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Do authors have ethical responsibilities beyond the book?

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Straight off the top of your head, do you think that authors have any ethical or moral responsibilities beyond the book?

I'm guessing that the vast majority of you answered this question the same way I did for a long time, with a fully articulated, deeply resounding NO.

As I said, this was my reaction for a long time, duly influenced, I am sure, by the paradigm of literary scholarship in which I still so often work, where everything is merely "interesting," and where social issues are examined without judgment. But purely as a reader, my view on this question has evolved in tandem with the emergence of numerous issues related to but not limited to the books themselves.

And things have gotten most complicated lately around the issue of appropriation, particularly in terms of white authors who write about people of color and straight women authors who write about gay men.

While I don't want to suggest these cases are identical, I think they share two essential characteristics: a) there is an issue of commercial profit based on the experience of historically marginalized people, and b) in both cases there is sometimes a falsity perpetuated in the process of selling the author's work (a male pseudonym or a white character featured on the book cover). And both of these larger issues have raised the issue of whether authors have any ethical or moral responsibilities outside the confines of their writing.

All art requires appropriation – whenever we imagine the experience of another we must embody that person to grasp the differences from our own experiences. I absolutely believe that the construction of alternative realities and personae in fiction charges both its diversity and creativity. And while I do not believe that art must have moral or ethical or social purpose, I do think that fiction can bridge the chasm of difference between people of different experiences and backgrounds, promoting understanding, compassion, and edification. Even those books any of us might find insulting, offensive, unworthy, whatever, have a basic right of expressive existence in the vast realm we refer to as creative freedom.

But what about outside the book; what about the author, as a person, as a name, separate from but attached to the book?

When it comes to pseudonyms, they are as old as writing itself, I daresay, especially these days when privacy is a concern for many public figures. But they’ve had other uses as well. Mary Anne Evans became George Eliot so that her writing would be taken seriously and even chided other women authors for being "silly” and writing silly books. Harold Lowry writes genre Romance as Leigh Greenwood, one of more than a handful of men who write pseudonymously in this female-dominated genre.   And increasingly, some female writers of m/m Romance are donning male pseudonyms, as well. On a superficial level, the reason for this is obvious: it creates a sense of confidence in the reader that the author knows what s/he is writing about. Which, as blogger Sparky argues, is exactly the problem:

HOWEVER when you use a MALE pen name (and, to a lesser extent, but still very telling, a gender neutral or initialled pen name) in the m/m genre you are doing so in a context where authors do try to fake being gay men for the sake of "authenticity". When you use a male name in the m/m genre you are implying that you are a gay man – you are implying knowledge and life experience you do not have, you have not suffered for and you have NO RIGHT to claim. This is an appropriation of our identity and is one of the most grossly disrespectful parts of the m/m genre. Women using pseudonyms in the Romance genre don't feel the need to suddenly use male names – so why do they in the m/m?

But all writing is appropriation, right? Didn't I just say that at the beginning of this piece?

Yes, I did. But I'm not sure all appropriation is created equal, especially if the appropriation extends beyond the writing and into the public face of the author. We all know about the various cases of fake memoirs, from Angel At the Fence to Love and Consequences to Forbidden Love, where the story itself is presented as authentic and the author a witness or participant. But authenticity attaches to fiction to a certain extent, as well, or pseudonyms aimed at a specific gender or cultural affiliation would be deemed unnecessary. Yet they persist.

And in some cases (especially with men writing Romance under female pseudonyms), the author does not try to hide the “real” person behind the pseudonym. But if, say, a female author publicly presents herself as a presumably gay male, if she hides her true gender in order to sell books, isn't that essentially an attempt to commercially profit off of someone else's life experience? But that's what all writing is, I said! And it's all a fantasy, anyway! It's about the story!

Okay, but we're not talking just about the writing here – we're talking about selling an identity, an experience in the form of a public authorial identity. We're talking about selling authenticity, which is where one holds out an identity for the purpose of getting others to trust in that identity in buying/reading a book. And, as Sparky suggests, when the group that constructs the author’s pseudonymous identity has been traditionally marginalized and oppressed, isn't an attempt to profit off of that group's experiences by publicly claiming that identity inherently exploitive?

I am asking this as an open question, by the way.

Another manifestation of the appropriation and authenticity conundrum we've seen lately is the cover debate, sparked by Justine Larbalestier's Liar and more recently by Jaclyn Dolarmore's Magic Under Glass, both books published by Bloomsbury and both undergoing cover renovations after representing white girls in place of the protagonists of color. In the midst of the debates about Dolamore's book, Larbalestier blogged that

Sticking a white girl on the cover of a book about a brown girl is not merely inaccurate, it is part of a long history of marginalisaton and misrepresentation. Publishers don't randomly pick white models. It happens within a context of racism.

Blogger Editorial Anonymous said

And also for the record: those of us who objected to the cover were not objecting on the author’s behalf. We were objecting on the readers’ behalf. And especially on the minority readers’ behalf, because some of us understand how excruciating and demoralizing it is to children to be made to feel that they are the wrong color.

In both these cases, the darker-skinned heroine was being represented on the book's cover as light-skinned. Whether or not the context here is one of out and out racism, it is clearly one of race and one of commercial profit. However, unlike the female to male pseudonym situation, here we have something of the opposite: the commercially viable position is one of white, and the perpetrator is the publisher.

So why even implicate the author in this? She has no control over her cover art, right? Karen Healey went so far as to suggest that authors are "endangering" their careers by speaking out against a whitewashed cover:

But there was one response from people who were justifiably angry that I do not think was practical, and that was the expectation that the author should have spoken up publicly and denounced this cover. Even if, these people said, even if authors really have no control over their covers and it’s all the publisher’s doing, she should make a stand!

This is roughly equivalent to expecting someone who has just acquired their dream job to curse their boss for doing something wrong. In front of a packed press room. While the boss is standing beside them on the podium.

First, in response to the persistent employer/employee analogy Charles Petit of Scrivener's Error makes the following correction: "Bluntly, under the 1976 Copyright Act, there is no real question that the publishers’ rights are subordinate to those of the authors (excepting, of course, works made for hire… in which the patron/publisher is wrongly defined as the author)."   I don't know where this whole "employee" model of authors came from, but if authors are employees, then they would likely be producing works for hire, and not creative works over which they own the rights. They couldn't be complaining about piracy disrupting their copyrights, etc.

Rarely have I seen this employee analogy forwarded except in cases where the author is being asked by the reader to question or protest against the publisher on behalf of the reader (not on behalf of the author herself, as was the case during the protest against Harlequin). But I am willing to accept the idea that speaking out against a whitewashed cover may place the author in the position of "rocking the boat" and being viewed as "difficult."

My next question, though, is whether that means the author has no ethical or moral responsibility to take a stand against whitewashed covers, especially when the author in question is white.

I am a bit more ambivalent about this situation than the pseudonym case, in part because the author is not directly or initially perpetrating the whitewashing. However, if the author supports the whitewashing, either overtly or tacitly, is the author participating in the erasure of those very characters of color she created? And more importantly, is there an added responsibility in a white author writing about characters of color, in appropriating the experiences of non-white peoples in a commercial – hopefully, profit-yielding – work of fiction?

