What’s in a Name?

July 19th, 2011

I wrote the original version of the following post last winter and then decided not to publish it because, frankly, I don’t like to deal with questions surrounding the issue of women writing science fiction. Then, a couple months ago, a sudden, viral, Internet conversation started on this subject. A lot of writers in the hard science fiction field have since commented. So, emulating the group, I guess I’ll add my experiences to the conversation before the subject dies away entirely. This is an updated version of last winter’s post, describing the trajectory of my career as a woman writing hard science fiction in the nineties and early 2000s.

I haven’t done a lot of interviews in my career, but the question I least like to answer goes something like this: Do you feel it’s hurt your career being a woman writing hard science fiction?

I’m sure I get this deer-in-the-headlights expression before breaking eye contact and muttering something self-contradictory. Because really, how does one answer a question like that?

To say, “Yes, I think it has hurt my career” sounds like whining and finger pointing without any evidence to back it up, and risks offending the men who are the core readers of the genre.

To say, “No, I’m sure that’s not it” would be untruthful and would imply that my books didn’t sell because they were bad. My hard SF books may not be for everyone, but I don’t believe they’re bad.

So in my own mind I mostly ignored the question. Some writers succeed, others don’t. That’s just the way it is.

But of course the only true answer is that I can’t know. I can’t go back and change my name to Greg or David or Alastair and re-publish the books and see how things go.

But oh my how I wish I could.

Here’s the thing:

I had a lot of good breaks. (I had a lot of really bad breaks too, but we won’t go there.) I had cover quotes and great support from Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, and David Brin. I had some really great reviews. For the early books, I had great covers. I won awards. My books were offered by the Science Fiction Book Club. Some were on the Locus Recommended list. I had fantastic support from people like Charles N. Brown. Wil McCarthy was my good buddy.

Men in the hard SF field were friendly and open to my work, to the point I can say that I never met a hard SF writer who was not supportive of me, a woman, writing what I wrote. Other women will claim a different experience. I only give you mine.

And outside the pro circle? I would guess that 80+ percent of the fan mail I’ve ever received has been from men. More men read hard SF than women, so I guess it’s only natural.

What I’m trying to say is that in my personal, face-to-face (or nearly so) experiences, it didn’t feel like being a woman was any sort of disadvantage. If anything, it made me a bit more unique and interesting.

But then comes the dissonance.

“The dissonance” is my personal term for the difference between what other writers and some avid fans will say about my work (really nice things) and the value the market (and agents, publishers, and editors) have placed on my work. It’s a pretty extreme difference.

Despite all the advantages listed above, my books never sold in numbers anywhere close to what could support a writing career, and the Bantam books went out of print with impressive speed. Honestly, there didn’t seem to be much point to it all. I mean, the Nanotech Succession books together, all four volumes, brought in a total of $27,500 in advance money. I recall The Bohr Maker brought in a couple tiny royalty checks thereafter, in the hundred dollar range, and that was it. The other three books never earned out.

Meanwhile, if my memory serves me, Locus was reporting eye-popping advances for, well, other newish hard SF writers who were not me.

So why was I doing this writing thing again? Why was I knocking myself out to create another book that just a few people would read? As much as I appreciated the fans that I had, there was a mortgage to be paid!

So around 2000 I packed my metaphorical bags and moved out of the writing world—this despite that one of my best books, Memory, was still pending from Tor. I already knew it was doomed and I was right. Four years after publication it had sold only a bit more than 10,000 copies.

Did I crash and burn because I was a woman? Or was it just bad luck, a failure of nerve, giving up too soon, not appearing in enough venues, living on a remote island isolated from the writing community? Who knows? Not me.

Now I’ve gotten back into the writing game. Since November, I’ve republished all the SF novels as ebooks. They’re selling slowly. I check sales figures often, so it’s easy for me to tell when a fan from the old days discovers the books, because they’ll buy one each of the Nanotech Succession, and sometimes all six novels in a single shot. (And may I say, thank you! I want you to know how truly gratifying and encouraging that is.)

That said, seven months after they came out as ebooks, my novels are not selling anywhere near the scale enjoyed by other, well, you know, male writers whose backlist is similarly priced. To be fair, I’ve been out of the field for a long time, and these other writers haven’t. So there are no hard conclusions to be found here. The one fact I do have is the knowledge that now, in 2011, women writing original hard science fiction are choosing to use gender-obscuring pen names.

