In a perfect world, agents and publishing houses would judge authors based solely on syntax, characterization, plot, and other aspects of writing. But our world is far from a perfect one, and an author’s race, gender, and sexuality can still play a role in who is published.
In particular, some of the recent discussions about gender have made me revisit an article about the way that literary agents react depending on how they perceive a writer. In 2015, Catherine Nichols was an aspiring writer who was busy querying agents about her most recent manuscript. Though only a few agents responded to her queries, she assumed that she was just paying her dues. All writers have to be rejected before they can succeed after all. On a whim, she decided to taken on a masculine nom de plume, George Leyer, solely for the sake of querying.
The results of her experiment, however, shocked Catherine:
“…I copy-pasted my cover letter and the opening pages of my novel from my regular e-mail into George’s account. I put in the address of one of the agents I’d intended to query under my own name. I didn’t expect to hear back for a few weeks, if at all. It would only be a few queries and then I’d close out my experiment. I began preparing another query, checking the submission requirements on the agency web site. When I clicked back, there was already a new message, the first one in the empty inbox. Mr. Leyer. Delighted. Excited. Please send the manuscript.
…I wanted to know more of how the Georges of the world live, so I sent more. Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. 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.”
The manuscript and queries were all the same except for one thing: the supposed gender of the author. The Georges of the world, it seems, are more likely to receive responses than the Catherines.
The assumed gender of the writer also resulted in different types of feedback. Catherine received comments about the “lyrical” and “beautiful” nature of her writing and the observation that “…your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?” Responses to George, however, didn’t focus on pluck. No, his writing was “exciting”, “clever”, and “well-constructed”. Beauty vs Brilliance.
Of course Catherine’s experiment was not particularly scientific. There was no control for who the agents were, and most of the agents did not receive queries from both Catherine and George, so it was difficult to make a direct comparison. The experiment also did not account for the way that agents perceived “foreign” (i.e. not Western European) names.
But what should writers do with information like this? Should women write under men’s names? Should all authors query agents using English or Irish surnames? Those suggestions all rankle. The idealist in me believes that people should not have to fundamentally change who they are, their gender, their family of origin, in order to succeed. But that is also a naive perspective on my part. As the saying from George Orwell’s Animal Farm goes, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Despite all of this, I am not going to start writing under a masculine or gender neutral name. I already have an online identity and hope that the presence of more women and people of color will help diversify who is published. Obscuring those identities won’t help matters.
Despite the experiment’s dismal results, there is a happy ending to the story. An agent who read Catherine’s nonfiction writing (and who was not part of the agent experiment) now represents Catherine, and together they are in the process of getting that long ago manuscript published.I encourage you to read the article in its entirety. It is a fascinating look at the way that unconscious biases can influence the success of authors.
Feel free to let me know your opinions on writing under a masculine or gender neutral name as well. (J.K. Rowling isn’t the only woman to use initials in place of her full name after all.)
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“Kate Sheppard”, 1905, http://www.dnzb.govt.nz