In an industry where authors of color – in Romance, at least – are shelved separately from other genre books, where being an author of color – especially a black author – can automatically land her books on a separate, ethically-designated shelf in the bookstore, white authors have much more mobility within the genre. Beyond the book, there is a definite privileging of whiteness in Romance, combined with a fetishization of race, that extends to the race of the author and the way the book is represented to the reader.

So why shouldn't the white author who appropriates racial otherness have some responsibility to represent those like her characters outside the book, too?

Again, an open question.

Personally, I am adamant about protecting an author's creative freedom. I generally do not believe that authors explicitly owe individual readers anything outside the book. And I have read numerous objections to this idea of authorial responsibility beyond the book with the admonishment that perhaps authors will stop writing about characters of other races, sexual experiences, etc. But you know, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for authors to think good and hard about what it means to write about people of color, about people of different sexual orientations and practices, about people of different cultural, ethnic, religious backgrounds. Just as I don’t think it’s a bad thing for readers to approach these stories mindfully. How can mindfulness be a bad thing, especially when we’re talking about commercial work aimed at yielding economic profit?

I do realize that, especially in the case of covers, there are some significant intersections between how characters are represented on covers and how they are represented within the books themselves, and how much more complex questions of authentic representation within books are. Also, I deliberately did not frame this inquiry in terms of what authors owe readers or what readers can expect from authors, because I’m not sure to whom I’d say authors specifically owe these ethical or moral responsibilities. I believe these issues are related to core community values, and by extension, to larger social values.

Even if an author does not believe that s/he has any responsibilities beyond the book, I would suggest that when an author endeavors to represent the experiences of another group, particularly a historically disenfranchised group, and further, if an author aims to suggest membership in that group through a pseudonym, then the author should be prepared to meet the criticism of readers who do believe that the author has some off-page responsibility, either to them, to the genre, to the marginalized group, or to society at large. And if authors do not respect that readers may buy the full implications of what authors are presenting to them for purchase, they risk losing the respect that those readers have for their work.

So back to the original question: should authors be held to a higher responsibility beyond the book when they choose to appropriate the experience of historically marginalized peoples? Should they be expected to deal with reader anger or protest (boycott, letter writing, etc.)? Beyond the creative freedom artists expect, what ethical or moral responsibilities, if any, do they have?

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!


  1. Edie
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 04:22:41

    Awesome post! Thank-you.

    “How can mindfulness be a bad thing, especially when we're talking about commercial work aimed at yielding economic profit?”

  2. GrowlyCub
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 05:59:07

    I just want to address one of the points you take issue with: the employer-employee analogy.

    While I agree that this is not the relationship between publisher and author, I think your thrust is going in the wrong direction here.

    The analogy is used to describe a power differential and while authors are not employees, the publisher is holding all the cards in this scenario with regard to whether or not the author receives another contract. In effect, the publisher is the sole authority on whether or not the author has a means of making a living, even though there is no employer-employee relationship.

    There are many other (unpublished) authors out there, and I’m sure that a ‘troublesome’ author hears about that from their editor/agent and I totally understand why a new author would not want to be publicly critical of their publisher.

    I really doubt that any useful outcome would result from any first time published author taking a stance that killed her career and quite honestly, I doubt that there would be if a long established bestselling author did it either. Publishing PR departments seem to have all the power and zero willingness to listen to anybody.

    Publishing has a history of putting just any old persons on covers regardless of whether or not the characters’ physical description coincides.

    Is it more serious to have somebody with the wrong skin color? Most certainly.

    Should this be pointed out and the publisher be made aware? Again, a resounding yes, but I think it’s more likely to be heard if a multitude of readers/stakeholders complain publicly rather than a single author as can be seen by the fact that Bloomsbury is now changing both covers you mentioned.

    I don’t think it’s realistic or fair to expect a first time published author to take on this fight publicly when even established multi-million dollar sellers do not get any input in their covers.

    This may very well be an issue where strength is in numbers and while I absolutely do not believe that it is the readers’ responsibility to complain, it does seem to me that sheer numbers will carry the day in this particular situation.

    I also have serious issues with reader demand for public complaint by the author. I’d want an author to be adamant to their publisher that the cover be accurate, but I do not think it’s reasonable to expect this to be a public spectacle.

  3. DS
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 06:53:03

    This reminds me of the 1990’s controversy about The Education of Little Tree where the author of what was thought by many to be the memoir of a Cherokee turns out to have been written by a former speech writer for former governor of Alabama, George Wallace, and the founder of both a pro-segregation group and magazine.

    The Education of Little Tree won a lot of praise and at least one literary award. The author tried to deliberately distance himself from his previous life, going as far as to deny that he, the author Forest Carter, was Asa Earl Carter.

    While the cases you cite are not as egregious as this one, I think this is something that we need to keep in mind.

  4. Bella
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 07:04:07

    Long time reader, first time commenter…

    But on another slight ‘off shoot’ from points brought up in this post, which is a good one: if a white straight author writes about anyone other than white straight people, they seemingly are/can be accused of ‘appropriating’ someone else’s ‘group’ for profit/etc.,

    But if a white straight author only writes about white straight people, can they not also be accused of prejudice? For ignoring the fact that the human race comes in many wonderful colors and genders and orientations and so forth? I agree that one should always be mindful when seeking to represent another’s culture/etc., but is there not also benefit in acknowledging we’re all human, and that we all exist, and including all in the worlds that we as writers create?

    I do not disagree with any points made, but speaking as a white mostly-straight female, I don’t want to ‘marginalized’ myself in my writing and feel like I can’t include the wonderful diversity of the world in my writing because I haven’t lived that life. I didn’t choose my gender any more than my race, but I did choose to write fiction and want to feel like I can write about the world’s people as they are without being accused of profiting off what I don’t understand… when what I just want to write about is the -human- experience.

    Wow. Little bit of a rant there. Sorry!

  5. Mina Kelly
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 08:02:17

    Authenticity is an interesting point. Men choosing a female pseudonym to write romance is argued as trying to avoid consumer prejudice (or a woman writing Sci Fi – I go gender neutral for it myself), but I agree that women choosing a male pseudonym to write m/m is about authenticity – there is little to no consumer prejudice about writing m/m under a female name. (In fact, personally and anecdotally, I bias towards female writers in m/m because they more commonly write the romances that appeal to me, as opposed to (actually) male writers.)

    You see authenticity coming up with race, gender and sexuality occasionally, but imagine if writers did it with other aspects of themselves? For example, suppose the author of a historical romance claimed to have an academic background in the period their writing, when they didn’t. Suppose the author of a thriller claimed to have been a spy when they were actually a shop assistant, or the author of a Western claimed to live in Texas when they’re actually born and bred in Tokyo. Suppose a science fiction author claimed to be an astronaut!

    It’s a ridiculous idea, inspired by “write what you know” and taking it in directions it was never meant to be taken. You don’t need to kill someone to write a murder mystery. So why should you pretend to be male to write m/m?

  6. Deb
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 08:09:46

    I think this issue of “transparency” vis a vis identity of the author is necessary in nonfiction, anything less is dishonest. An author passing off a work of fiction as nonfiction is false advertising. The books should be removed, the publisher and author bear the responsibility.

    In fiction, the author owes her/his publisher and reader the best damn book they had in them at the time of writing. I don’t expect Julia Quinn to have time traveled back to Regency England, to write her historical romances. I don’t expect Terry Pratchett to have lived on a planet supported by a giant turtle.