Anyone reading this blog isn’t going to care if my name is Linda or Larry. But the question remains: Does Linda or Larry matter out there in the scary real world where buyers peruse long lines of titles at Amazon, and employ an unknowable process of elimination to narrow down their selections?

I have no way to know.

But if I had it to do over again, then yes, I would change my name.

Posted on: Tuesday, July 19th, 2011 at 3:54 am
Categories: Writing.
Tags: ,

19 Responses to “What’s in a Name?”

  1. Mirik Smit Says:

    Thanks for these insights. I had never thought about it, but I must admit that my library has only one female written (under different pen name at that) sci-fi book (Bitter Angels, under name C.L Anderson I think).

    I would like to think that I simply don’t pay attention to the names when selecting my books, which I think may actually be true for myself. But I think you would be right in saying that it’s not an equal opportunity business and that the choices offered to me and attention given are simply overwhelmingly male works, hence my selection of books thusly. I can even think of only a few female sci-fi writers (ursula le guin, sheri tepper, etc.) on a moments notice, whilst I could name many, many tens of males.

    Sad state of affairs! All the best wishes for the future.

  2. Judith Tarr Says:

    Thanks for posting this. I did one of these on SF Signal and have been hoping others would as well. People need to see these trajectories.

    In my case I wasn’t even allowed to write sf at all. Couldn’t even make it through the door. When I did, using preindustrial or medieval settings, it was labeled “Fantasy.” (And people named, e.g., Greg, sneered at “comfy-cozy medievalism” and there was drama for a while.) Same story otherwise, though I did really well on advances in the Nineties–while being pushed to “put in more romance” and “remember readers like sex.”

    I have a male opposite number. He’s a bestseller. Lots of us women writers have this tale to tell. Have you figured out who yours is yet? It’s like a Dark Twin or something.

  3. Laura Lee Nutt Says:

    Linda, thank you for sharing all this. I feel for you. As an aspiring female author, it’s good to see how things can be.

    I used to read SF exclusively, but I can’t recall any female writers that I was familiar with. Even in fantasy, the biggest names are mostly men; though, a few women have made themselves notable.

    Perhaps in this world when we’re not supposed to notice gender, people in general tell themselves they don’t even when they do.

    Good luck with e-books and getting back into writing. I’ll definitely check out your titles on Amazon.

  4. Glen Kilpatrick Says:

    I had to do a peruse of my own library in order to determine that there was a *lot* of Bear, Hillerman (the odd man out, so to speak), and Zelazny. But when I reasked the question in terms of percentage of books published, you rose to the top (I think I own at least one of everything on paper, and three copies of _Memory_), with Varley was a distant fifth. But the sex part? Only LeGuin & Lindbergh share yours, a book each (but what books!).

    To me, good science fiction comes intellectually and emotionally from what’s between the ears, rather than generatively from what’s between the legs. I don’t understand why you aren’t a *much* more popular author, Linda. I’ve bought _Memory_ for friends, pushed it and _Vast_ to whomever would listen :), and look forward to enjoying same into the indefinite future.

    But authors have to consider ROI; it’s not enough to have adoring readers posthumously. So let me pose a hopefully useful hypothetical, cast all this in another light. Who’s going to care or even remember what we as IT professionals did last month or even last week? I’ve saved any number of damaged operating systems this year, re-enabled production on corporate databases and the like, and such in turn enables me to live pay-check-to-mortgage. You do database programming, and your management undoubtedly appreciates it, your family even more so. But social impact? What social impact? That corporations can more closely monitor *their* ROI, and perhaps our lives as well?

    _Vast_ might become dated when (if) “they” discover FTL, but I doubt it. _Memory_, I don’t see how that *can* become dated. They could be easily read and enjoyed a hundred years from now, perhaps a thousand. Some still read Homer, and he only ~wrote two books….

    In Shakespeare’s time a “talent” was seen not as a personal attribute but instead as something divinely bestowed. As such, hiding one’s talent was almost a venial sin; such gifts were expected to be shared with fellow humans. And story telling, that could be shared forward, with generations unborn. You’ve got a gift, Linda.

