Monday, August 31, 2009

Literary Initials

E.B. White.
C.S. Lewis.
J.K. Rowling.

These and many other authors use "literary initials" in their bylines. You may not have given such names much thought at all, yet you may make fast assumptions when you see them printed on the cover or spine of a book.

The author and/or publisher may choose to use initials or pseudonyms for any number of reasons: to protect the identity of the author, to create mystery and intrigue (and thus boost sales and readership), to make it sound as if the author's gender matches that of the protagnonist when it's really the opposite, etcetera, etcetera.

As a kid, I really enjoyed the film The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, so I tracked down the novel written by R.A. Dick and discovered the name was a pseudonym of Josephine Leslie. (Note: If you like classic ghost-and-human romance stories but you haven't heard of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, do yourself a favor and read the book, then see the classic 1947 film starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison, with a young Natalie Wood. Also watch the TV series if you have the chance.) The book was published in 1945. I'm not certain why the byline is what it is, but I find it somewhat amusing, because the story has true ghostwriting: a living female writing the memoirs of a ghostly sea captain as he dictates them to her.

However, since this is a pseudonym, it's not the same thing as an author who simply hides his or her first and/or middle names behind initials, like the wonderful F. Scott Fitzgerald or the delightful E. Lockhart.

What do you think about literary initials? Here are some things to consider:
Do you regard pseudonyms and pen names differently than initials which just shorten real names?
If you do not know the real name or gender of the author, do you research it before or after you read the book?
If an author's byline has initials for the first name, do you assume the author is male?
Does the gender of the author influence whether or not you pick up the book, or whether or not you trust the protagonist, if the protagonist is the opposite gender of the author? Does it matter to you at all?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

When I posed these questions to my writer pals, well-read friends, co-workers, customers, and the general public, I received a great range of responses. Check them out:

I am not particularly interested in any of the issues that you have raised here - they don't influence my choice of author or book, nor do they affect my enjoyment (or otherwise) of the work. I don't assume that an author is male just because they use their initials; the sex of the author is immaterial, anyway.
- Gail, aged 52

I either assume it's a woman asked by her publishers or agent to use initials in an attempt to make sure that the book doesn't get categorised as 'a book for girls', or that it's a man asked to do so in order to make sure that it's seen as 'chick lit' (and that he is writing this because he thinks it will make him money). Terribly cynical of me, maybe, but I do find initials used in modern publications slightly irritating.

With 'classic' writers, those writing in the 19th or 20th century, I tend to assume that they're male unless I know otherwise - an approach which has always given me the right answer, somewhat depressingly!

The gender of the author is something I'm aware of when reading if their gender is the opposite gender to that of the main protagonist. I tend to pay close attention to how they're portraying ideas about the opposite sex, about friendships, and about anything that's 'traditionally' associated with their sex - to see if the writer has felt the need to either depend too much on gender stereotypes or to use the story as a space for arguing against them. I suppose these things would detract from the text no matter what, though. I'm still aware of gender stereotypes when it's writers writing about their own sex.

I wrote a few chapters from male POVs in my last book, and it was a slightly scary experience - it seems to have worked but I found it a tricky balance, trying to make sure they sounded 'like guys' without becoming complete caricatures of 'teenage guyness'. Interesting though.
- Claire Hennessy, writer

I generally don't make assumptions about or care what an author's gender is. I am, however, so familiar with/jaded by the phenomenon of female authors - especially in fantasy and science fiction - using their initials that I now almost always assume that an author using initials is female. I certainly don't trust the protagonist more or less based on whether or not s/he shares gender with the author.
- Kimberly, library science student

I think that literary initials add more mystery to the book and makes me want to pick it up more than a book that has the author's full name printed upon it.
- Doyin, student

I associate initials with many of my favorite authors, which is why I plan to use them if/when I ever get anything published! I like the sound of "A.M.Weir" and think it just sounds more authorial than Amy, which, since there were like two adults with that name when I was a kid, will always sound like a kid's name to me even though most of us are adults now.

There I go, ousting my secret identity on the Internet.

