Ae not Alyssa. Am I Abandoning My Gender?

ae writing

(If a writer doesn’t write about writing are they a writer?)

This is meant to examine the personal struggles of being a female novelist at my age with my experiences. For more information, and less words, google “women can’t write” and weep for the future. All opinions, as always.

Ae Padilla

The life of a writer is a difficult one. It always has been and it will continue to be, no matter how many fellow novelists or journalists find each other on Twitter, strike up friendships over books, pop culture, and whatever else they can to avoid their work.

The life of a writer is not glamorous. It is in fact the exact opposite of how it is portrayed. We do not stare idly out of the window at coffee shops only to jot something down on a notepad when inspiration strikes. We sit with our computer in our lap on the couch in pajamas wrestling carpel tunnel and writer’s block. We do not finish off our day of productivity with a fine glass of whiskey as a nightcap. We drink the third and final Lone Star we can find in the back of the fridge and wonder whether we over did it tonight. We do not believe we are producing great work as a result of the creative manic genius that occupies our head periodically. We struggle with self-doubt constantly and the depression does little to ease those worries.

Really I could go on. But I think I set the scene up for you.

And I would never pick any of these things, everything I just mentioned, for myself. Except that I had no control over it. Like any other calling, it did not care about what I wanted. It picked me, and I was utterly powerless to its grasp.

Being a writer is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to consistently do all my life. But my God do I wish I had been given an easier passion.

Because being a writer is troublesome enough on its own but being a female writer makes it seem like an even more impossible task.

It’s not too often I bring up my gender as what the world would deem a deficiency. I hardly highlight this or my race and anything else that has held me back from this often too homogeneous world.  But in the context of writing it is given as a label to me whether I like it or not, and I must acknowledge that and speak about it, give it a voice so that it does not continue hiding under the surface of my aspirations as the pink suede elephant we all do not speak of.

Being a female writer is not just professionally stifling but personally constraining. As a title it secludes an already marginalized group of creative people (and probably raises me a solid 10mg on the medication.)

In the world of writers, one I am finally beginning to tap into with legitimacy, I discuss how sexism is rampant but hides behind, as sexism always does, the few model women publishers can point to. This is not unlike the way colleges point to the pictures of minorities they Photoshop into their pamphlets as proof of their “thriving racial demographic.”

As a woman I close in also on the idea of writing “women” fiction and then writing as a man, an actual man via my characters, and for men. Of course I speak also how the writer as a woman feels as if she is at a fork in the road quite early in her professional (and probably personal) life. Which is: do I stick to writing as a self-identified woman and everything that this offers? Or do I hide myself via my name and become known as simply “a writer”? This is a trick question of course, because the patriarchy will find you whichever road you take ladies.

It’s quite easy to dismiss sexism in the publishing industry when so many people point to how many famous female authors there are writing wildly successful books which span wildly successfully franchises. Just a few of these authors (hold the groans for later) are E.L. James and Stephanie Meyer, whose books focus on romance, sex, and relationships in adolescents and 20 somethings. We also have Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling respectively, who have captivated the world with their stories of adventure and bravery and subsequently have earned millions of dollars off not just publishing their works but off movies, plays, and even theme parks!

Just these names and books alone, pop culture symbols of our time, should prove that women are represented very well in the publishing industry – and that whatever problems we had years ago have been eradicated by female authors like these.

Yet women are disproportionately outnumbered in the publishing industry in the reviews they provide and literary criticism they receive. Works by women are rarely taught as anything other than women literature, and this term itself blurs uncomfortably with “chick lit.”

But is there an obligation to make this discrepancy smaller? And am I part of that sweeping discrepancy by not speaking more about it?

I can only begin to ask these questions by solidifying the problem at hand, in establishing it as a troubling situation first and foremost.

VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) sought to face this theory head on with their study of books published by women writers in comparison to men and likewise books reviewed in various influential texts. A small consensus was the following from that yearlong study. ‘At Harper’s, there were 27 male book reviewers and six female; about 69 percent of the books reviewed were by male authors. In comparison with other prominent and critically acclaimed publishers is The London Review of Books – it was here where men wrote 78 percent of the reviews and 74 percent of the books reviewed. Then we have the most startling figure, men made up 84 percent of the reviewers for The New York Review of Books and authored 83 percent of the books reviewed.’

