Wednesday 5 August 2015

Homme de Whom?

An insightful article by Catherine Nichols about pitching your work under an homme de plume made me reflect on the construction of a writing identity and on the nature of identity more generally.

When we tell ourselves (and others) who we are, this identity is encoded with our social and cultural environment. This story, this narrative of identity, is simultaneously credible and fabricated. Although people use pseudonyms in all fields - sport, entertainment, music, business - it is perhaps in writing that the credible fabrication touches most directly on the matter of gender. 

For example, it is unlikely that many people could name a novel by Mary Ann Evans, but if I mentioned George Eliot, her homme de plume, Middlemarch comes easily to mind. Likewise, the talented Bronte sisters, Charlotte and Emily, respectively wrote Jane Eyre as Currer Bell and Wuthering Heights as Ellis Bell. At a time when few women operated in the public domain, these savvy writers understood that they needed to fabricate a credible male persona if their society was to take them seriously as authors. 

Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin explored the malleability of gender further, not only writing as George Sand, but cross-dressing. She also smoked tobacco, something considered a male prerogative, further destabilising the writer's gendered identity.

Lest we think that these credible fabrications are simply historical curiosities, contemporary women writers have found it useful to construct their writing identity with an eye to the question of gender. Two that come to mind are Joanne Rowling and Erika Leonard.

Writing for a market of young/teenage boys, J K Rowling can be seen as an attempt at a neutral (read non-female) pseudonym that harks back to J R R Tolkien, another writer of an imaginary world. Robert Galbraith, Rowling's homme de plume for her crime fiction, sat uneasily in the discourse around the books in that series. Perhaps adopting a male first name was a step too far, pushing a boundary already demarcated by her earlier use of initials. J K Galbraith might have been more credible for a female crime fiction writer. Just ask P D James.

Another female writer using initials and a male name as part of her homme de plume is Erika Leonard. Writing as E L James, her Fifty Shades of Grey became a worldwide success. It should come as no surprise that the Fifty Shades Trilogy deals with questions of sexuality and identity.

The experiences described by Catherine Nichols, who discovered that her work was more positively received when it was pitched with an homme de plume, points to the longstanding and dynamic relationship between writing identities and the expectations of agents, publishers and readers. 

There is cause for optimism though. Like gender, identity involves endless, iterative and potentially transgressive constructions. Because writing identities are ultimately narratives, who better to create one than a female author?

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