But I never realized that there WAS a gender-based reason for using initials until years after I decided I would. Many times I knew the author's gender from something else ahead of time anyway-- pictures or bios. If I don't, I tend to assume the author is the gender of the main character in the book, I think! Hmm... the main character in my most-close-to-publication-worthy book is a boy....
- A. M. Weir, bookworm, librarian, and unpublished writer

I'll give the classic lawyer's answer: It depends.

Some names, like mine, are a mouthful. I think tough names can be a turnoff for some readers.

I honestly don't care if a book is written by a man or by a woman. It stinks that women women feel they have to hide behind initials to reach a broader audience, but I don't blame them for it.

I do often wonder why men seem to win more awards. It's too bad there's no way of judging them anonymously. When women started auditioning for orchestras behind curtains, they got more chairs. I bet women would get more writing awards if people didn't know the sex of the author.
- Martha, 39, author

When I was growing up, I always assumed it was a man who used initials because it looked so literary. A throw-back to the 19th century I suppose, although I've never lived during the 19th century, unless I had a previous life.

In the last ten years, I personally think it's because BOTH men and women are attempting to hide their real names because they are writing books that appeal more to the opposite sex and don't want their name - and those assumptions - to hurt potential sales.

It's sort of silly though because it's so easy now to find out an author's actual name, although it's too bad we make assumptions about a book's value or authenticity based on the sex of the author. Authors using initials don't stop me from reading a book, but I DO want to know what gender they are! Pure curiosity. And I usually find out before I read the book, but if the book is getting a lot of buzz and good reviews I will read it no matter who wrote it.
- Kimberley Little, author

I don't mind the use of "literary initials" in bylines. It's a choice authors make for a number of reasons. It can offer a kind of anonymity and can also hide the writer's gender (if he or she wishes to). Woman tended to use initials a lot more in the past to leap beyond sexual stereotypes. I think the literary landscape is freer now. An author's gender does not influence whether I will pick up a book. A good book is a good book. Male authors should be free to write from a female's POV. Female writers need that same freedom. I've enjoyed writing chapters or entire books from a boy's POV and I'd resent being restricted to limit my main characters to a single sex! A good writer needs to get into ANY character's skin. This is particularly true in speculative fiction where an author has to crawl into anothers skin be it alien or animal -- dragons included.
- Janet Lee Carey, author

I don't research initials. I think they prove best for female writers hoping to be read by male readers. I'm not aware of female readers having a bent for female authors.

I am cognizant of an author writing a protag of the opposite sex. I scrutinize the work more and hopefully still find the voice authentic. When I find a male author has failed to portray a female, it seems to show in what's not included. Of course, I can never be sure if the male is true at the same level.

Bottom line, for me, is that full names, initials, and pseudonyms don't matter a bit.
- Lorie Ann Grover, author and cofounder of rgz

I've never thought of it before but a quick browse of my bookshelves reveals no initials other than C.S. Lewis and E.E. "Doc" Smith. If that implies selectivity it's an unconscious one. I don't really think it matters whether the author uses initials or a full name. Nor do I think gender matters as long as the writer can create a believable character and tell a good story.
- Beldin

I do research it. I like to know the author's gender, though I hope that doesn't influence my perception of the story (I'm sure it does). I remember reading my first E. Lockhart book and wondering...I HAD to look her up! I think I'm impressed when someone writes an opposite-gender character well (either way).
- Melissa Walker, author

You know I personally don't really care on pretty much all subjects but I've thought about this a lot in my own writing. The book my agent is shopping around is a memoir about working in Alaska aviation - an incredibly male dominated field (I have never flown commercially - it's about working in ops and the pilots I knew who crashed, etc.) I know from the guys I worked with that a woman writing on aviation is highly suspect just because there are so few women in the industry. So honestly, if/when the book is published I'm not sure I would put my full name on it - I might go with initials just so the book is not dismissed on the shelf. I don't hide my gender in the text, but I figure once they start reading it wouldn't be a problem. While some folks might think this is unnecessary, I do recall the tremendous amount of questions I faced when researching my thesis (on commercial aircraft accidents in AK); a lot of the guys flying up there didn't think I had a clue until I told them where I had worked, that I knew how to fly etc. And in their defense, I only knew a handful of female pilots the entire time I lived in AK - but dozens and dozens of guys.

