Gone Girl. The Girl on the Train. The Girls. Where the shelves of Barnes & Noble once groaned with book-club-ready titles like The Time-Traveler’s Wife and The Gravedigger’s Daughter, it appears that literary women are no longer defined by their marriages or fathers. Now the girls are out on their own, typically ensnared in a suspense-driven, page-turning potboiler, but always delivering a timely and authentically feminine point-of-view.
So when you pick up Final Girls, the latest thriller in this hot psychological genre, you’d probably assume that its author, Riley Sager, is a woman.
But over on Goodreads, a social media site for bibliophiles, you learn that “Riley Sager is a pseudonym for an author who has been previously published under another name.” That unrevealed name is Todd Ritter. As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, he is one of a cadre of male writers who obscure their gender on book jackets with pen names. Two other examples: JD Delaney, author of The Girl Before, is actually ad copywriter Tony Strong; and A.J. Finn, whose forthcoming The Woman in the Window is set to make a splash in 2018, is Daniel Mallory, a senior executive at the publishing house putting out the novel.
In a world where women read more than men — especially novels and stories — it pays to write from their perspective, which is easier to sell if they think you’re one of them.
Literature has a long tradition of pen names, of course, but for every whimsical explanation of how Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain, there are a dozen cases like that of George Eliot — a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans, a Victorian master who adopted a male persona so that her realist fiction wouldn’t be dismissed out-of-hand. In our own era, Jo Rowling became J.K. (the “K” stands for “Kathleen,” her grandmother’s name) simply because her publisher “thought that a woman’s name would not appeal to the target audience of young boys” they had in mind for the Harry Potter franchise.
So while it may seem fair turnabout that men pose as the opposite sex to reach their desired audience, it’s a practice riven with ethical faultlines. As Fran Lebowitz has said in discussing white privilege, “[g]etting in the door is pretty much the entire game” — women historically took noms de plume in order to be taken seriously, and here men (who’ve been sitting comfortably indoors all along) have made it a marketing tactic.
This imbalance is a “sticky one,” says Amelia Gray, an acclaimed L.A. author whose most recent novel, Isadora, follows the real-life dancer Isadora Duncan through immense personal tragedy at the outset of the 20th century. “I think of the money that any big book can make for a publisher, and how that money can double as freedom for an editor who might not otherwise have the ability to publish what might be seen as more of a long shot for the company. This is admittedly a capitalist way to see things, but in my own life and for my own career, I have to weigh the reality of situations like this against my ideals, finding that the access of publishing always comes with a cost.”
But writers and publishers don’t always make it easy to give them the benefit of the doubt. “I take real issue with the wide-eyed coyness Todd Ritter takes in his press on the subject, which reads like he’s trying to remove his hands from the steering wheel while maintaining the hope this bus rolls into a pile of money,” Gray says. She points to Riley Sager’s Twitter avatar — Jamie Lee Curtis in the slasher classic Halloween — as one subtly misleading clue to his identity. (Ritter also publishes supernatural fare under the name Alan Finn, though he doesn’t appear to tweet as Alan, and for all intents and promotional purposes, it appears the Riley account has become his official channel.)
“A rising tide lifts all ships, and Final Girls isn’t slapping the food out of anyone’s mouth,” Gray clarifies, “but when [Ritter] says ‘I didn’t want there to be people thinking I was trying to deceive them in any way,’ I have to consider the distinction between not wanting people to think he’s trying to deceive them, and not wanting to deceive people.”
These literary disguises become even more problematic when they cross racial boundaries, which reinforces the gut instinct that men shouldn’t pose as women, either. Many writers and readers were aghast when they learned that Yi-Fen Chou, whose “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” found its way into the 2015 edition of The Best American Poetry, was in fact a middle-aged white man named Michael Derrick Hudson. The poem, submitted to a variety of journals under his real name, had previously accumulated 40 rejections. Even after Hudson revealed this subterfuge, the anthology’s Native American guest editor, Sherman Alexie, opted to keep it in the collection and defended that choice in surprisingly strong terms. The “yellowface” scandal drew an eloquent response in poet Jenny Zhang’s essay “They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist,” where she wrote: “The reparations white people claw for the minute they feel excluded from this world is not our problem.”
“When white men assume a feminine or even ‘ethnic-sounding’ pen name,” as in the Hudson example, “it feels like they’re cutting in line when they were already really close to the front of it anyway,” says poet and essayist Elisa Gabbert, whose most recent collection — L’Heure Bleue, or The Judy Poems — imagines a back story and emotional life for the one woman in Wallace Shawn’s play The Designated Mourner. “There may be a temptation to think that ‘the quality of the work’ is all that matters. But when you grow up white and male it’s easy to learn the codes that telegraph ‘quality writing,’ since the standards of quality are so often set by white men.”
Just as Hudson can still use whiteness to his advantage while pretending to be Chinese, so can men use their maleness to succeed behind a veil of womanhood. Because their pen names are ambiguous and don’t play on racial stereotypes, Gabbert says, the violation is “less egregious,” but nonetheless amount to “a cheap move, and a gross way for publishers to try to play the market.” A motive, again, they openly cop to in the WSJ article.
Besides, there’s no indication that it works. Tony Strong speaks of his gratification when he learns that a reader pictured him as a woman, but is this confusion really selling more books? “I do think the publishing industry and many readers are embracing books by women and people of color right now,” Gabbert says. “But that doesn’t mean (as some white men believe) that it’s easier to get a book published or to find a readership” if you fall into one of these categories, or both.
With Trump in office, it’s clear that women and minorities still have the deck stacked against them, and it’s not as though “they just popped into existence at the right time in history; they had to get to the point of being able to write a book.” Trying to ride their surge of popularity in this moment feels especially cynical because of how hard they’ve fought to achieve the baseline recognition that mediocre dude authors have enjoyed since day one. When you’re getting blurbs from Stephen King, do you need to curate some androgynous alter ego?
In an ideal literary scene, everyone would publish transparently. That pen names exist is a testament to the reality’s imperfection. It’s depressingly predictable—these men treating the solution to a problem of their making as a potential exploit in a system that affords them every other advantage. Thousands have inhaled their work, as will thousands more, without the slightest concern as to the authors’ genitalia — it’s not usually forefront in one’s mind when absorbed in a gripping beach read — which is, after all, as it should be. Perhaps male writers could stop thinking about it so much themselves.