A short series of guest posts explores what it means to be a female author…
DOES THE GENDER BEHIND THE PEN MATTER?
By Lesley Krier Tither
I’M WRITING the front page main lead. Steve is bouncing a football off the back of my head as I type. Trevor is jumping on Alistair’s back, making lewd gestures and asking if he had piggy last night.
Wilf, the sub-editor, is waiting for my efforts for the front page lead story and also for a piece I still need to finish for the sports page. He asks in the meantime if anyone is making a ‘bwew’ since he can’t pronounce his Rs. Bob, the chief reporter, is in an ‘editorial conference’. That means he and the managing editor Mr Brown, are round the corner in the Vic public house and won’t be back until closing time.
Just another day in the life of a local newspaper in the early 1970s. I’m just Les, one of the lads. I do the same work as any of the others. I assume I get the same pay. Nobody ever discusses such things in the culture of the time. I get treated exactly the same as the lads. Mr Brown occasionally jumps on them for swearing in front of me, but then swears like a trooper himself.
My point is, back in the day, although there was a glass ceiling, when it came to writing we were all treated the same. I was a reporter, not a reporteress. Which is why I got in a heated debate recently on social media when someone wanted to use the phrase ‘authors and authoresses.’ I could perhaps accept the term if someone could point me at a reputable article which called Agatha Christie an authoress. Or Val McDermid. Or one which stated that P D James was a president of the Society of Authors and Authoresses.
So why do many women feel the need to mask their gender with a name change when writing, especially for a genre like crime?
Here I must declare an interest. I write crime fiction under a part of my real name, L M Krier. It’s simply because I don’t actually like my first name. Or my second one. Never have. I write across three genres and have different names for them all. It’s not about hiding who I am. It’s more about what is suitable for which genre. My travel memoirs are written as Tottie Limejuice (it’s a long story!) and most of my friends these days call me Tots or Tottie. But it sounds too much like a porn star to be suitable for crime fiction or my other genre, children’s fiction, for which I am L M Kay.
Why write crime fiction at all? It’s always been my preferred genre to read and to watch on television. As a former court reporter, and especially a coroner’s court reporter, I’ve heard some fascinating things over the years. People are always intrigued by death. The one certainty in life is that one day, we’re all going to die. The growing trend is to read about more and more extreme ways of doing it.
After leaving journalism, I also worked for a time for the Crown Prosecution Service from its inception in 1986. Again, I read things in the files I handled which were more like the plot of the most noir of books. The market for crime, especially violent crime and psychological thrillers, is clearly still there. It’s hard to turn on the television these days without yet another crime series starting up.
Are women finding it hard to make their mark in the genre because of their gender? It’s interesting that J K Rowling chose a man’s name under which to publish her crime books. Yet crime books by women constantly figure amongst the biggest sellers on Amazon. Many independent women crime writers are now making a very respectable living out of their books, often doing far better than those in mainstream publishing.
It’s perhaps because of such factors that there is an interesting trend developing in crime writing. That of men writing under a woman’s name. One well-known example is Tania Carver, the alter-ego of Martyn Waites. Waites is a well-established crime writer of neo-noir. He recounts that his former editor said he was looking for a high concept female thriller writer, Britain’s answer to Karin Slaughter or Tess Gerritsen. Waites said he could do it, set out his idea for a book and so Tania Carver was born.
All of which begs the question, surely the editor could have found a woman to be the next big-name female thriller writer? There’s plenty of female talent out there and clearly there is a demand for women writers as the editor was specifically looking for one. And can readers really tell the gender of who is behind the pen?
I belong to a lot of book groups on Facebook and this is a debate which comes up not infrequently. I’ve seen one person start a post off by claiming emphatically that they would never read a crime book by a woman nor one with a female detective. I’m notorious on social media for not being able to hold my tongue. I’m a bit like the little boy who simply has to point and say, ‘The king is in the altogether.’
I happen to believe that, as well as being an art, writing is also a craft, like any other, which has to be learned. I mentioned that as a journalist on a local paper I was expected to write sports reports, despite having no interest in or knowledge of the subject. As long as the lads told me whether the sport in question had goals, tries, runs, points or something else, I could usually produce something acceptable as I was trained to write. The argument goes that women can’t write convincingly in a man’s voice. Said poster rather defeated his own case because he thought that Nicci French was a woman rather than a husband and wife team so clearly he couldn’t tell the difference.
So can a woman write credibly in a man’s voice? Or a man in a woman’s? For the above poster’s beliefs to be true, we would have to accept that Agatha Christie’s Poirot books were inferior to her Miss Marple ones. Sales statistics would suggest otherwise since she remains the best-selling crime writer of all time with both series remaining all-time best-sellers. I wonder how many people who enthuse over Fred Vargas’s work realise she is female as Fred is quite a common name for women here in France.
Why then do some readers maintain that women can’t write crime as well as men do? Surely not simply sexism raising its ugly head in the twenty-first century? It’s certainly not because women take a softer approach to their writing. Not only in books but on the small screen, women writers have written some of the nittiest and grittiest series of recent times. Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley, for example, drew some criticism from Mediawatch-UK for its violent scenes, yet the first series also won the BAFTA Award for best Drama series.
Intelligent readers will, of course, read a book with no preconceptions over gender and judge it entirely on its merits. There was always be some, unfortunately, who will dismiss what might be an excellent read because it was written by a man or a woman or a transgender person or some other category which doesn’t fit comfortably into their particular mindset. Their loss.
* Note for those not familiar with the vernacular of Greater Manchester, where I grew up. There is nothing sexist, demeaning or anything else derogatory about the collective term ‘lads’ for men, especially younger men. Nor of ‘lass’ for females. I didn’t remotely mind being collectively termed one of the lads.
Lesley M. Krier Tither is a retired journalist, freelance copywriter and copy editor who also worked for the Crown Prosecution Service. She now lives in central France’s Auvergne region and holds French nationality. She writes crime fiction as L M Krier, travel memoirs and humour as Tottie Limejuice and children’s fiction with a crime twist as L M Kay. She is a proud Indie author and has refused an approach from a publisher to remain so. When not writing she enjoys walking and camping with her rescued border collies, Fleur and Rosie. She is also owned by two cats, HRH the Princess Freddie Mercury and her lady-in-waiting Bibi.