was blazed across one of the most quintessential YA male coming of age novels of all time. Maybe we’re past that time now. Maybe we’re not.
In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to obscure my gender. I like the idea of teenage boys reading and enjoying my books and realizing that a woman can write “boy books”–whatever that means. And I like the idea of girls who are drawn to the sorts of things I was drawn to as a girl (killer robots! ninjas! superheroes! spaceships! more freaking ninjas!) to see me standing up in author presentations and know that they can love and write whatever the hell they want to.
And they’re my books, dammit. My name.
||Fonda Lee is the author of the Andre Norton nominated novel Zeroboxer (Flux/Llewellyn, April 2015). Her second book will be released by Scholastic in spring 2017. A recovering corporate strategist, when she is not writing, she can be found training in kung fu or searching out tasty breakfasts. Born and raised in Canada, Fonda now lives in Portland, Oregon. You can find Fonda at www.fondalee.com and on Twitter @fondajlee.