    In fiction, the author Makes The Shit Up. The writing stands on it’s own merit. Either the reader is engaged with the story enough to want to finish the book or not. I really don’t care what the race, gender, sexual preference, religious or political background is of an author. If the book doesn’t sell well, the author has a harder time selling the next.

    In the case of the using using prejudical bias to advertise and sell the book, i.e. book cover, the author has a choice to complain or not to the publisher. Quite frankly, one voice may be heard but not listened to, but many voices raised in outcry are more likely to be heeded, when you are talking money. Bloomsbury now bears considerable expense for their folly. As they should.

  7. sao
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 08:28:30

    Writers appropriate experiences all the time. Why protect some experiences? And who is to say the writer is doing it for profit, not to inform/change opinions. Who thinks Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote for profit? Or Solzhenitsyn? Both benefitted greatly from the publication of their works.

    And if it is okay for them, then we are going to get into a very murky situation of passing judgement on every book.

  8. CourtneyLee
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 08:46:31

    Regarding the male/gender neutral pseudonym issue for authors of MM romance, I can say that, as an avid reader of that genre, my awareness and personal investment in the rights of GLBT people has increased as a result of the books I read. Regardless of the gender or purported gender of the author, the books have had an impact that positively affects that group of people and casts them in a positive light, which makes me ask this question: even if the appropriation is undesireable (which I don’t believe it is, but for the sake of argument), is it cancelled out by the positive effect on the marginalized group?

  9. Moriah Jovan
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 09:01:03

    @DS: Oh, *sobs* I didn’t know that! Waaahhhhh.


  10. Christine Rimmer
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 09:03:41

    What Deb said, exactly. You think an author is appropriating your experience without understanding it, fine. Write a letter to the author. Complain about it. Explain yourself and what you’ve been through. The author might learn something for next time.

    When I write people of color (which I’m not, unless pink is a color), I know I’m on the hot seat with some people for not having the actual experience of being a person of…any color but pink.

    But OTOH, I have had readers complain to me that too many people-of-not-color don’t write about people of color for exactly the reason stated above. The author is trying to be respectful and not go where they don’t understand the terrain by virtue of not living it.

    But if that’s the rule, then you can’t write a murder mystery unless you go out and kill someone first. If I didn’t kill first, I would be implying that I had life experience with murder when I don’t.

    I would say, more accurately, the author isn’t implying. The reader is infering. And the reader can go right ahead with that.

    Yes, this PC crap really annoys me.

  11. Sparky
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 09:09:20

    I would never advocate banning a book or anything so overt as has been accused throughout this debate elsewhere

    But I would say that some writing is problematic – and appropriating the experience of a marginalised body is certainly one of them. I don’t think it’s a bar – but it is problematic and, as such, needs approaching with respect, caution and awareness. The more problematic the work, the more respect we need to have and the more caution we need to practice. The more aware we have to be of whether the protrayals are also stereotypical or prejudiced etc

    Because it isn’t just fiction and it isn’t just words. It does matter. People quite literally live and die by their portrayal and perception in the media. Not only that, but we look to connect to ourselves and to portrayals of people like us in a world where we’re rendered invisible. I can’t stress enough that this is important – and people dismissing it as unimportant or just fiction are doing a huge disservice not just to marginalised bodies – but to the power of literature

    I do think som practices are inexcusable – using a white face on the cover of a book with predominantly black characters is grossly inappropriate. Pretending to be a gay man (when you aren’t) to sell m/m fiction is pure deception and appropriation in the worst way

    about the story!

    Okay, but we're not talking just about the writing here – we're talking about selling an identity, an experience in the form of a public authorial identity. We're talking about selling authenticity, which is where one holds out an identity for the purpose of getting others to trust in that identity in buying/reading a book.

    This. This to the hilt

    I do think we need to identify the publishers to blame – in both cases – as much as the author in many places. I have heard of writers of m/m basically having to “sex up” their work as much as possible by publishers – and naturally cover-fail is definitely a publisher lead fail. While this doesn’t absolve the author from trying or objecting, I think we also have to recognise problematic publishing practices as well

    In general I think authors have a duty to think and be respectful. They have a duty to be aware of the harm they can cause, they have a duty to listen to criticism. How and whether they act on that – well, that comes down to the author (though I think marginalised people – indeed all people – are free to heavily criticise any author who doesn’t think, shows no respect and no care)

  12. becca
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 09:12:38

    MM books have always bothered me, a little, particularly those written by women for women. Is this not an erotization of the Other? How is this different from Cassie Edward’s Noble Savage books?

    I don’t follow the genre: is MM written for women different in tone or content from MM written by a gay man for gay men? How much authenticity is required in the former?

  13. LJ
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 09:16:04

    @GrowlyCub: Some great points here.

    My experience with “complaining” about a cover (at a big house) led to the silent treatment. The silent treatment from editorial, publicity and art is worse than not receiving the next book contract.

    The contract is no good to you if people in the publishing house have named you difficult. No one will work for you. Your books won’t be reviewed, sales doesn’t push your title and you simply won’t sell. Something as simple as disliking a cover, or disagreeing with a big idea the team had for your book, bruises egos, pisses people off and leads to the silent treatment.

    Unless an author has a history of selling big, is a celebrity, or has a built-in audience from a very popular blog or career, authors simply can’t advocate.

  14. Mina Kelly
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 09:29:39

    There is a very fine line to walk with appropriation. Consider something like Laurence Olivier’s Othello – he received rave reviews and great praise at the time, and was considered one of the great Shakespearean actors of the day*. The tagline was “The greatest Othello ever by the greatest actor of our time”. Should he have been denied the opportunity to play one of the great Shakespearean roles because he was the wrong race? Should a black actor have been denied it because Laurence Olivier was more famous and sold better?

    Everyone involved may have meant well, but it doesn’t change the fact an actor with racial privilege appropriated a role written for someone without it (whether you interpret Othello as Arabic or African, I might add). A white author shouldn’t be disallowed from writing about characters of other races – a straight author shouldn’t be disallowed from writing about queer characters, or a cigenedered author about transgendered, or an able bodied about disabled – but there has to be a heightened awareness of what that author is doing. If you are writing from a position of privilege about people who are not in that position, you will be subject to scrutiny and held up for criticism by the people you write about. They have that right.

    *an aside, but personally I really don’t rate him. Even when he’s not blacked up.

    I don't follow the genre: is MM written for women different in tone or content from MM written by a gay man for gay men? How much authenticity is required in the former?

    I’ve been in the genre a while, and there usually is a notable difference. Not always, of course – a well written book is well written regardless of author and audience – but it’s similar to comparing lesbian porn made by men for men, and lesbian porn made by women for women. And I think the difference between by-men-for-men and by-women-for-women is for exactly the reason you posite: erotization of the Other.

    (though one can equally argue that the reason m/m is so popular is because women are Othered by a heterosexist male-dominated society, so that in eroticizing other Others they are both making them familiar and Othering those who have declared them Other. If one didn’t mind the fact that after typing “other” so many times it ceases to look like a real word and one’s fairly sure the only person who actually followed that sentence was oneself)

  15. RStewie
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 09:50:54

    Great article on a Tuesday morning–Thought-provoking and engaging.

    I think writing is all about exploring new experiences and it’s beyond ridiculous to say that you can only “write what you know”…which Romance author has ever been in a Regency ballroom; which Mystery writer has ever been involved in a conspiracy; which Literary Master has ever been on a boat hunting for a white whale or found a trunk of gold after being incarcerated for a decade, or protected the French king from the machiavellian plots of his bishop?