  5. Linda Says:

    @Mirik, thanks. It’s an interesting exercise when we try to figure out why we pick up certain books. I know I have my own quirks. But there are a lot of women SF writers out there, and quite a few who write hard SF. I hope you discover some you like!

    @Judith, I read your piece on SF Signal; it was part of the impetus to publish my own. For me, no one ever told me what to write, except that my current agent suggested I’d do well with techno-thrillers. This seems to contrast with the experience of other women who were also guided toward romance. Maybe everyone just figured I’d be hopeless at it–who knows?

    @Laura, I think I had such an open-minded upbringing regarding gender issues that I never thought much about it when I was younger, so I was surprised to learn that women were not at the top of the fantasy field either.

    @Glen I do appreciate it, very much. You are definitely on the positive side of that dissonance equation I mentioned above!

  6. Georges Says:

    Just to tell that most of my prefered SF writers are women, among which Linda, and, so, I’ld have perhaps another perception of the dissonance. Even if I do not easily find new english-writing authors to read (buying second-hand books in Paris, France), I’ll try more easily a new woman writer than a man, even if I make the choice to buy and read or not after reading the cover summary. As was the case for The Bohr maker, Lethe (Tricia Sullivan), or, sooner, Grass (Sheri S. Tepper) or Native tongue (Suzette Haden Elgin).
    In France the gender problem appears to be the same in SF and in fantasy as in the US, which doesn’t prevent many women to write SF, and a few good SF books to be published (I’d cite Joelle Wintrebert, Catherine Dufour, Sylvie Denis, but.there are many other ones). Perhaps not in hard SF, but there are neither male french hard SF writers, but one or two…

  7. Linda Says:

    Georges, thanks for the perspective, and for the list of names. Tricia Sullivan and I started out with novels at very nearly the same time, but she’s been a lot more consistent over the years! I’ve had only one of my books translated into French, but I was thrilled about that.

  8. Cheryl's Mewsings » Blog Archive » Shouty Linkage Says:

    [...] Linda Nagata on writing SF while female [...]

  9. Sometimes, it just hits a bit too close to home | Cora Buhlert Says:

    [...] The women in speculative fiction discussion is still going on as well with these contributions from Chris Moriarty and Linda Nagata. [...]

  10. Chris Moriarty Says:

    Judith, you’re killing me! You’re so right about the Dark Twin phenomenon. Every female sf writer I know has one, and I can’t count the number of angst-ridden statements I’ve heard from women questioning whether they’re imagining the parallels or missing something that makes their work fatally different from or less good than a male colleague who seems … well … So eerily similar. I know I see Greg Egan and Linda Nagata like that. I cannot read her books without asking myself why there isn’t 100 percent overlap of their fan base. It’s a total mystery to me. But now I’m consumed with wondering who YOUR Dark Twin is. I can think of a few obvious candidates … And it’s now going to obsess me until you illuminate me. Oh well, can’t complain about a good excuse to reread AVARYAN!

  11. Martin Says:

    One of the joys of an e-reader is catching up on all the books I’ve missed over the last few decades despite being an avid F/SF reader (primarily due to lack of money to indulge and also by the limited selection you see in stores in Australia). Until just recently I had never run in to your books, so when I saw the NanoTech Succession recommended on SF Signal in an article on book series that people really wanted to be continued, it made it easy to jump on to Amazon and get them (The Bohr-Maker, Deception Well and Vast)

    I’m astonished that you weren’t more successful with the series, I enjoyed them very much and can’t understand why people would discriminate against female SF writers. Vast especially was a fantastic hard SF novel and I hope that e-book sales will make a sequel viable eventually :-)

  12. Linda Says:

    Thanks so much for trying the books and I’m so glad you found them to your liking. It’s been great being able to bring them out again, and on my own terms. VAST was once published in the UK, but otherwise the books were never available outside North America, so it’s great to be able to offer them to a worldwide audience.

  13. Phil Friel Says:

    Linda, I think part of your problem with writing hard SF and not being able to make it big was that you never “served your apprenticeship” writing short fiction and having it published in Analog or Asimov’s. That is traditionally the road most writers have to take to “get into” the hard SF market. Even many of the “big” male hard SF authors had to go down this route before making it as successful novelists.