To wrap it up, men are disproportionately reviewing books and being reviewed, but are they disproportionately being represented in their published books compared to how many women submit their novels for publication? The numbers on a separate study would point to “yes” too.

And it’s not that men write better publishable books, although many people believe so. Case in point is this guy named VS Naipaul who received the Nobel for literature in 2011 or something before blasting out this great little line of wisdom in reference to the suppression of female writers:  “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

Yes, this was said in the 21st century!

It’s an unshakable bias any female author faces with a little less zeal, but equal truth, as she queries to agencies (for the ill-informed or perhaps the lucky, this is sending a one letter summary of your novel, part of your manuscript, and your opinion on why it would sell.)

Even if she is unaware of what is happening in the minds of those agents, she should know now that men receive more attention for their work and ideas — they receive the benefit of the doubt.

And author Catherine Nichols reinforces this idea perfectly with her experiment she chronicled for Jezebel. Nichols sent her novel, which was receiving little to no attention in queries, under a different name – a male one. “George Leyer.” It was her hope that this would make a difference in whether or not she received responses.

It was a bold move. With her small feedback from it under her given birth name, she could have assumed like most people that it was not a good enough manuscript. It was not what the publisher was looking for at that time. Whether she was a man or woman, the work needed work. But she had a hunch she went on, and the hunch panned out in her hypothesis’ favor.

Nichols stated in the full article her results about Leyer: “He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.”

To summarize: Everyone seemed to like her fictional male pen name’s manuscript more than they liked her.

After accepting, what I call modern tragedy, and reclaiming her original name, she set out to ask the other publishers who had denied her based on her female name why they did not get back to her with their interest the first time around. If you can believe it someone actually answered along the lines of: It was good, but as a first time novelist I did not think that you could keep this going.

Consequently with her name on the work, she was placed on an invisible scale each one of us gets placed on. If you are a man, the person reading your draft starts off with the perception that this could or will be great, and then for every comma splice, overused preposition, or fluffy prose that would make Hemingway cry, you lose points. For a woman it is the exact opposite. She starts with already not being perceive as talented, and she was must instead earn that talent. Which is why if there is one mistake or misprint in that query, it is practically effortless to discard.

Some of the publishing world is aware of their faults, others have no idea what they are doing even while doing it. None the less — it effects the female writer.

As it is not just “the little names” who endure this. It has, the hierarchy of the male publishing world, been placed on those great female novelists I mentioned before.

My favorite example (did we really expect anything less?) is J.K. Rowling, or rather Joanne Rowling. It was her agent who suggested a possible pen-name in 1997 for her series, because given the genre she was writing (fantasy) and the fact that her main character was an eleven year old boy, her agent worried about her appeal to this gender if they knew she was a female novelist.

Young boys are statistically less likely to read a novel by a female if given the chance between both a male and female author.

And so she became J.K. and received her first ever fan mail addressed as “Dear Sir.”

This still happens today. Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch, who wrote The City of Dark Magic series, a commercial fiction bestseller. And before you are wondering, if you were wondering at all, whether or not males write as females, sometimes men do publish under female names for the purpose of selling more romance (a woman dominated genre) novels. But this seems to be the only genre they change their identity for, which makes a perplexing point that romance is “women’s work” but every other genre is by default, left for the boys.

But the pen-name lives on. From the Bronte Sisters (Wuthering Heights) to Harper lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) to SE Hinton (The Outsiders) to even me.

And it’s important I stick myself in that list, not because it might be the only time my name will appear to next to authors of the great American novels but because I too have a pen-name. Ae Padilla, author of The Brigades of Aldo, Across Eight States, Ekland The Journal of Grayson Tyler Mitchell, a lot of articles and too many abandoned blogs floating around the internet.