    “Write what you know” should only be used to help beginning writers learn how to perfect their craft.

    That said, I believe when an author is blatently appropriating a false identity for the purpose of making a profit, and attempting to maintain that identity in the face of reader’s inquiries about it, that is wrong. When a writer appropriates a culture or a history or a minority for the purpose of furthering stereotypes or presenting a negative impression of that culture or history or minority, that is wrong. When an author knows their publisher is white-washing their novel to further profits, and does nothing about it (and I don’t mean publicly…an internal protest is enough, I believe), that is wrong.

    Otherwise, I don’t believe we should attempt to stifle the creative process of writers, because they are one of the only means many people have to experience the discomfort, the questioning of self, the otherness, and the strength and courage that being of that culture or history or minority represents.

    I know I am priviledged, and as a priviledged person, I have to recognize my priviledge, and when I read a book about a minority, and that experience resounds in me, and opens my eyes to the lives and experiences of others, I cannot look at the author’s name and say, “Oh, that doesn’t count. They’re white/a man/a woman/etc, they don’t know about that.”

    Instead, I have to take that message, and hold it and fit it into my life and change, if necessary, because my eyes have been opened.

  16. Mina Kelly
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 09:57:00

    Stupid elderly browser won’t let me edit: by “I've been in the genre a while” what I actually mean is I’ve been reading m/m for over a decade, though until I discovered ebooks it was predominantly in fandom (which is a good place for some really interesting essays and articles on why women like m/m), and I’ve had a few original short stories published. I’m not “in the genre” in any professional sense! It’s funny what seeing a comment posted can do to make you realise quite how your tone come across!

  17. sao
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 10:08:49

    I thought I’d picked up from context what m/m is, but now I’m not sure. Can anyone enlighten me.

  18. S. W. Vaughn
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 10:12:20

    I am a straight white woman who writes m/m erotic romance under a gender-neutral pseudonym (initials). However, I didn’t take the pseud specifically for the m/m work – I actually established it years before I started writing erotica, because I have a thriller series that’s heavy on violence, features mostly male characters, and would appeal to men (and women, I hope) – but a significant number of male readers (and some female readers) are suspicious of thrillers written by women. I elected to keep the pseud for the erotica work because all of my pseudonym stuff is dark, no matter what the genre, and it’s easier to promote one name (especially when I have mainstream urban fantasy coming out under my real name in a few months).

    Anyway. I don’t write m/m stuff “for women.” I write it for readers. Any interested parties are welcome. And I don’t write to raise awareness and/or understanding for the GLBT community – I write love stories between people (okay, some of them aren’t people, they’re Fae…but still). I love love, and I find it fascinating and compelling and painful and amazing. Sure, there’s a lot of naughty bits in the stories, but good erotica isn’t supposed to be porn. They’re love stories with a lot of detail. Sex usually happens when there’s love involved – erotica just doesn’t close the bedroom door.

    As far as my personal life and ethical responsibilities – no, I am not in fact a gay man, nor do I attempt to deceive readers on that fact. I’m very open on forums, blogs and chats (and to anyone who cares to ask) about being female. I have gay friends, my father is gay, and I watched him struggle through unhappiness and eventual divorce, go through a bit of a wild phase, and finally settle down with his current long-term partner with no small measure of pride.

    Does that me an expert, or qualified to write m/m romance? It’s helped me to understand some of the emotions and the struggles the GLBT community faces, but I’m still not gay. Does that mean I’m marginalizing the gay community by appropriating them for my novels?

    I don’t believe I’m capitalizing on anyone’s struggles in order to make a buck writing fiction. I believe I’m writing about love. I understand that not everyone is open-minded about homosexual relationships (it’s impossible not to understand that), but I am, and I find love to be a beautiful thing. So I write about it. Not to deceive anyone into taking me on “authority” – just to create something with emotional impact. Something to be enjoyed.

    There is nothing savage or other about gay relationships. There are a lot of misunderstandings, superstitions, and just plain ridiculous theories that pass for logic in some circles, but not everyone feels this way. Some of us simply love people.

    I wonder, after this long-winded and meandering comment: did I have a point? :-)

  19. Amber
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 10:20:15

    I disagree with any notion that authors of FICTION have any obligation outside of submitting their best work.

    It’s fiction for a reason.

    Authors can use their work to advocate for things they believe in. For example, Linda Lael Miller’s books are filled with didactic references to animal wellness and treatment. But expecting (or demanding) authors take a financially disadvantageous public stand for any issue is ridiculous.

    As for the name issue, I question just how much value to assign to a name in the reader’s purchasing decision. For me, on a personal level, the value level is low. I buy based on the back blurb. I pick it up to read the blurb based on the cover.

    Pseudonyms are chosen for a variety of reasons, and I think it is presumptuous to assign any motives to the resulting name based on preconceived notions of intent.

  20. Susanna Kearsley
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 10:20:45

    @LJ: You said, “Unless an author has a history of selling big, is a celebrity, or has a built-in audience from a very popular blog or career, authors simply can't advocate.”

    But we can have integrity.

    I understand your point, I do, and I’m sorry you had that experience at your publishing house, but Jane isn’t talking about simply not liking a cover. She’s talking about letting a patently misleading or offensive cover pass without a challenge.

    I’m not a big-name author, and while my publishers very kindly show me proofs of all my covers, I don’t have much input when it comes to their design. Which for the most part is the way it should be — covers are a marketing device, and their design is rarely random, so I’ve learned to trust the marketing departments of my publishers to send each book out in a form that helps it find its readers.

    But if I ever felt a cover would offend those readers, or seriously misinterpret the story inside, I would have to say so, even if my protest didn’t please the publisher. Even if it meant losing the next contract. Because being able to look at myself in the mirror and feel good about what I see there is, in the end, more important than what’s in my bank account.

  21. mfred
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 10:24:26

    There are great books that challenge people, open our eyes to other experiences, teach us about what it means to be a human being– and these books can be written about anyone, by anyone.

    But there are also other books, written badly, that use and abuse stereotypes of gender, race, and sexuality. I do believe that some of these are written in innocence, without malice. I also KNOW that some of these are written intentionally, for profit.

    Those for-profit books, which are written only to turn a dime, deserve to be heckled and tossed aside for the dreck they are. These kind of books are disrespectful to ALL of us.

    The stickyness, perhaps, comes from someone who maybe genuinely believes they write from a good place, but their stories are appropriative to those of us living the real version.

    To these people I say, you have to open your eyes. You have to pay attention. When someone in the minority tells you that you reek of priviledge, its time to wake up. If your first reaction is anger, then its time to wake up. If your second reaction is to dismiss the criticism as unfair or “PC”, its time to wake the hell up.

    Obviously, not all criticism is equal. It’s up to the author to be able to discern the valid or truthful voice from the crowd. The point is not to shut yourself off to any & all voices because you don’t like what they are saying.

  22. Sarah Frantz
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 10:46:04

    @Mina Kelly: Haven’t read all the comments, but Mina’s struck me: “there is little to no consumer prejudice about writing m/m under a female name.” I’d have to add: now. There is little to no consumer prejudice about writing m/m under a female name now. Five years ago and more, the perception was among authors (whether valid or not) that you couldn’t find a publisher if you didn’t have a male pseudonym. And some authors therefore established their brand with a male name and they’re still writing, so they’re still using the male name although no longer trying to present as male on websites.

