Good afternoon. My eyebrows have crawled up my forehead and are rapidly ascending their way into my hairline and will shortly scale the dome of my head and start back down the back toward my neck because I am currently reading about male writers adopting gender neutral pen names in order to sell psychological thrillers to female audiences.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the tides have turned since the Brontë sisters and George Elliot were publishing under manly names. Or perhaps they haven’t turned—for instance, read Catherine Nichols’s Jezebel essay on the different reception she received when submitting her work as somebody named “George”—so much as there is a huge market demand for psychological “Girl Who” thrillers, often featuring dead or missing women, written largely by women for female audiences. And the guys—and their publishers—want in.
Riley heads to bookshelves as male writers adopt ambiguous pseudonyms for suspense novels rooted in the inner worlds of women. Female authors like Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) and Paula Hawkins (“The Girl on the Train”) have been leading this booming genre in a realm dominated by women readers. The problem for men: Some fans doubt the authenticity of the female narrator’s voice when it is delivered by a male author.
Hence “Riley Sager,” author of Final Girls, also known as Todd Ritter. And S.J. Watson, or Steve Watson, and A. J. Finn, or Daniel Mallory. The Journal explains:
In recent years, many female readers have been drawn away from international espionage thrillers, a genre predominantly written by men, in favor of suspense novels told through the point of view of female characters, often compared with the 2012 juggernaut “Gone Girl.” Since then, certainly, men have written psychological thrillers under their own names and women have used pen names. But once a formula is successful, publishers try to replicate it.
They’re not lying, exactly. None of them has gone to catfish lengths to create some alternate persona, and a little smartphone Googling would inform any shopper they aren’t actually dealing with a female writer. It’s just that if you’re idly browsing in Barnes and Noble, looking for a Gone Girl-style read, you won’t encounter any immediate tells. One of the authors featured has gone so far as to try on a bra so he didn’t make any obvious mistakes that might throw female readers out of the story. Wonder if he also gets the infuriating emails or the creepy DMs or the generally patronizing bullshit?
“I didn’t want there to be people thinking I was trying to deceive them in any way, but at the same time I think it’s cool to have a little mystery,” Ritter told the Journal using a pen name.
At least this class appears to be attempting to write realistically and convincingly from the perspective of woman protagonists. (To give credit to the bra experimenter, there have probably been plenty of unrealistically depicted bras left lying around decades’ worth of thrillers and mystery novels.) “At almost every event, someone will say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize you weren’t a woman,’ and I’m always pleased,” said Tony Strong, who writes as JP Delaney, but it’s because that means he wrote a convincing woman narrator.
Nevertheless, if only being a woman in, say, serious nonfiction or literary fiction were as straightforward as publishing under the name Steve. At the very least, it might be nice not to worry so much about whether your face is conventionally attractive enough for the publicity photos! Or for that matter, television or film or visual arts or contracting or big business or small business or medicine or politics.