Author reveals that submitting her manuscript to agents under a male pseudonym brought more than eight times the number of responses
‘No one mentioned his sentences being lyrical or whether his main characters were feisty’, says Nichols of her ‘homme de plume’, George.
Photograph: Martin Rogers//Workbook Stock
Almost 20 years after Francine Prose investigated whether “women writers are really inferior” in her explosive essay Scent of a Woman’s Ink, the author Catherine Nichols has found that submitting her manuscript under a male pseudonym brought her more than eight times the number of responses she had received under her own name.
In an essay for Jezebel, Nichols reveals how after she sent out her novel to 50 agents, she received just two manuscript requests. But when she set up a new email address under a male name, and submitted the same covering letter and pages to 50 agents, it was 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,” writes Nichols. “The judgments about my work that had seemed as solid as the walls of my house had turned out to be meaningless. My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me – Catherine.”
Call me George… Catherine Nichols.
Responses from agents to Catherine Nichols included comments such as “beautiful writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?”; responses to her male pseudonym, whom she imagined “as a sort of reptilian Michael Fassbender-looking guy, drinking whiskey and walking around train yards at night while I did the work”, were “polite and warm”, even when they were rejections, describing the work as “clever”, “well-constructed” and “exciting”.
“No one mentioned his sentences being lyrical or whether his main characters were feisty,” writes Nichols, who mostly steered clear of overlapping her submissions, although she does reveal that one agent who sent her a formal rejection as Catherine asked to read “George’s” book, and then asked to send it to a more senior agent. The agents, she adds, were both men and women, “which is not surprising because bias would hardly have a chance to damage people if it weren’t pervasive”.
Nichols’ essay comes at a time when the literary world is under scrutiny for its attitude to female writers, with Vida’s annual count of the paucity of female reviewers, and female authors reviewed, added to in recent months by the novelist Nicola Griffith’s discovery that novels featuring male protagonists are more likely to win literary awards. The novelist Kamila Shamsie has called for a “year of publishing women” in 2018 to “redress the inequality”.
In 1998, Prose had dubbed bias against women’s writing “gynobibliophobia”, citing Norman Mailer’s comment that “I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn”.
“Is the difficulty, fundamentally, that all readers (male and female, for it must be pointed out that many editors, critics, and prize-committee members are women) approach works by men and women with different expectations?” asked Prose in her Harpers essay. “It’s not at all clear what it means to write ‘like a man’ or ‘like a woman,’ but perhaps it’s still taken for granted, often unconsciously and thus insidiously, that men write like men and women like women – or at least that they should. And perhaps it’s assumed that women writers will not write anything important – anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise.”
Prose revisited the topic again, in 2011, after VS Naipaul claimed that no woman writer, including Jane Austen, was his equal.
“The notion of women’s inferiority apparently won’t go away. Of course, the idea that Naipaul imagines he is a better writer than Jane Austen would be simply hilarious if the prejudice it reveals weren’t still so common and didn’t have such a damaging effect on what some of us have chosen to do with our lives,” Prose wrote four years ago. “Now when the subject of ‘women’s writing’ comes up, as it periodically does, the result is more of a dust devil than a typhoon. Women are distressed and disheartened all over again – and then the subject quietly, politely disappears.”
Nichols, in her Jezebel piece, goes on to warn that the bias, unconscious or otherwise, will be ending the literary careers of many people. “To some degree, I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition. My book was getting at least a few of those rejections because it was big, not because it was bad. George, I imagine, would have been getting his “clever”s all along and would be writing something enormous now,” she writes. “In theory, the results of my experiment are vindicating, but I feel furious at having spent so much time in that ridiculous little cage, where so many people with the wrong kind of name are burning out their energy and intelligence.”
Being told a work is “clever” by an agent “might be enough to steer [a writer] toward a bolder plan”, she believes, while being told it is “not very likable” will move the writer “back to conventions”.
“A small series of constraints can stop the writer before she’s ever worth writing about. Women in particular seem vulnerable in that middle stretch to having our work pruned back until it’s compact enough to fit inside a pink cover,” she believes.
Author Joanna Walsh, who last year launched the #readwomen project and now runs @read_women, a Twitter platform highlighting issues around women, writing and publishing, said she found Nichols’ experience “so shocking” that she has become “George” on Twitter – Nichols’ “homme de plume” – for the next few days in response.
“Although I run @read_women … I was surprised by the reactions Catherine Nichols’ experiment drew from publishers and agents,” said Walsh. “‘George’ has talked with a number of women authors on Twitter about their own experiences, including one who found a publisher after she switched from satire to romance, rewriting the same material.”
Nichols has since used the comments she received as “George” to rework her novel – “a book I would have put away in frustration long ago if I hadn’t tried my experiment” – and now has an agent.