    So, just as a historical aside. Things as they are now is not as they always were. FWIW.

  23. Marsha
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 11:04:25

    I think this is a very interesting discussion and I appreciate all of the points of view expressed. I will mull the issues as I go through my workaday life and enjoy the food for thought.

    It strikes me the writing life is one that, no matter how one goes about it, someone will take issue. Perhaps the best option is to, as one commenter wrote, open one’s eyes and be receptive to views other than one’s own while also doing the best possible work with the tools available at that moment. That’s really all we can expect of authors, in my opinion.

  24. Mina Kelly
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 11:06:36

    Thanks for the correction; I only started looking at original m/m in the past couple of years (to be honest, I didn’t realise much existed outside of fandom until then, since the local bookshops didn’t stock any). I’m really curious about why, now, but my sociological jonesings aren’t really that relevant to the main discussion.

  25. Janine
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 11:45:33

    Straight off the top of your head, do you think that authors have any ethical or moral responsibilities beyond the book?

    I'm guessing that the vast majority of you answered this question the same way I did for a long time, with a fully articulated, deeply resounding NO.

    Wow. I have to say these opening paragraphs took me aback, because my answer would have been a deeply resounding YES. Authors have the same ethical and moral responsibilities that all other human beings have, no more, no less, so why on earth would their moral and ethical responsiblities begin and end with their books? I can’t see why they should get a free pass from the responsibility to treat others fairly.

    However, sometimes life comes down to a choice between two evils. If the only way a straight femaile author can publish her m/m book is to use a male pseudonym, then the good that book might do in the world has to be weighed against the harm of appropriating a minority’s status. If an author would lose her publishing contract if she were to protest that the cover of her book is whitewashed, and if she depends on that contract to feed her children, then again, the harm of allowing the publisher’s actions pass without comment must be weighed against the harm that losing that contract might do her family. Life is full of moral and ethical dilemmas, which is why it’s not always easy to take a stance, or to do the right thing.

  26. XandraG
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 12:55:59

    FWIW, I’m not so young I don’t remember the days when Harlequin owned your pseudonym. Or to not know that more than one author’s been told by them that their name isn’t “romancey” enough, so this is not new news.

    The choice of a pseudonym is often wrapped up in marketing decisions (and possibly driven by marketing departments) from using initials to demure the fact that a thriller writer is female (because male consumers of thrillers don’t tend to buy female-authored thrillers), or choosing a pseud with a last name that starts with ‘A’ so you get on the top shelf or show up in the first few pages of a general search or a catalog that lists new titles alpha by author.

    Covers, too, are very wrapped up in marketing. Authors posting upthread have spoken of backlash against their insistence on cover accuracy, and in each instance, for each author, the decision to speak up is going to be different. Will the publisher backlash be more or less awful than the potential reader backlash when they find out that in spite of a cover, the main characters are not portrayed as advertised? Will you potentially sell more books with a certain portrayal on the cover, but also potentially piss off more readers (who will still hold you partially responsible even when you have little to no say in the process)?

    As an author myself, and one who’s written M/M (shameless pluggery at website), I never felt the need to mask my girlishness, because when thinking about it, I write erotic romance first, and the M/M is more a function of *these characters* and *this book* rather than *my author brand.*

    Am I appropriating the gay experience? I’m certainly not doing it on purpose. I wouldn’t presume to be able to encompass “the gay experience” in one slim volume (or its upcoming companion) about two unique characters in an unique setting and situation. My ego ain’t that big. I do have a responsibility to a.) not whitewash beyond what the overall tone of the book calls for, and b.) present the characters as honestly as I can.

    When I write, and when I read, I look for human truths behind the stories. And those human truths can wear skin of all colors, engage in emotional and sexual attachments of widely varied persuasions, and if the author has done his or her job correctly, the human truths will come out and be understood as universal.

    I’m not sure I’m qualified to make a determination where eroticizing the Other falls within the context of erotica or erotic romance, but on the one hand I hear people speaking out against “fetishizing” people of color and on the other I hear readers clamoring for more heroes or heroines who look like them. My best compass is to follow my story instincts–my characters are who they are, and it’s my responsibility to do them justice by doing my best to not make a literary ass of myself.

  27. Deb
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 13:00:59

    @ Janine, in the case of fiction, why do we as the reader, have a right to private info about the author? Fiction pretty much indicates the author wrote from her/his imagination.

    In the case of non-fiction, the “credentials” of the author are needed to establish the valid claim of non-fiction. When an author claims his work is non-fiction, but in fact is fiction, the customer/reader was sold under false pretenses. In other words, the customer did not get what they paid for. And if the author is smart, they do not appear on Oprah!

  28. dick
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 13:40:52

    If authors had an ethical or moral obligation to readers, there would be no really bad books. Obviously they don’t, because there are many bad books.

  29. Robin
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 13:51:21

    A few questions that have occurred to me as I’ve been reading the comments:

    1. If there is outrage directed at someone like James Frey for manufacturing episodes from his memoir, shouldn’t there be similar reaction to authors who manufacture an identity that is not theirs? And I ask it this way to avoid the fiction v. non-fiction distinction, because in both cases I’m talking about what the author is doing personally in the process of selling and marketing the book. Fabricating details, fabricating an authorial identity for the purpose of authenticity — in both cases you have overt fabrication (note that I am talking about authors who go to lengths to hide their true identity behind the pseud, not all authors who write under a pseud).

    2. Not too long ago, bloggers were being told that we had to disclose the origin of books in order to be perceived as “honest” or “trustworthy.” It was suggested that bloggers who host ads are tacitly approving of or associated with any ad on their site, and that if the ad is deemed unethical, it will cast a bad light on the blogger. How do those situations relate to either the false cover image or the false author identity?

    3. I would love a comprehensive argument from someone about why falsifying an authorial identity or a cover image for the purpose of selling books is not only ethical but fully acceptable. And I am not being facetious here — the only arguments I ever seem to see here are those about how it might endanger an author’s career to speak out, or it’s all about the story/only fiction/not written for political purposes, but I can’t recall seeing an argument that relies completely on the issue of ethics and on whether or not there is an ethical responsibility here. People feel afraid all the time of doing the ethically correct thing, but there are certain things we tend to see clearly as ethical or unethical, even if people don’t follow those guides. So is there a defense for these two situations as perfectly ethical?

    4. In Romance, at least, there seems to be so many moral issues and taboo subjects within the fiction, from the sexual experience of heroines to the inclusion of abortion, to what it takes to earn love, etc. As readers and authors we make moral judgments all the time about the behavior of characters. Why is it status quo to judge what’s inside a book — the fiction — but more akin to taboo to ask if the author should be held to standards outside of but related to the book? Like how is the false cover image any more intellectually honest than plagiarism?

    5. When authors protested the referral of rejected authors from Harlequin to Horizons,there were many, many charges of unethical behavior on Harlequin’s part. Why is what Harlequin was doing unethical, but a false authorial identity or a cover image (both of which are used explicitly to sell a book by presenting an image readers will supposedly find appealing) ethical?

    I understand that when this subject comes up, it seems difficult to disconnect the contents of the book from the marketing mechanism, and to separate the idea of an ethical responsibility from the morality of violating it, but really, I’m way back at the point of trying to discern is people think there is even an ethical responsibility here at all, regardless of whether and why people may not heed it. As Janine said, there are many occasions in which people feel that the greater good is to violate the ethical norm. But can we address the question of what the ethical norm here might be?