The story of my own fictional pseudonym has its birth, I assume, in the same roots as some of the women writers who have come before me. As I have mentioned once or twice before, I wanted to be a writer since I was five. I have been writing since I was five. I remember clearly the first couple of books I wrote on copy paper, illustrated with crayons, and stapled together with pride as a child. As the years went by I started working on my first “real novel” and I decided then that I would probably have to wonder what to call myself.

I’ll start with the logistics. I was given, what to at least me was, a very difficult name. Alyssa? I know what you are thinking, it can’t be that difficult to pronounce. But again for me, being given it by a Mexican mom meant that it definitely was pronounced well “Mexican.” I never considered myself what my mother called me. But I also never accepted “ah-liss-uh” either. Thanks to my reluctance to that “white version of a girl who I did not see as me” and the hope for a happy medium…I found “Uh-lee-suh.”

As you can see, that was a bit of a clusterfuck of pronunciations for such a basic name. So I figured most people just thought I renamed myself for this reason. Or because my pen-name was eerily mysterious and sounded more like an author, a pen-name that demanded stories as interesting as its identity. (In reality though I do think about people with such “unique names” like Samuel Langhorn Clemens who switch it to something like Mark Twain – I mean it’s cool I suppose, but why Twain, why? Alas, a subject for another article.)

To me though there was so much more to picking a name than its purely functional purpose of being able to be said properly, and this is extremely ironic because people ask me whether it is A.E. or Ae and sometimes to this day I still shrug.

I researched when I was a teenager people like J.K. Rowling. I knew that I was writing a young adult book in first person through the eyes of a seventeen year old male. I remembered that saying: “men won’t be as likely to buy it.” I remembered that a lot. I could already see potential readers skeptical of a female writer writing about a male with authority. The fact that it was first person did not help. “She will get it wrong” I could also already hear; “it won’t be authentic.” And this, being the straw that broke the camel’s back, pushed me over the edge and there became Ae. The E for no reason other than that it balanced out my surname well. It looked and sounded right.

I said to myself, I have no one. I have no “in.” I don’t know anyone in the publishing world. I don’t have anyone who has published a book on my speed dial who will actually help me. I don’t know the first thing about this crazy world full of sometimes part equal work and luck, why am I going to hurt myself more and make my chances of success even smaller when they are already small to begin with? Something like 700 thousand – 1 million books a year get printed so why would I voluntarily tie another weight to my leg by being known as a woman?

But did I have a duty to female writers? Do I have a duty? Do I ever feel guilty for not embracing my call as a female author? Is that even a legitimate question?

I guess that would be if I consider myself a female author, something I think about more than anyone would expect. Which is honestly unfortunate as I never expect a male writer would sit down and ask with candidness: “am I a male writer?” That’s ridiculous, he would just be a writer.

And that’s how I used to think of myself as too (and still do.) Just a writer, looking to make her mark. Looking to be captivating, looking to tell stories that have not been told yet. But unfortunately that is not how most of society sees me, and in a profession where society dictates how much you make based on much your books sell, or how much praise you get for how much reviews you also get, what they think does actually matter. Because this is not a hobby to me, this is my career.

Which is why yes, I go back and forth on whether or not I have a duty to fellow women or whether or not I don’t. It’s not because I don’t think I have a moral duty to help out female writers who might need it, if I ever get in that position to help out fellow authors. Because I will, I will always make that a priority.

I struggle with the obligation because I do not even know myself whether I consider myself a female. At least in the writing sense.

Now let me back up here. I don’t identify as transgender in sexuality, but I do consider myself in my writing to be androgynous at times, not simply because I write males but because I can see and feel the presence of males as part of my own being when writing them – which might extend further beyond the ability to tap into a character. This is not to denounce my femaleness, or this is not to even claim that some writing is inherently female or male (although some scholars argue that there is a difference in reminiscent nostalgia among the work of women). This is to say and quote Virginia Wolfe on the essay “A Room of One’s Own” in which she states the androgynous brain might be the best one.

“But the sight of the two people getting into the taxi and the satisfaction it gave me made me also ask whether there are two sexes in the mind corresponding to the two sexes in the body, and whether they also require to be united in order to get complete satisfaction and happiness?”

It is not that the androgynous mind favors females but rather that it is inherently creative and undivided, not masked by a taught masculinity or stifled by the suppression women have endured.

