Friday, June 8, 2007

Gender wars in books?

The primary reason this blog got started was an experience I had years ago with an unnamed agent. After years of writing my novels by night and working full time by day, I started to despair that I'd ever succeed in getting published. My historical fiction - a genre I've been passionate about since childhood - had been doing the rounds, and while I received editorial praise, something unspoken kept surfacing in those "thank you but not for us" publisher letters.

I was a man.

When my agent at the time (who I must emphasize is NOT my agent now) told me she felt my gender was working against me, I was taken aback. Why did it make any difference? They liked my writing; praised my authenticity and my characterization; who cares if I'm a man? "Well," she replied, "they care. You're writing about women. They believe women readers want women writers, and women write better historical fiction than men."

Hold on! "What about the classics," I asked, "like Alexander Dumas and Rafael Sabatini?"
She made a snorting sound. "When was the last time they published anything? Today, men writing in the genre, like Wilbur Smith, do adventure novels centered on male characters. Men aren't writing about the female heart in history. And if they are, editors are reluctant to make an offer because they think the predominately female audience who buy historical fiction won't purchase the books."

Is that so? The truth was, I'd read several historical novels by men which I loved, such as "Duchess of Milan" by Michael Ennis, a gorgeous novel about the D'Este sisters that is very much about the female heart. I'd recommended it to my women and men friends, and no one seemed to mind about his gender. No one even seemed to notice. And yet here I faced an seemingly insurmountable obstacle in a long road of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. "What should I do?" I finally asked my agent. She said, "It's quite simple. Take on a pen name. I suggest you call yourself Caren Gortner."

Caren Gortner. Now, I wanted to be published more than anything else on this world. I'd have walked to New York if it would have made a difference, but there was something about changing my name to suit a preconceived notion that just didn't sit right with me. I strongly felt gender shouldn't have anything to do with the value of writing. I knew writers change names for a variety of reasons, including moving between different genres and/or to retain anonymity or simply because they don't think they sound authorial enough. But all I kept thinking was, How would I do book signings? Would I have to send in a female friend after prepping her for hours on what she should say to readers about my writing process, my inspiration, etc.? What about the author photo on the jacket? What about the bio, the publicity? How would I enjoy any of it if my readers thought I was a woman?

"Lots of male authors do it," my agent informed me tartly, when I expressed my objections. Look, I can't keep submitting your work this way. Take some time to think about it."

I was in a quandary. I consoled myself with the thought that no one had said, Oh, he writes terrible women. It's a marketing strategy, I decided after a sleepless night. A strategy to get past this bizarre prejudice, nothing more.

The next day, I called my agent. "What about C.W. Gortner? It's not female or male. I could be anyone."

There was a long pause. Then the phone clicked. The next time I heard from her it was a short letter explaining she was terminating our agreement.

It was several more years before I buckled under the pressure and wrote The Secret Lion, my fourth written novel and first one using a male POV. It found a home in the small press world and led me in a roundabout way to my new agent, Jennifer Weltz, who sold my second-written novel The Last Queen in a 2-book deal to Ballantine Books. Is there still concern that I'm a man writing in a genre where women predominate? Absolutely. Do my editor, my agent and I believe my book transcends its author's gender? They do.

And I think readers will feel the same.