  30. Robin
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 13:57:10

    @dick: I’m not sure the duty would be to readers here. Think about plagiarism, for example. Clearly that’s an ethical breach, but it’s not specifically a breach of a duty to readers — even though readers are being deceived and therefore have a stake in the issue. One might argue that the larger community of writers is the primary group to which authors owe a duty of not plagiarizing. Or the public trust, or writing in general, etc.

  31. Robin
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 14:09:54


    I'm not sure I'm qualified to make a determination where eroticizing the Other falls within the context of erotica or erotic romance, but on the one hand I hear people speaking out against “fetishizing” people of color and on the other I hear readers clamoring for more heroes or heroines who look like them. My best compass is to follow my story instincts-my characters are who they are, and it's my responsibility to do them justice by doing my best to not make a literary ass of myself.

    Your comment here is one of the reasons I have tried to bracket this discussion off from a debate about how peoples of other experiences are represented. Because, as I said in my post, all writing is appropriation, and creative freedom has no political, religious, social, cultural, or economic agenda.

    But let’s look at the Little Tree example DS raised. The author of that book created a completely false authorial identity to sell the book. And it was read for many years (still is in some circles) as authentic; it was even taught in some NA Studies programs. Now, if the author had not created that whole identity, if his name was not connotative of NA culture, do you think the book would be assumed to be authentic? Do you think it would be read with the same assumption of authority on the part of the author? Would it have gained so many awards and accolades (i.e. was part of its acceptance due to the presumption of authorial authenticity)?

    If the answer to any of that is no, then the false identity the author created is influence how people read the book. I wonder, sometimes, if John Grisham’s books would have been so popular if he had not been so heavily marketed as an attorney. And if it one day came out that he wasn’t, in fact, a lawyer (although I’m sure he is or at least was, lol), do you think people would feel duped and regret buying his books? If the answer is yes, then the way an author is presented and/or presents him/herself matters.

  32. becca
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 14:42:11

    re: Grisham’s identity as a lawyer implying some sort of expertise that carried through into his books … I know that I, at least, felt that Michael Creighton was overstepping his authorial role when he started presenting anti-AGW information as scientific facts in his books, and turned his books from fun reads into political screeds… that’s when I stopped reading him.

  33. Polly
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 15:26:48

    Several points and questions:

    I’m not convinced that using a pseudonym is the same thing as creating an alternative authorial identity. Or, at least, isn’t there a question of degree and intention/stakes? There are names that are chosen to reveal less, and names that are chosen to suggest more. Shouldn’t that be taken into account? With regards to m/m romance and female writers, W.R. Jones is different than William R. Jones–one makes a claim while the other resists making a claim.

    Or, to take a different case: I, for example, am not white. If I were to publish a romance novel, I’d probably use a pseudonym in part because I think that there’s an awful lot of assumptions mainstream readers make about a name that’s obviously “ethnic,” and what those authors know or should be writing about. I don’t want the burden of proof that comes with writing historical romance, say, with a clearly “ethnic” name. I know there are non-white romance writers, but you don’t see a lot of historicals written by “Hana Takashami” or “Ranjani Singh.” I don’t really think of that as appropriation because the stakes are so low–Regency white people aren’t an oppressed or marginalized group. And, of course, there’s the fact that no one alive today ever lived the Regency experience. If, on the other hand, a white writer published a contemporary novel about the East Asian immigrant experience and published with the name “Hana Takashami,” I’d probably be appalled. I definitely would feel that a very problematic cultural appropriation and misrepresentation had occurred. In that case, it would indeed be a problem of authorial authenticity.

    It’s not that there are topics or peoples that certain authors shouldn’t touch; anyone is free to write about anything. But, the stakes are different in different cases. When a name suggests a special knowledge that the author could actually have, is, I think, when there’s a problem.

  34. Polly
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 15:47:58

    Oh, and about the specific question of authorial responsibility:

    I do think that an author has responsibility for what they write about, especially when they’re writing about marginalized groups, and when they’re writing about real people (and especially when you’re writing for kids or YA). It’s not that every book featuring people of color has to be about race, but I do think that when you write a book about people who aren’t featured much in print, you don’t get to use their lives and experiences lightly. Do your research and take a stand; otherwise it’s just blaxploitation by another name.

    And I have a whole rant, that I won’t deliver here, about writers who MAKE CRAZY SHIT UP about real people who happen to be dead and can’t respond. If you’re using your imagination already, use it a little further and make up a new name for your characters. I know most people don’t agree with me about that one, but there it is.

  35. kaigou
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 16:51:04

    @Polly: When a name suggests a special knowledge that the author could actually have, is, I think, when there's a problem.

    I would say the same, but with the amendment of replacing “knowledge” with “experience”. It may seem like semantics (but hey, what else are writers for, if you can’t get a waffle of semantics?), but one can “know” something and yet not fully “get” it on the level of “experience”.

    The average person can study, say, ‘life in Regency times’ or ‘life in Nationalist China’ for years and still not get the inner workings, or still miss the nuances that lie under it all. Hell, there are writers who have decades of studying and still don’t truly ‘get’ it. Even if you can name every side-street and back-alley tea parlor in colonial Hong Kong, if you ain’t actually been there, you ain’t been there.

    A book that suggests the author has knowledge — scholarly comprehension — is one thing, and yes, to falsify is unethical. But it’s on a different level from suggesting the author is something else, has lived (has experience) — in which case you’re not just falsifying that you’ve read X number of books or interviewed Y number of people, but that you, yourself, have a life history that in fact you do not.

  36. kurzon
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 16:51:24

    This would always be a yes and no question for me. I would like to hope that authors are sensitive to issues faced relating to the people they are portraying, but you would also hope authors don’t feel chained down to ‘represent’ or omit any person in their books who is not themself.

    The covers question is an interesting one. I was disappointed to hear about the Avatar:TLA poor casting choices. And I’m bemused by what the cover designers could be thinking to put a cover design on a book which doesn’t match the characters in such a completely obvious point as colour, and I think any author in that situation would be more than likely to point that out of their own accord (because who wants covers that don’t match the character you’ve been living and breathing for months?). But any author who wants a career is likely to keep their ‘cover feedback’ on terms which don’t prevent them from ever working again.

    Those covers strike me as incredible stupidity on the part of the marketing team. You cause dissonance for the reader who picks up the book based on the cover character, and you anger the reader who wants the content character.

  37. Anthea Lawson
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 17:31:57

    @Robin “ask if the author should be held to standards outside of but related to the book? Like how is the false cover image any more intellectually honest than plagiarism?”

    Because the VAST majority of the time, the author has no input on the cover. You cannot hold the author to “standards” about their cover when, as I believe has been established already, they usually have no creative input whatsoever. They can, after the fact, protest either privately or publicly, but the only content that is truly theirs is what’s inside the book. And legally that is true as well–after rights revert back to the author, the publishing house still owns the cover.

    Another argument for true self-publishing, perhaps, where the author has full control over the entirety of their book, including how it is packaged.

  38. Laura Kinsale
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 17:38:43

    I don’t tell you what to write, or what not to write. Don’t tell me what to write. Or what not to write.

