The Great Pen Name Debate: Women Authors in Fantasy

The name on my birth certificate pre-determined my future. With a name like Sally Slater, I could either be a news anchor, an actress, or an author. So when a friend asked me the other day if I'd ever considered writing under an androgynous or male pen name, like J.K. Rowling or Rob Thurman, I laughed.

"My name is awesome," I told her. (It is. Thanks, parents.) "Why would I ever do that?"

But there's a reason so many women authors have chosen to hide their genders. Though it's improved in recent years, the publishing world has long been dominated by men, and even in 2014 there is still evidence of sexism. Taking a look at how well women are represented in major literary review publications, women comprise only 33 percent of reviews in The New Yorker and 42 percent of the New York Times Book Review.

What really drives the publishing industry is selling books --- and at the end of the day the industry still thinks authors will sell more if they are (or at least are perceived as) a man. To be fair, publishers and marketers aren't basing this on pure speculation -- studies show that men are more likely to read books written by other men, whereas women will read books by either gender.

But I'm a woman, who wrote a book about a woman. And I'll be damned if I put a man's name on the cover.

In the fantasy genre -- the genre that I write -- the most famous names in this day and age are probably J.R.R. Tolkein, George R.R. Martin, and J.K. Rowling. Only J.K. Rowling is a woman, and her protagonist is a male.

Fantasy has been a tough nut to crack for the female author -- at least when it comes to appealing across gender lines. Stephanie Meyer of Twilight fame has been incredibly successful, but her fan base is primarily young women. Just browse through the Goodreads page for The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley and you'll be hard-pressed to find a 3-star-plus review from a male. However, male authors that write stories with female protagonists as their leads -- like Brandon Sanderson or Garth Nix -- have had broad popularity.

Does that mean women fantasy authors just can't write books that appeal to boys and men? Or that we're doing something to "turn off" male readers? And if they aren't buying our books, what are they missing out on?

My personal philosophy on writing fiction is that the number one purpose of a story is to entertain. I don't care if a story has symbolism or political intention or pretty words -- if it fails to move the reader, it fails, period. And I'd like to believe that entertaining stories -- whether the author is a man or a woman -- will eventually find a broad audience.

But because I am a woman, I have a perspective on how female characters should be portrayed in fiction. That shapes the way I write my stories and build my characters. To be clear, not every female author shares that same perspective, but those differences in viewpoint are critical to providing readers of all genders a diverse portrayal of women. Women authors give real, authentic voices to female characters, even in fantastical settings.

That doesn't mean to say men can't or shouldn't write from a female point of view. I'm all in favor of more fantasy stories with female protagonists, preferably kicking butt. Some of my favorite characters in fantasy -- Lyra Belacqua of His Dark Materials and Lucy Pevensie of The Chronicles of Narnia -- were created by men. But the stories that inspired me, that made me think women could do or become anything, were written by women -- authors like Anne McCaffrey, Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley. I don't believe that's pure coincidence.

Women authors -- particularly those in fantasy -- are limited by the misperception that our novels boil down to stories about romance. It's an old-fashioned line of thinking, but what other agency could our female protagonist have beyond finding her prince and living happily ever after? Many "hardcore" fantasy fans think that without a long white beard, we're incapable of legitimate world building. And ugh, romance -- never mind that King Arthur had his Guinevere (and let's not forget about the adultery with Lancelot) and Rand al' Thor had his Elayne... and Min... and Aviendha.

But I'm a woman who likes to have her cake and eat it, too, and that's how I write my characters. Women can be strong and powerful, yet still vulnerable. They can be passionate about their dreams -- whether that means climbing the career ladder or slaying an evil demon -- while still wanting to find love and companionship.

I wonder, sometimes, if Harry Potter would have been as popular if Harry had been Harriet. We have no way of knowing, but if I had to hazard a guess, Harriet Potter and The Philosopher's Stone still would have been a blockbuster.