Sunday, September 7, 2014

Pen Names and Privilege

One of my friends sent around a blog post on Facebook this week that used a biking analogy to provide one possible explanation of what we mean when we speak of "white privilege."  It's an excellent (if imperfect) blog post, but it reminded me that quite often we don't recognize privilege as its recipients: it's only when we suffer under a particular type of privilege that it becomes apparent.

As writers, we are granted a certain amount of anonymity that sometimes protects us from some of the inequalities of privilege.  Yet the more I consider it, I realize we are just as much victims/perpetrators of racial/financial/heteronormative privilege as anyone else.  Nowhere does our acceptance and perpetuation of this privilege become more apparent than in the historical adoption of the "nom de plume."

By haphephilia

For instance, the adoption of masculine pen names has historically been a socially accepted way for female authors/poets to overcome the patriarchal prejudices of readers (and publishers).  The Brontë sisters all published under masculine names, in part to keep a bit of anonymity, and partially to avoid the prejudice of femininity.  George Sand was born Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin.

The phenomenon, however, is not merely historical.  J.K. Rowling and K.A. Applegate both chose (or were pressured) to write under their initials to preserve a bit of ambiguity about their gender.  Neither have been secretive about the fact that they are women, but we might argue their readerships under those names were helped (or at least not hindered) by the blurring of their gender presentation.

Carrie Cuinn wrote an excellent short piece on the problem with publishing under pen names.  She made a conscious decision not to use a pen name because she wanted "to be read and judged and known for who I really am."  And I agree wholeheartedly, even as I publish this post under a name that differs from my own legal name. 

When I selected my own pen name, I chose something dissimilar enough from my legal name that I could safely write academic pieces under my legal name while publishing fiction and poetry under another.  However, the two names are similar enough in ethnicity/gender that, since the very first time I tried it on, my pen name felt like me.  In the online community I am very comfortable being referred to as "Amalie."  She is me, with my history, my prejudices, and my (perhaps imagined) talent.  "Cantor" is even more personal; it is a tribute to a long-standing discussion between my partner and myself on how we should combine our last names when we are finally granted the legal right to marry. 

I am fortunate, however.  I write fiction that features primarily lesbian characters.  Were I to publish under a masculine name, I would run the risk of alienating my primary audience (other lesbian readers).  My partner confessed to me a few days ago that when she seeks out lesbian fiction, she intentionally avoids authors with male-sounding names.  She says she can't trust them to adequately get to the heart of her concerns as a feminine lesbian woman.

So what does that say about me?  Though I am hesitant to admit it, I like to think I'm operating under oppression, that I'm fighting the good fight by intentionally being as true to myself and to my potential audience as I possibly can be.  But it turns out that, because of the audience I'm seeking, my name may in fact imbue me with a level of privilege I didn't realize existed.  It's not a moral issue, not really.  It just is what it is.

And it demonstrates exactly what our bike-riding blogger was talking about.  I'm driving an automobile in a niche market that's been built to allow me free access, when others might still be riding their bikes to work.  What if I wanted to write about the adventures of a male wizard (as an homage to Ms. Rowling)?  Would I need to shorten or completely change my chosen pen name just to get an honest reading from my intended audience?  It's a question that deserves continuing discussion. 

Our pen names can grant us a level of privilege we may not feel we can earn under our legal names.  Whether we intentionally play into that privilege or not, it's our duty to consider how the system that created that privilege might be hurting our fellow authors.

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