    I’ll be true to myself as a writer, and that’s what I owe to writing. If people read it, like it, don’t like it, etc etc etc, ad nauseum, that is their privilege. I do not owe everyone who happens to pick up my book a promise to think hard about whatever they think is important.

    I do think hard about the things I believe are important, but I don’t owe it to anyone but myself.

  39. Deb
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 17:41:45

    @ Polly
    “When a name suggests a special knowledge that the author could actually have, is, I think, when there's a problem.”

    But does a name automatically indicate “special knowledge”? I disagree here. Cultural differences exist within the same geographic location, for example. Language differences, etc. It is the reader’s incorrect assumptions at play here.

    If an author of fiction chooses to use her/his initials as the pen name, does a reader have the right to expect said authors full name? Do we really need that info to enjoy or appreciate the book? Apparently J. D. Salinger felt he had the right to privacy and protected his right to the day of his death. It was most probably in his best interest to do so. “Catcher in the Rye” is still one of the most controversial works of literature in this century. And for $7.99 does anyone really think Salinger owed us more?

  40. Robin
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 17:48:28

    @Laura Kinsale: Which is why I’m not talking about what’s *in the book* at all. Not referring to the writing. Creative freedom = sacrosanct. Talking exclusively about authorial persona and marketing mechanisms outside the book.

    Assuming your comment is directed at me, of course, since it’s not otherwise specified.

    @Anthea Lawson: If I work for an accounting firm, and I happen to know that the firm provides false advertising about its costs for services or about the alleged credentials of the accountants, do I have any ethical responsibility associated with that knowledge or not, do you think? If not, is it because I have no control over what my bosses are doing?

    I’m not being facetious here — I’m really trying to understand the logic of the ‘no control’ argument, because I can imagine many scenarios where we would fully expect people who have no control over what a company is doing, but who have knowledge, to do something or report it. Trying to understand the difference here, especially since we’re not even talking about an employment situation, but a contract relationship.

  41. Jane
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 18:01:34

    For me, it comes down to this: why is the author using such a pseudonym or why are they championing a certain cover? Is it just for marketing? And if it is just for marketing purposes, is it reasonable for readers to have certain expectations based on the pseudonym and/or cover?

  42. Alla
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 18:03:52


    First time responder here. Yes, I have no problem with author taking a pseudonym, any pseudonym in fact. I totally agree with you that writer is entitled to privacy if nothing else, and especially in m/m romance I can completely understand why the writer who has a day job may for example not want to let their employers know that they write romances. I think I understand at least.

    But I think the issue here is a little bit different. As I said somewhere else, I could care less who the author of m/m romance is, what gender the person is. All I care about is good solid writing.

    But when you (generic you) of course not just take a gender neutral pseudonyme, but also **claim to be a gay man**, I mean actively make that claim on your website or Amazon page, or whenever, sorry, I will call you a fraud if you are not in fact a gay man. I think this would definitely be claiming a life experiences, a view point that you do not have. So yes, that is the difference for me, big difference in fact.

    Because while I happily buy m/m romances written by men and women and enjoy a lot of them, I absolutely met the readers who only want to read the romances written by gay men. They think it is more authentic or something. Myself, I would read any book if I think writer has a writing talent, but if you (generic you) represent to those readers that you are a gay man when you are not, yes, I think it helps a lot to sell your books to them. Again, just my opinion.


  43. Sparly
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 18:07:34

    On psueds and faking identity –
    IJ think everyone here knows the difference between using a pseudonym to avoid PREJUDICE (such as a woman using a man’s name for writing a thriller) and a pseudonym to claim an experience or authenticity they do not have. Someone, for example, calling themselves “Dr…” or choosing a Native American name etc etc is claiming expertise that they don’t have. It may not be as overt as writing a full, fictional biography, but it’s still in the same vein, it still follows the same path.

    I do think deliberately gender neutral (either by name or initials) pseuds in m/m fiction DO make a claim – or at least encourage an implication. But this can easily be corrected or addressed in an author bio or about the author page. I think a gross example of an author NOT doing this is SJ Pennington (You’ve probably seen the links) who studiously avoids ANY disclosure of the fact she’s female to a degree that her words are quite stilted.

  44. Spakly
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 18:17:21

    As to duty:

    Though, again I wouldn’t support legal bans or censorship – I think authors certainly have an ethical and moral duty about the damage their books can cause.

    An author can be true to themselves as a writer – and write a book with a gay villain willfully spreading AIDS into the blood supply to poison heterosexuals. An author can be true to themselves as a writer – and write a book about a gang of black men riding the countryside kidnapping white women to be sex slaves.

    Ok these are extreme examples – but a writer whose guide is being true to themselves alone can lead to being extremely cavalier and blase about the damage and harm they do – and I think we should most certainly criticise, condemn and scream blue murder when damaging and highly problematic words hit the page – and I think an author has an ethical and moral duty (albeit, not a requirement or order by any means) to consider the harm they do

  45. Alla
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 18:26:17


    Well, yes, absolutely as long as we are not talking about bans or censorship, I think readers could and should criticize loudly and vote with their wallets, you know. Another extreme example would be which I also used somewhere else, because this is something that I know would be writing a book about Jew who eats Christian babies for breakfast. Would I scream and loudly? You bet. Yes, this is fiction, but so so harmful one in my view. But that’s to me where the reader’s right ends, because to me as much as I support readers’ right to do that, I also support the authors’ right to ignore anything they feel would not be true to themselves as writers. I think it works both ways, if that makes sense. I would certainly ignore any further books from the writer who wrote something like what you described or what I had described, I just do not expect the writer to write to please me. I know you are not talking about bans or cernsorships, I just read some that do and with that I disagree.

  46. Jenny Schwartz
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 18:34:08

    Great discussion. I’m taking away Becca’s phrase, “erotization of the Other” to think about. Where is the line between exploring another person’s experience and exploiting it? Does the author make this call, or the editor, or the reader?

    On the question of pseudonyms and covers, are we moving into an era of so much choice that authors will have to become brands in their own right so as to stand out? and if that’s the case, how much truth does the “brand” have to contain? and will covers have to reflect authorial rather than publisher brand identity?

  47. Deb
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 18:53:03

    With fiction, a great read for me is a book in which I become an active participant in the book. My imagination runs as I read. A great book encourages that, to the exclusion of outside influences. I’ve been blessed to have read many books/authors who are able to do just that.

    I’d defend a reader’s right to feel outrage at feeling cheated, feeling of exploitation, of violation. I’d defend the author’s right to write what they want. If in a reader’s outrage, an author is “outed”, that is a chance the author takes. If the outcome is lost sales, so be it. That’s the control we have as readers. We do not have a right to deny any person the freedom to write, think or feel.

  48. XandraG
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 20:20:23

    @Spakly: I am hesitant, too, to assign overmuch responsibility to authors in your extreme examples, primarily because the argument so easily parallels the tired old chestnut of “silly wimmin” being “unduly influenced” by romance novels because they supposedly create “unrealistic expectations” in love and–more to the point–sex (as if a.) women should be happy to put up with mediocre and uninspiring sex and more importantly b.) women don’t know how to separate fact from fiction). It literally drips with the implication that women and romance readers are too stupid to know where fiction ends and reality begins. The same applies to “concerned” busybodies wanting to ban books like Salinger’s, or video games, or scary movies, because they don’t think kids can understand the difference between fiction and reality.

