Thursday 11 October 2007


Back in Somerset now for the weekend, Our Vicar and Our Vicar's Wife and all. Long train journey, on which I finished one book and made good headway through another, and I look forward to seeing the countryside again in the light.

Just a brief ponder today, brought on by talk of L.P. Hartley yesterday - has an author's name, or appellation thereof, ever caused you confusion? I know it probably shouldn't make a difference, but when I discover that an author is male when I thought they were female, or vice
versa, it alters the way I read or think retrospectively of their work. I didn't realise, you see, that LPH was a man until a few months ago - in fact, I was sure he was a she... and, do you know, I became more reluctant to read The Go-Between when I discovered this. Perhaps it's based on the knowledge that I usually prefer books by women, but either way it's a form of bigotry, I suppose, and thus ought to be stamped out... Is bigotry too strong a word? Well, probably. But it definitely makes a difference. Or is this distinction rational? Do you do the same?

Some other authors where confusion has arisen...
- Who didn't think Richmal Crompton was a man when they first read the William books? Many of my friends still don't realise.
- Harper Lee - thought she was a man for years...
- J.K. Rowling - while I always knew Jo was a woman, this is an example of initials being used for deliberate ambiguity, so that boys would be happy to read Harry Potter.
- D.H. Lawrence - another one I got wrong for a few years... but having read a couple of his books, it could never have been a woman could it, really?
- P.L. Travers - another poor woman whose gender was assumed otherwise by my younger self

Then there are those with whom I never had trouble - or perhaps just guessed correctly. P.G. Wodehouse, L.M. Montgomery, L.M. Alcott, C.S. Lewis, A.A. Milne, E.M. Delafield, J.R.R. Tolkein... is there something about these that ties them to their gender, or did I just guess luckily? And which authors do you accidentally gender-realign?!


  1. I had the same trouble with DH Lawrence - this could be because we both went to school with Dee Lawrence?

  2. p.d james always gets me. its a woman but 'james' for a surname really confuses me!
    what about books which you just cant believe are written by a man/woman because of the insight they seem to have? for example: a thousand splendid suns, written by a man, its unbelievable! clever man.

  3. I think this is a very interesting issue. I too tend to prefer books written by women, but have not actually had the experience you describe -- finding out the gender halfway through. I'd love to see what would happen -- it reminds me of when you ask for a cup of tea and unwittingly get coffee instead (or vice versa) -- that first sip is totally disconcerting.

  4. I haven't read anything by her but what about Lionel Shrivers? Could Hilary Mantel be male?

    When I was a young adult to very early twenties I seemed to read books by men. John Wyndham, Graham Green, Leon Uris, Chaim Potok. Why was this?
    Notice these are all modern novels. Were books by women not very visible in the 70s? I suspect it was because I wasn't ready for the earthiness and nearness to life that women seem to write about. It's safe to read about spaceships going to Mars and vacuum cleaner salesman being mistaken for spies.
    Maybe things changed after I had children? Certainly I have slipped into the same territory as S-in-a-B since I became a woman of a certain age. Maybe the reason for this is that these books are now more readily available.
    I have just remembered that I discovered "An Episode of Sparrows" by Rumer Godden on my parents bookshelf when I was about ten. How I loved that book. Maybe I should revisit it with my vastexperience of life behind me rather than ahead.

  5. I am always intereted by this topic because I don't care one way or the other what the gender of the author is. So in some sense I have never made an error of judgement because I don't attempt to guess from initials or ambiguous first names whether the book I am reading is by a man or a woman. So my question to SIAB and others is "Why does it matter to you?"

    Neutral Cat

  6. lionel shriver has taken a male name because she believes people will treat her works with more respect because she is man. er, hello, have you heard of M. Atwood, Carol Shields, Kate Atkinson, Pat Barker (oooh, there is another gender neutral name!).


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