decategorization: elation

Genre has been occupying my mind, or more specifically, the absence and arbitrariness of genre, and binaries, and how they affect my writing life. I am taking a class on hybrid genres, reading texts which encompass several genres or defy categorization in many ways. WordPress asked me when I moved my blog here to title it and then add a “tagline” –> a few words to describe what my blog is “about”, and because I write in several/many categories, I said “Fiction. Poetry. Nonfiction.” Not because I thought this was the best tagline, but because it was one, and anyway it served it’s purpose in a curt way of saying everything and nothing. Writing is what the blog is “about”. Today I deleted that, favoring no summary over a false one.

I have been married to these categories for so long. Classes, libraries, bookstores: all organized by genre. Works (texts) which cannot be classified become classified anyway, by publishers mostly and I guess therefore not writers? Anyway. I have been married to these categories for so long that my own bookshelves reflected them: anthologies, fiction, poetry, nonfiction (craft, philosophy, journalism, personal essays), literary magazines. Books for classes, books I should really annotate for my thesis now instead of later but won’t, books I have not yet read. I don’t know if anybody else does this in their own homes; maybe it’s just me. I’ve always liked categories and organizing things. My mother used to pay me extra allowance for organizing toy shelves, drawers, baskets of markers, etc., because I was good at it. So I do this, I over-examine categories. Then, as a result of thinking about genre, I decided to disorganize or reorganize: all genres together, by last name of author. Which is arbitrary, but still. I could have done it by color or which ones I love most. It would have taken longer. I’m boring you. The point is that as of Sunday morning all of my books are mixed together, poetry next to plays next to anthropology readers next to short story collections and novels. Doing this made me panic a little. Like if I took my pants and shirts and socks and mixed them all up inside of different drawers, which I would never do. But I am exposing my type-A components. I completed the project; the bookshelf is now mixed and Simone de Beauvoir appears to be sitting beside and listening to/talking to (do books listen?) Charles Baxter, which I quite like. The categories were getting hard to maintain in any case, and why insist on maintaining them if the books are already resisting?

This was perhaps motivated by an in-class conversation with author Bhanu Kapil, who mentioned to us that the person who can combine a facility for language with a faculty for telling stories (not at all an exact quote) is a special person, that such a thing is a gift not to be overlooked. The conversation was motivated by our reading of her book Humanimal, which was motivated by myriad thoughts and experiences, some of which may surface in her blog Was Jack Kerouac a Punjabi? , a blog I very much enjoy. She spoke of the intersections of text and bodies, certainly one of my obsessions (see: Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, “write a list of your obsessions…Now you have things to write about”.) , and of the interdisciplinary nature of writing, how other studies influence her work. I have only touched the surface of what I’m thinking about right now. Nevertheless, what I wanted to say is: the confusion of my bookshelves reflects a pleasant confusion in myself/my own writing currently. Something is shifting.


Nobody, and other names

I recently had a little ontological crisis about my name. By which I mean not just my name, but my Public Name, my Writer Name. I have been going by B. L. Goss for at least a year: on this website, on Twitter, on SheWrites, and in publications. But, while reviewing the galley copy for the literary magazine where one of my short stories is finally being published (two years after its acceptance), I began to experience pangs of doubt about this sort-of-psuedonym I had built for myself. I had asked the magazine to publish my writing under the byline B. L. Goss. Now I was beginning to wonder if my reasons for choosing that name were as important as I once thought.

Some super-thorough-academic research on the internet revealed to me that although many blog commenters seem to think that pseudonyms for female authors are a relic of the 19th century, many more women are struggling with the question of what to call themselves. Should I go by an androgynous version of my name so I can publish? Should I use my initials so that men will buy my book? For every woman who is posting this query on a website, there have to be many more who are posing it to their friends and family.

Those who argue that androgynous naming doesn’t matter, that if the book is good enough people of any gender will buy it, are ignoring some realities presented in an older blog post of mine titled “Why is your writing so published?” and in Vida’s more recent gathering of statistics on women in publishing for 2010. Arguments can be made that publishers and award comittees are maintaining gender inequality, and/or that women just are not submitting as much as men; but if the latter is the case then there are likely social reasons for a lack of submission as well. Either way the statistics illustrate some hard facts: male authors are published more, read more, and win more awards. So it’s no wonder to me that female authors would question the wisdom of using an overtly feminine name when publishing.

And women do use their initials, whether it’s their choice or the choice of the publisher. A. S. Byatt. E. V. Slate. L. E. Miller. J. K. Rowling, whose publishers asked her to pick a middle initial and then used J. K. to make the author seem masculine, encouraging boys to buy the book. Intention in other cases is hard to identify; there are other reasons for abbreviating one’s name, anonymity chief among them, aesthetic purposes a close second. But I doubt that any female author who chooses to go by her initials can ignore the resulting androgyny. When my students cannot identify the gender of an author, or are not paying attention to the name, they assume that the author is male. So do you, probably. So do I, sometimes. Awareness of our assumptions about gender is something that needs to be taught, but many people have never been asked to deconstruct those assumptions. Therein lies the key to androgynous author names, the reason why they just might work.

The question really is, where does this sexism start? Is it an advantage or a disadvantage to be mistakenly read as male? Is choosing purposely androgynous names furthering a movement toward gender equality or undermining it? When re-choosing my name, I began to look to my bookshelf for guidance. Scanning the rows of female authors, I saw many who chose to use their full, feminine name. Alice Elliot Dark. Sandra Cisneros. Lan Samantha Chang. Joyce Carol Oates. Alice Munro. There is something empowering about this, and vulnerable at the same time. Anonymity is certainly no longer an option; as far as I know these are the legal names of these women. And gender, as well as ethnicity/nationality (another barrier in publishing), is not obfuscated in the least.

In the end, the only name that really sounded like myself was my given full name. But I’m still grappling with some of these questions and wondering about some of the variations my friends have proposed to preserve my androgyny or anonymity. What do you think? Tell us your writer name and how you chose it.