There was an interesting article in the Guardian this week asking whether or not young female writers are operating at a deficit when it comes to major literary awards. Not due to any shortcomings on their part, but because (as the author posits) "the literary industry as a whole – agents, editors, booksellers and critics – currently offer disproportionate encouragement to aspiring male writers to produce the kind of serious-minded, bookish work that gets on shortlists, compared to young female writers." The argument being that for whatever reason, publishers prefer discovering the next Norman Mailer to finding another Toni Morrison.
I’m not entirely certain I agree with this, but it’s an interesting piece, particularly since it was written by a young male author. I also did a quick head count, and during the past two decades only five women have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Five women won the Man Booker Prize. Only with the Pulitzer did women even approach parity, with eight out of twenty taking home the prize.
This got me thinking about gender bias in our own neck of the woods. When my agent first called to sign me, she was noticeably taken aback. Toward the middle of our conversation she confessed that after reading THE TUNNELS, she’d thought I was a man (though the name "Michelle" was pretty straightforward, in my opinion). Since the subject matter was so dark, she felt it might appeal to more male readers than female ones. She recommended that I consider adopting a pseudonym, or shortening my name to just the initials (sadly, that would leave me "M.A.Gagnon," which doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, and sounds like something the Mayo Clinic might have a specialized treatment for).
In the end, I opted to stick with my full name. Partly because I didn’t entirely believe that gender bias exists, partly because I’m just obstinate that way. But I do wonder. When I meet people at conferences who have read my books, the universal exclamation is, "but you seem like such a sweet girl." I suspect that very few male authors are referred to as "sweet" when they meet their fans, or hear that they seem "too happy to write these sorts of books."
Impossible to say whether or not it affects my sales. Occasionally this question rears its head on one of the mystery discussion groups, and everyone gets up in arms. Most people declare that they will happily read any book regardless of who wrote it. But does that apply to the world at large? Especially since I don’t write cozies (which are marketed more toward women), but thrillers, is my name working against me?
Where do you stand? Will you read anything by anyone? Or does gender bias sneak into your decision-making process, subconsciously or otherwise?