Sunday, July 28, 2013

Nine Times I Got an Author's Gender Wrong

I revel in human fallibility, and even love my own failures when they're taken out of judgmental spheres. You can shame someone for their failures, but this is usually the result of forgetting all of your own. It's better to recognize them, share them and learn.

It's for this noble end that I here expose some of my most boneheaded mistakes: nine times when I blatantly got an author's gender wrong. There's one writer, and I won't say who, but I met him without knowing he was a man. None of these nine entries are quite that bad, but I'm hoping to open a dialogue and find out if others have been so silly. If not, I hope to at least make you laugh.

1. Kim Stanley Robinson – That's Heteronormative Thinking with Names 101, which may be the most pedantic class in all of academia. But I have to take a certain ownership over the Kim-possibility given that I'd read the bio on the inside cover and still made it fifty pages before feeling like I had something wrong about her. In my defense: there was no author photo.

2. C.S. Lewis – This came less from the ambiguity of his shortened name, and more that everyone who tried to foist The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe on me as a kid was a woman. I was so young, and so into that Boys Vs. Girls mentality, that I just assumed the book girls kept telling me to read was by one of them. I hope I've outgrown that.

3. J.K. Rowling – I think she got reverse-Lewised. And then, as though to level the playing field for all the big male authors I'd mistaken as female, I mistook the bestselling female author of the decade for a guy. I've actually gone back and checked, and the copies of the first three books I read had no author-information on them whatsoever. I was reading "him" in some ignorant vacuum, possibly assigning gender because Dumbledore always felt like a stand-in for the author. Actually, much like the paternal figure the kids in Lewis's first book lived with.

4. Terry Pratchett – I thought she was so darned funny.

5. Terry Goodkind – Yeah…

6. Terry Moore – And yeah…

7. Terry Brooks - Perhaps you've noticed a trend here. And yes, I know it's often 'Terri' with an 'I.' Both one of my early childhood friends and my regular bus driver were female Terrys, which forever cast an impression in my brain. No amount of humiliation over miscasting authors has remedied it. For all I know, Terry Bradshaw is really a woman.

8. J.T. LeRoy – The feeling that he was actually a woman writing a hackneyed trauma-porn about a man persisted throughout The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. That it was allegedly autobiographical made me chastise myself, but thirty pages later, the feeling of offensive artifice refused to abate. There isn't a singular male perspective in literature, nor are women incapable of writing an array of such perspectives, but at the end of my teens I had many experience with several girls fetishizing men this way in prose, ways I'd never read a boy doing, and especially none who ever suffered such abuse. Today I'd be less decisive and judgmental, but it turned out J.T. LeRoy actually was Laura Albert. She's caught so much crap that, while I don't sympathize with her, I did begin to re-examine how we judge people who cross our petty gender lines.

9. Julian Barnes – I blame this mainly on the three people I chatted with about Sense of an Ending, who kept referring to "her" like it was the author. I may have entered Mr. Magoo territory.

Having thoroughly outed my Magoo qualities, what about you folks? Have you ever radically mistaken an author's identity? Was there a good reason?


  1. There was a journalist and meteorologist who died a few years back, Brendan McWilliams I think his name was - with an Irish Times article every day on the weather page. He devoted one article to James Lovelock's Gaia theory, with some very solid and impressive examples of how it could or does work. So he explained the theory and referred throughout to J.E. "Loverock" rather than Lovelock. But I actually found myself thinking "This guy clearly knows his stuff" - obviously it was mostly from his noggin, rather than from any source to which he had referred - he'd probably not read the book for a decade or more.

  2. I really hope Terry Bradshaw isn't a woman...
    A lot of people don't realize C.S. Friedman is a woman.

  3. I am not sure that I have misjudged an author's gender, but I only recently realized that I instinctively prefer women mystery writers over men. Since I've broadened my horizons, I've enjoyed the genre even more.

  4. China Mieville, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Andre Norton have all caused me problems.

    I've been researching the magician David P. Abbott. One of his brothers was Julian, nick-named June. I'd never considered June anything but a female name. Caused me a bit of confusion.

  5. Evelyn Waugh. Tracy Hickman.

    And I know there have been more, although I never had a problem with any of those you mention. =)

  6. Another thing is the perception of how an author looks before I've seen them is often very different to how they are in reality.

  7. Ahaha sometimes (or more that that!) it happens! Don't beat yourself!

  8. P. D. James (For years, I thought she was a guy.)
    Judith Michael (husband-and-wife writing team.)
    George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans--who wanted to be taken seriously, so wrote under a male pen name)
    E. B. White (How could a man possibly write such charming children's books?)

    As a retired librarian and life-long reader, given time, I'm sure I could come up with more.


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