So yeah, while I don't judge based on author name, I know situations where people would, and I can understand why.
- Colleen Mondor, GLW co-founder and moderator

I'm glad you're bringing this up. I actually hate the mind-set behind "initializing" an author's name. I think it typically comes up when the author is a woman, and the book is not aimed at girls exclusively. It's the idea that Teen boys won't pick up a book if it's written by a woman. Which is just an offshoot of the whole "you can't write outside your own experience," which would have gay authors unable to write straight characters, black authors unable to write white characters, and all other ridiculous myths of who's ALLOWED to write what. Look, ultimately, a good story, compellingly told, is a good story, and I don't care if it's written by a man or a woman - as long as the emotions ring true, and the author's done their homework so the details are correct, I'm there. Now it's interesting, as our culture continues to push the "star-ification" of authors, that when some authors want to write OUTSIDE of their current genre, they feel they need to use a pen-name to do so. They're trying to keep their "brand" and not confuse the audience. I think this is an out-dated way of thinking, and that brands can be broader. The narrow view, I think, is one that our current world of facebook and social networking will replace. Before, it was easy to compartmentalize your efforts in one area with one group of people (i.e., the parents of my daughter's classmates were one social group, the teens who read my blog another, the performance artists I worked with in my 20s a third.) But on facebook, they're ALL mushed together, and they all know me for the multi-dimensional person I am. I think this will become more and more true for other authors as well, and we'll get to a point where we won't have author's identities (and genders) being hidden behind initials. At least, I hope that's where we're going!
- Lee Wind, writer and blogger

For reference: Wikipedia: List of authors who use some form of initials in their names.


Lindsey Carmichael said...

Shortly after deciding I wanted to be a writer (at the age of 10) I decided to publish under L. E. Carmichael. This had nothing to do with gender bias (at 10 I had little idea), but was purely pragmatic - my initials are considerably shorter than my full name. Someday when I'm signing hundreds of copies of books in one day, my wrist will thank me.

Lorie Ann Grover said...

Thanks, LW. :~) Awesome collection of input.

Lee said...

I use L. Lee Lowe, partly because I was originally worried about gender bias, partly because I don't much like my first name, partly out of rhythmic considerations, but it doesn't take much effort to find out I'm a woman. However, I'm firmly convinced that knowing too much about a writer's identity interferes with the reading process, so I'm keeping it this way for now - and consequently have included no biographical info at my new website.

Little Willow said...

Nice to meet you, Lindsey!

Thank you, Lorie Ann, for the feedback.

Lee, you have three L initials in a row and you happen to be the third commenter here, all of whom have L as their first initial. Hello, coincidence!

Lee said...

Heh heh, how weird.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Excellent food for thought! It's something I've been pondering for a handful of years now, ever since deciding to pursue writing as a career, and I change my mind on almost a weekly basis. Sometimes I feel like I don't want to be judged by my gender as an author, and like the anonymity of initials; sometimes I just think the initials look and sound cool; and sometimes I feel like my name is too long.

Other times I feel the opposite, and want to put my FULL moniker, first-middle-last, on everything, because without the middle name I have a fairly generic-sounding name. Even with the initial, (and yes, I've googled!) there are at least a couple of other successful professionals with the same name.

I should totally just make something up...

A Paperback Writer said...

Before the days of JK Rowling, I always assumed that authors used initials because they felt like it. I mean, many of us include an initial when signing our name on a form or (in the old days...) a check.
When I first heard of the Harry Potter books, I did assume it was man writing for boys until I learned the truth. Fortunately, in these post-Potter days, most pre-teen and teen boys now understand that a woman can write for boys just fine.

Little Willow said...

For what it is worth, aquafortis, I like your (real) name. I know that whatever you end up using when you're published, you will be successful.

A Paperback Writer: Amen re: folks respecting the author's gender!