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Does authors’ gender matter for readers?

Although female authors dominated the Costa book award 2016 shortlists, when the winners were announced on 3rd of January, three out of five winners were actually male. Is it more difficult for women to be successful as authors?

Before Harry Potter became one of the best selling books in the world, not everyone knew that J.K Rowling was a woman because the publisher, Bloomsbury, intended not to use her first name, Joanna. The story indicates that authors’ gender still has a great influence on book sales in the modern world. Publishers have to be very aware of that if they explicit authors’ gender.

Traditionally, it’s been apparently more difficult for women to be authors and have readers take their pieces seriously. The author of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte wrote the novel under the male pen name Currer Bell, and the author who is well known as George Eliot is the pen name of Mary Ann Evans. The history of these women hiding their gender tells us how difficult it was for female writers to be taken as seriously as male writers.

In recent years, however, it seems that the people who feel the disparity are not only female. The number of male authors who have chosen to use the gender-neutral names is getting increased. For instance, Steve Watson published his bestselling novel as SJ Watson, Tom Knox was convinced by his publisher to use SK Tremayne as a pseudonym when he wrote a book from a female perspective. He once said to the guardian that he didn’t want to put off any readers who might presume that a male writer could not carry a female voice.

Some readers may disagree with using the gender-neutral pen names as they think it’s sort of hiding or masking. However, Karen Bultiauw, who is a BookTuber (people who review books on YouTube) and the event manager at local bookshop Octavo’s in Cardiff, said: “I don’t see any problem with it, but I feel that it’s a shame. I also think it’s more of a publishers’ decision really than authors’ nowadays.”

She continued: “I think that you have your writer hat when you are writing, but then when it comes to publishing you have to have your author hat on, which has to be a business person because this is how it’s gonna sell that book, this is how it’s gonna make the money that you need to write your next book. So, as an author, you kind of have to try maximise your selling and your revenue.”

Furthermore, Gabriella Lepore, who is the author of YA (Young Adult) books such as The witches of the Glass Castle and How I Found You also agreed with the idea and said: “It’s definitely an interesting idea. It really levels out the playing field, particularly if someone has experienced prejudice based on their gender in the past.”

Although it is true that there are some critics, it may be a good idea to accept and understand the authors who use gender-neutral names or hide their gender more. This is because statistics compiled by Vida shows that books written by men were much more likely to be featured in published reviews in the United States, the UK, and Australia. In Australia, for instance, two-thirds of books being reviewed are by male authors although two-thirds of published authors are female. In addition, this trend has been almost always the same over the last 30 years.

As well as the review pages, some literally prizes are often dominated by male authors. Bultiauw said: “The one thing that really really bugs me and it’s been like that for the past couple of years is whenever the Booker shortlist comes out, it’s usually dominated by men even though usually in the longlist it’s usually quite balanced and then I’m a bit like “What are you doing?” So I feel like that the prizes are often still male dominated, which is frustrating.”

Last November, when the Costa book award shortlists were released, the fact that 14 out of 20 nominated authors across the awards’ five categories were female became a news story on the guardian. “Is that newsworthy? I think that’s fascinating though, it’s not just in this. People seem surprised when women are actually competent, they win prizes, and that sometimes they are better than men,” said Bultiauw.

Whenever women have done something better than men have, it always becomes news. Marion Wynne-Davies, who is the English Literature Professor at University of Surrey and wrote the article Women still need to fight for publishing deals and book prize on The Conversation, said: “Does anyone comment on the fact that there are more men on a shortlist than women? No. Because that’s the norm. Men will always comment negatively on anything that seeks to challenge their dominance.”

In the books world, male authors are usually called ‘authors’, whereas female authors are always called ‘female authors’ or ‘women writers’. Bultiauw said: “Isn’t it stupid that anything that is actually written specifically about a woman’s perspective by a woman is often put in the chic-lit category? Where is the male-lit category?”

Speaking of women’s perspective, there is another bias. It was revealed that books about women are also less likely to get awarded. For instance, none of the 15 Pulitzer prize-winning books between 2000 and 2014 was written wholly from women’s perspective. For the Man Booker in the same period, 12 out of 15 books are about men or boys.

The gender bias exists not only in literature but also in academia. Wynne-Davies pointed out that there is strong bias towards women as she has always experienced it. She said: “I got a lot of flack because of the piece I wrote, all from men and quite a few from academic. These range from rude to pointing out that I’d got the facts wrong or that my grammar was poor. Moreover, every single time I’ve written something for the public I get the same abuse. That’s what happens when women write.”

There is, however, good news for female authors as well. The bias is flipped over when you look into certain book genres. For example, when it comes to the genres of romance, fiction and childrens, more published authors are female, whereas more male authors have written non-fiction and science-fiction books. “In regards to gender, my publishing house, OfTomes, was founded and run by a man, and he urges male authors to send in their manuscripts for submission as we actually have very few male authors with us. Currently 90% of the authors writing YA for OfTomes are female,” said Lepore.

Despite an increasing number of female authors, there is still some imbalance to catch up. But the trend of women being fairly evaluated has already started in some genres. Lopore said: “The world is constantly evolving, and women’s roles are constantly growing, becoming stronger. Women are breaking through as powerhouses in this industry.”