And I get this, I understand it completely. If this can point to the reason why I feel I write men with ease then let that be that.

But again, do I feel shame for writing under a pen-name (notice I did not say male pseudonym)? Do I feel shame writing about men? To not dance around the questions any longer: sometimes yes.

In denying that I am female completely, but not wanting to be male either, I do not give up all femininity or what I love about being a woman with that new name, although the community would say that I am. I instead surrender myself to the idea that as a woman I have to do what I have to do to get ahead with my books, to help break or even crack the glass ceiling. But there comes the doubting voice that I also do not add to the amount of women saying “my name is good enough. And I will not surrender to the patriarchy.” The truth (and sometimes I wonder if it is a lie) that I tell to myself is that we can only have proof of just how much we can contribute if the novels get published in the first place. If there is something to direct our attention to, a physical outlet of what women can do even under male names, then we can call bullshit on the fact that they needed those male names in the first place to get there. But of course I wonder if that is fighting indirectly rather than fighting head on.

There are ways of course to fight head on, which can border on what I used to call “the extreme.” A year of only publishing female authors, as Small Press And Other Stories is doing in 2018, as a response to the call of having more female authors. Some, men and women alike, will point to how “unfair” this is. But most will not point to how unfairly women have been misrepresented in publishing thus far.

It presents itself to me like the case of affirmative action. The idea, only as an idea first. Do I want this to be done? No. But the truth is indisputable that affirmative action helped (helps) Blacks graduate from college in our country where they never would have before, because of the system that they were forced under. And this is the same. This will help woman get published, period. It doesn’t matter if we do not like that this has to get done, just that it does need to get done.

And it needs to be done not just for “fairness”. Because as much as writers can form a collective unit of experiences related to writing, they still somehow vary. Those who self-identify as women, even those with the androgynous mind, are still experiencing different life events because of their culture, family, job, but also because they are women. Like any group of people they bring new reference points, not to be confused with just one reference point we can encapsulate if we only publish five percent more female authors a year. One woman cannot speak for all women. But more women can embody more of their struggles, their acceptance, their flaws, and their power – them [us] as “womanhood.”

Like any group that is not the majority, the fight to be “the best” of that minority comes out frequently. I do it all the time. I catch myself needing to be the unparalleled female author because I know how coveted the spot at the top is, how there is only room for one, and how disheartened I get if someone else has written something similar to me and they are a woman. Because just like that, I think to myself, the spot was filled. It’s not right, but it is reality.

And I think about the duties, as said before. Because what about those male characters? Should I defend the ones I write or should I not care?

In my three novels I have written, all my protagonists are males. I didn’t intend for that in the beginning, the stories just demanded male characters. I wanted Christian Lozano (my protagonist from Brigades of Aldo) to be dealing with the emotional farewell of his brother, I wanted that to be very apparent in his story along with his heterosexual love for Avania, which meant simply he needed to be male. Sonny Crosson (from Across Eight States) was modeled closely after a romantic partner of mine. The whole book was a loose interpretation of why he ended up the way he did. Because of that, everything had to be as realistic as it could be, which of course included gender. And with Ekland it was about a school shooter. Because most school shooters are male and this is based off Columbine and the gunmen who were male, I again needed to make him, Grayson Tyler Mitchell, true to his sex.

You don’t have many males defending their choice of their male characters, but I feel as if I partly have to sometimes because I see the way that female characters are written about, how they act (yes this is a generalization) as nothing more than an accessory to a male plot. That their thoughts are shallow at best and that they usually are caricatures of a real person. My argument (funnily enough to myself probably) is not that I need to make my male characters female, but that I want to write more female characters –because they are not represented enough truly as the multi-faceted individuals they [we] are. Also, because I do sincerly feel as if the stories I write in the future will eventually call for it. The fact that I feel a tiny bit guilty though, unwarranted, means something. The pressure to walk the tightrope is there always.