    Alastair Reynolds comes to mind, as does Charles Stross and quite a few others. All of them had already built up strong reputations with short fiction published in the SF magazines over the years before they ever made it as novelists. I know that I’d been following Alastair Reynolds’ short fiction in Interzone and Asimov’s for YEARS before he ever published his first novel.

    “Spirey and the Queen” was the first story of his that I read, in an early issue of Interzone. I liked that one, just enough to watch out for his name appearing in future issues. A few issues of Interzone later it was “Galactic North”, which was a fantastic story, and had me hooked as a hardcore Reynolds fan from that point on. After that, I’d buy any SF mag with a Reynolds story in it, and, later, any of his novels. And I’d say that I’m definitely a typical Reynolds fan, with the same pattern being followed by many thousands of others. Short fiction made us rabid fans and ready for his novels when they came out.

    Over the years (while still sticking with his “day job”), one top-notch story after another in the various SF mags built up a big following for him, and by the time his first novel was published, he was already a major name in the field. Revelation Space (and everything since) has sold like hot-cakes, he gave up the day job to concentrate on writing, and the rest is history.

    Charles Stross has followed a similar path, lots of excellent, well-received stories in the SF mags over the years before making it as a novelist. It’s a lot easier becoming a successful novelist when you have a backlog of critically acclaimed short fiction in the big SF mags, book publishers running after you to help make them big bucks, and a large fan-base gagging for the release of your first novel.

    As opposed, that is, to no career writing short fiction, and jumping “cold” into the hard SF novel arena and hoping you hit it big, with no fanbase, little enthusiasm or encouragement from publishers (if you can actually find one to publish your book), and little publicity and marketing. The only reason that I even knew you existed as an author was because we were both members of the Compuserve SFLIT forum, and your postings about the early Nanotech Succession books caught my interest. Other than that, I’d never have heard of you. Your Nanotech books (aside from Vast) weren’t even published over here in the UK.

    Yes, it’s true that women have historically had a harder time getting published in SF – the list of women writing under male pseudonyms (“James Tiptree Jr”/Alice Sheldon”), or with ambiguous names (Leigh Brackett), or using initials (C.J. Cherryh, C.L. Moore) is as long as your arm. But things aren’t as bad as they used to be. There are quite a few female SF authors these days, although most of them are expected to write the more “touchy-feely” soft SF. There has always been a huge imbalance in the ratio of male/female hard SF authors, as it’s seen as more of a male thing.

    But there ARE successful female hard SF authors out there. Catherine Asaro is one that comes to mind. And yes, she also has had a strong presence in Analog magazine over the years with her short fiction, and has had at least one of her novels (and maybe more, I’m not sure) serialized in Analog. She still has short fiction published every so often, even though she’s been concentrating mainly on novels in recent years.

    I recently downloaded “In the Tide” to my Kindle from Amazon, and my first thought was “Why the hell doesn’t this woman write more short fiction?” If this story is anything to go by, you’re good at it. You really, really should write more short SF and submit it to the big SF mags. Analog would eat this stuff up.

    I really do hope your career takes off like a rocket with your newer fantasy books, but, to be honest, I don’t like fantasy, so what I’m really hoping is that if things go well for you, your fantasy books will act as a springboard to get your hard SF career back on track, once you’ve made a name for yourself with a few fantasy novels.

    Female authors are quite common in the fantasy genre, so why use a male pseudonym? If you DO make a success of it writing fantasy, it would be better to do it under your real name. Once “Linda Nagata” makes it big, it might be a LOT easier for you to relaunch your hard SF writing career alongside your fantasy books.

    And like I said, it might be a VERY useful tactic for you to submit a few hard SF short stories under your real name to Analog or Asimov’s magazine (rather than publishing them yourself) while you are writing your fantasy books. If you get them published, these will help you market yourself and build up a fanbase in those magazines with a view to writing a new, best-selling hard SF novel somewhere down the line.

    You have exceptional talent as a hard SF writer. There IS a market for it out there – all it takes is for you to get in the door. It would be an absolute crime if you were to abandon hard SF altogether for a career in fantasy writing. Besides, being proficient in writing in multiple genres beats being confined to one. It’s also better for the bank balance.

  14. Linda Says:

    Well, I feel like I’ve just had a stern talking-to! :-)

    I don’t think there’s any single formula to “making it.” That said, I’ve already been toying with an idea for a short, because I do agree that getting a new piece of short fiction published is probably the best publicity I can get right now. For the record, I had several stories published in the magazines, with four in Analog.

