“From George Sand to George Eliot, Isak Dinesen to E. Nesbit, P. D. James to James Tiptree Jr., there’s a long history of women writers who have used disguised names to realize their ambitions. Even J. K. Rowling—the best-selling author of all time—adopted a neutral moniker on her way to success: Before Harry Potter became a phenomenon, Bloomsbury, Rowling’s publisher, asked her to use initials to reassure the target audience of young boys who might be reluctant to pick up a book by ‘Joanna Rowling,’ a female author.
This is just one of the observations by Anna Clark in her article, “The Ambition Condition” that first appeared in Bitch Magazine‘s “Loud” issue in Fall, 2008. I’ve touched on this problem before (see my Femagination blog for the post “Women Writers Get No Respect.”), but Clark has more to say about the way women are treated if they are talented and ambitious.
It’s all too common for a woman to belittle her accomplishments or pretend to not care about fame or fortune. If she shows her hand, she is either ridiculed, criticized or, worst of all, ignored. She does what she has to do be successful, knowing all along that her success will never be rewarded to the degree that men writers’ are. She’s damned if she fails and damned if she succeeds.
I see this pattern in my own writing career. I’m working on an essay right now that I really think has potential. Okay, I’ll go ahead and say it: I think it’s marketable. But after the first burst of enthusiasm I found myself downgrading what I’d written: It couldn’t possibly be that good. Not only that, but I began to doubt whether I had a right to publish an essay that mentions other people. Isn’t that an invasion of privacy? Women aren’t supposed to make others uncomfortable, especially for the sake of their own ambitions.
So what do I do? I’m at a stalemate right now. I’ve lost my motivation to finish because I don’t know if I will ever try to market it. Better to just keep it with my papers, as if it is only a journal entry. Maybe it will be discovered after I die.
I think that a lot about things that I’m working on: if I don’t have enough guts to submit this, I’ll save it and maybe someday after I’m gone someone will read it and say, “She was a really good writer!” But maybe they’ll also say, “Why wasn’t she ever published?”
Is that really how I want my career to play out? Am I so damn afraid of success and of being seen as ambitious that I will passive-aggressively let the dice posthumously fall where they may? How pathetic!
Ms. Clark suggests at the end of her article that perhaps women shouldn’t worry about fame and fortune. Maybe what women have to offer is “simply writing to a different standard. It may be a part of the creation of our alternative to the traditional literary culture.”
I take issue with that. I’m not saying that women can’t contribute something that is uniquely their own, or that they can’t show men different ways to be successful. I am saying that they shouldn’t have to, if that’s not what they want. Women should be taken as seriously as men are, and if they’re not, they should raise a stink about it.
Of course, the tricky thing about writing is that you’re competing with yourself, trying to beat your own record, struggling to find your own voice. You can’t afford to spend any of your energy on righteous indignation.
But then again, you could write about it.