Furthermore I worry of course about what I hope becomes a problem in life, the self-identifying as a female author if I ever do get acclaim for my work. Do I accept it? Or do I mimic Nathalie Sarrauteand and say that I am simply just an author? That by agreeing to that title of “female author” I am expressing women are second rate citizens of the world of literature, and that yes the female experience carries less value than the males.

Perhaps it comes back to, as every argument comes back to one point, whether or not I accept myself as that female author. I love being a woman, and consider myself one. I love being a writer, and consider myself one. But when I say I am a woman writer does that mean I am clumped with all the other female writers who, if you can believe it, have their own Wikipedia page because simply being an author is not sufficiently exclusionary? Am I then, by standing up for my gender, again labeling us into a confined space? I think in this situation, no. I hope instead that the receiving of this fictitious award in my head acts as a symbol of how far we are coming and still how far we need to go. The truth is some of these prizes would be gone if everyone was equally represented and equally critiqued. (Not all, because again women can share bonds as different groups do which only they understand and can commemorate.)

And yet where does that leave me then going forward? Even in the vacuum of the internet, where I post articles and blogs frequently, it is easy to get bombarded as a female writer. To be honest, I don’t even consider someone a true female writer unless they get verbally attacked for a comment meant to spark discussion but which will only result in attempted violence. As a female writer I have been called a bitch, a shallow whore, an ugly feminist, and have been told “you need to get fucked.” I have also been the attack of one threat of physical force, because as a woman on the internet and in particular being a woman writer, my physical body is always demoralized before my opinion and my work.

This might be the one profession in which being moderately attractive does not help me at all, it is in fact holding me back. I can never be taken seriously because I am just some “cute small woman writer”. I am not the face that people think of when they think of a novelist or a poet. I am not Allen Ginsberg holding a cigarette. I am not brooding enough in the male world. I must pick that author photograph with as much consideration as I almost do with my first sentence of my debut. Too pretty and too headshot like and I will be labeled “talentless teenage drabbles”, too serious and I will be labeled “uptight prude who thinks she is better than she is”. Again, it is a lose-lose situation if the internet comments mean anything. But that of course is the internet.

But what about what I consider my true work in the future? I plan, if no publishing agents contact me by the end of the year, to self-publish Ekland.

I think, every time I get a rejection letter, it could be something to do with the fact that I have been looked up and that they are well aware I am a woman. Not to say that the rejections are not because the story is controversial or even amateur, that does cross my mind too! Still, I think about changing Ae to Alex. I know that I will put my name on only the spine of the book, for aesthetics but also because I don’t want anyone Googling. I know I will not place a picture of myself in the inside of the book because I will be praying that no one knows I am a female before they buy it. “She won’t get it right,” they say. I know they are saying that and will say it. Believe me, I know.

So maybe if I had to lump myself into one category, I did pick the road where I would rather get acclaim and then do something after instead of writing under my own name and making it even more laborious in how I do get that acclaim.

I tell myself, with all sincerity backing this statement up, that being a female is one of the most beautiful gifts given to me along with my Hispanic heritage, although there is a whole other post about if racism exists in publishing (it does.) But Ae was first and foremost about a different identity. One of not the female or male. The one that was me as a writer. As Alyssa I am spontaneous, outgoing, stubborn, opinionated, warm, a little depressed, a little happy, and a whole lot of ADD. As Ae, I am my work, and that work should speak for itself on how much I put into it, how enthusiastically hardworking I am towards that passion.

I always said I was a writer first and a person second. If you are a writer, you get what that means.

I think to myself one last thought concerning all of this, which is that when I do “make it”, a term that means something much different to me than it does to you, I will stand there a little smug and say “ha, I not only defied the odds of being a writer but I did it as a woman. A Hispanic woman.”

But maybe that’s the whole point right there. Being a writer is hard enough. Writers are 121% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the general population. Moreover, 38% more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, and poverty are higher than the normal folk. Writers are also twice as likely to kill themselves. And damn that carpel tunnel right?

So why do I need to add any other struggles, along with that, to make myself feel like I accomplished something? Why do I need to add “female” to the list of trials and tribulations? I don’t. I shouldn’t.

But here’s to hoping it’s not there, even invisibly on that list, one day…for the next “Ae” or “Alyssa.”

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