  15. Phil Friel Says:

    LOL! Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound like I was giving you a lecture. Just take what I said as enthusiastic suggestions. I get a bit over-excited and rant on a bit when I’m yapping on about any subject I’m passionate about.

    And I most definitely AM passionate about the kind of hard SF that you write. Someone remarked in a different discussion that your writing was very similar to Greg Egan’s, which is high praise indeed, as he’s one of THE top hard SF authors.

    You said it yourself – there is no single formula to “making it”. You have to be versatile. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Write fantasy under the Trey Shiels pseudonym, and break in as a big author. But at the same time, keep contributing hard SF stories under your own name to the magazines and original anthologies, such as Jonathan Strahan’s THE NEW SPACE OPERA series.

    And I mean submit stories regularly, a decent number per year, not a mere handful over many years, as you’ve done so far. Make it an ongoing process, keep hitting them with stories of ALL lengths, shorts, novelettes and novellas. Show them you can write anything from short stories to novels. The big authors like Reynolds have been doing this for years, even after they’d become top-selling novelists. It’s an alternative source of income, and definitely with other benefits as well.

    You listed these yourself when talking about “In the Tide”. Every story you write can be viewed as the potential basis of a future novel, you’ll be getting paid for them (a parallel revenue stream), AND you’ll be keeping yourself constantly in the SF public eye, all the while steadily building up a reputation for yourself as a top hard SF writer.

    Logic dictates that all of these should combine to make things a lot easier for you when/if you do decide to try another hard SF novel somewhere down the line.

  16. Phil Friel Says:

    It’s ironic, but the two types of SF that I’ve always liked most are at completely opposite ends of the SF spectrum – hard SF and space opera. All the SF in between – the softer SF – I liked, but not as much. It was the hard SF and space opera that I was really passionate about (still am).

    And it’s the modern breed of “New Space Opera” – the merging of the romanticism and epic scale of space opera with the hard edged science and speculation of hard SF – which is my favourite SF of all, by far. About 90% of the SF that I read these days is “New Space Opera”.

    Luckily fans of this type of SF have some of the greatest SF writers to entertain them – Reynolds, Hamilton, Egan, Baxter, Banks, McAuley and a few others. But hard SF authors are (obviously) mostly men. Female hard SF authors are a rarity, although there are a few who have their own little niche, for example Catherine Asaro, who writes a type of hard SF/space opera/classic romance hybrid.

    But you are one of the very few women who actually writes real, proper hard, hard SF. You bring something new to the genre, and don’t just ape the guys. You’ve got your own niche, a fascinating bioscience angle to your stories (your background as a zoologist coming through strongly), something that makes you an individual voice among hard SF writers.

    We readers of this type of SF badly need you and more women like you writing hard SF. I know you have to feed the family and pay the bills, and that writing fantasy might become a lot more profitable for you than writing hard SF ever was. You gotta do what you gotta do. But I reckon that I’m not the only one hoping fervently that you don’t give up on the hard SF altogether.

  17. Linda Says:

    Thank you! I just wish I could write faster. Seriously. There’s a lot I want to do and everything takes so much time.

  18. Gregory Benford Says:

    I recall fondly Bohr-Maker, Deception Well and Vast–great title; wish I’d thought of it.
    Why your career hasn’t risen high…maybe writing short stories first is a good entrance. I did it that way, because I followed Raymond Chandler’s advice to work up from shorter work to learn scene writing. Accidentally, maybe that’s smart–my first Nebula was for a novelette.
    So maybe write more short stories. I’ve always liked them and write them still. Getting back to novels now after 5 years running biotech companies I founded. Just delivered THE BOWL OF HEAVEN, writ with Larry Niven.
    Short fiction gets you in front of many readers who try new writers out that way.
    Keep writing! You’re good!

  19. Linda Says:

    Hi Greg–thanks for stopping by, and for the encouragement. I started off long ago with short stories, then abandoned them, but I’m determined to get back into writing them again. In fact, I just sent my first of the new era off to market last week, and am mulling over another. I hope your business ventures are going well, but I’m glad to hear you’ve got a new novel on the way. Congratulations on that! I’m looking forward to it.