    @Jane: The pseud issue is one of varying degrees. On the one hand, you have the Little Tree incident, which lent unwarranted legitimacy to what’s essentially an “issue” book. On the other hand, you have Lemony Snicket (and to a lesser extent Darren Shan) – a children’s writer who’s effectively incorporated his authorial identity as part of the universe of his stories. Snicket’s efforts are pretty much benevolent–they give small enhancements to the books’ methods of storytelling and serve as harmless fun that extends after the end of the book. And as far as I can tell, he’s not making any claims to special knowledge or expertise in doing so.

    There are authors whose names or pseuds probably play well into the marketing of their books. Authors writing characters with their same ethnic heritage probably do get more notice than authors writing characters with ethnic heritage that isn’t the same as the author’s. It doesn’t present judgement on the stories themselves, just the perception thereof.

  49. Janine
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 20:22:20


    @ Janine, in the case of fiction, why do we as the reader, have a right to private info about the author? Fiction pretty much indicates the author wrote from her/his imagination.

    I never stated that we as readers have a right to private information about authors. As far as I am concerned authors have the right to use a pseudonym. And I have no problem with female authors using male pseudonyms the way the Bronte sisters originally did, because it helped them get published. My own ethnic background is Jewish and the pseudonym I plan to use doesn’t reflect that (but then, neither does my surname since I took my husband’s last name).

    However, when an author is trading on a sexual orientation or ethnicity that does not belong to them and *does* belong to a group that is discriminated against, that starts to feel ethically dicey to me. That group is already being treated unfairly by others in our society, so I would ask myself whether the author really needs to exploit them too.

  50. Jane
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 20:34:26

    @Deb Are you referring to the book itself because I think Robin’s point is in the marketing. Pseudonyms and covers are marketing materials. I’m not sure what creative integrity we are protecting in marketing of the author brand or the book via the cover.

  51. Maili
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 21:23:04

    Forgive me if I don’t make sense. It’s three a.m. (o, the joy of motherhood!)

    In this case, it seems that it’s not about stories (I think everyone understands this painfully simple rule: “write what you want, as long as you’re prepared to face and accept the consequences“).

    It’s about – IMO – how far would authors go to assert their “right” to write the kind of stories they want to write without having to face those consequences. And why.

    Some may be upfront – by saying they rely on nothing but research to provide their knowledge. In short, they silently ask readers to bear their possible missteps and attempts to make their stories as ‘authentic’ as possible, or to their best knowledge.

    Some may compromise – by using the so-called ‘lying by omission’ clause — e.g. altering their pen names, withholding their biographies, or even using a neutral-gender language in their biographies — for right or wrong reasons.

    And some may go as far as fabricating their biographies and/or making false claims to an expertise or knowledge that doesn’t exist.

    I think it’s the question ‘why’ that we need to ask about these authors who do one of these three routes.

    Is it to:

    a) develop an ‘author’ brand for the sake of marketing?
    b) gain readers’ trust thus gaining their loyalty?
    c) authenticise their books?
    i) for better sales?
    ii) to beat competition?
    iii) gain respect, literary-wise?
    d) just want a chance to live through an alter ego/personality?

    Again, all these still require us to ask: why? I think this is where authors’ ethical responsibility steps in – because at the moment, it seems it’s mostly done to gain bigger sales at expense of a minority or such.

  52. hapax
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 22:03:34

    Count me in with those who consider a pseudonym — especially a gender neutral one — to be a branding decision, not an appropriation of identity, explicit or implicit. Of course, I come from a circle where it is customary to assume “personas” for different functions, and I don’t find it difficult to understand when a friend is speaking as his identity as the guy next door with the two obnoxious Labs, his medical authority as a physician, his SCA identity as a thirteenth-century warrior, his DnD character as a female Elf, his LARP identity as a robot assassin, etc.

    This being a romance blog, I’m suddenly curious as to whether people would feel “cheated” somehow if, say, a romance author whose bio states that she is “happily married” later turns out to have been trapped in a miserable and abusive relationship. Is her writing a case of misrepresenting an experience she has not had? “Fetishizing the other” (in this case, a healthy love affair)? Or just writing the stories she felt compelled to write?

    I’ve never had any difficulty telling the difference between stories that were told from ignorance, from fetishization, and from sheer love of story.*

    I mean, even the ECPA don’t require that their authors subscribe to a particular religious view, just that the stories that they submit do!

    *full disclosure, I find that all of these can be enjoyable at some level. The sheer wtf-ery of the poorly understood setting can be hilarious, and as for fetishization — well, my “healthy openness” is your “kink” is their “perversion”…

  53. Polly
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 22:03:43

    @kaigou. I’m not necessarily committed to “special knowledge” as opposed to “special experience.” The second is fine by me. I used “knowledge” for “cultural knowledge,” which I think often implies a degree of experience. But if you’re more comfortable with “experience” than “knowledge,” that’s ok.

    @Deb. I think a names can and do indicate special knowledge/experience. Does having a name mean that you have special knowledge/experience? No. But that doesn’t stop the name from signifying special knowledge/experience. Of course the readers’ assumptions are at play here–that’s the point.

    I don’t think my point has anything to do with authorial privacy. If an author wants to be known by initials, not revealing a name, or even a gender, that’s fine. The issue is consciously choosing a name that suggests a lived experience that the author does not have.

    @Laura Kinsale (assuming your comment was directed at me) Despite my own opinions about how people should approach or shouldn’t approach writing about real people or particular issues, I’ve never told anyone in specific not to write something. I absolutely support anyone’s right to write about whatever they want to. And I will happily not buy or read the ones that I have problems with.

    @Maili. I think you’re absolutely right–the issue isn’t what subject matter is appropriate or on the table; it’s whether the author is willing to accept the consequences for what they’ve written.

    Words have power. All readers and writers know this. Saying that an author does not/should not have some ethical and moral responsibilities beyond the book seems like a weird denial of this truth–that words have power–that we all know. I’m not saying that there’s a specific arbiter of what the responsibility means, or who gets to adjudicate it, both of which, I’d say, are prerogatives of the author. But if we accept that words have power, then we have to accept that words have effects, and the authorial choices–be they about the story or about the pseudonym–will have consequences, and authors should be prepared to be challenged or questioned about their choices.

  54. Persephone Green
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 23:00:10


    It may be frustrating to hear both “represent oppressed people correctly” and “don’t ignore oppressed people.”

    It’s a lot more painful to actually BE an oppressed person who is, has been, and will be constantly ignored, erased, appropriated or misrepresented in the media.

    Good writers research before they write. Characters also require research as much as time periods, social movements, politics, religions, clothing, etc. If writers approached writing about marginalized people the way they approach writing historical fiction, the issues Jane discusses wouldn’t resurface nearly as often.

    Yes, it is difficult. Everyone fails at some point. Try again. Fail better.

    Being a good writer is hard. So is being a respectful, honest, empathetic person. Aren’t both still worth aiming for?

  55. Beau
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 23:14:52

    It seems to be getting very deep around here. Marketing and marketing decisions are and should be held to the same standards as any other product from dish soap to drugs. i.e. Does it tell the truth about the product in such a way that the consumer clearly understands what they are purchasing? The person(s) responsible for that marketing are the ones who are creating it. Marketing always needs some controls.

    Re writers and writing: Up until recently when we could actually have contact with the author, the decision to read and purchase was based on marketing and some name recognition based on our reading history. The stories should really be enough. I don’t expect that the authors of murder mysteries have gone out and killed people, nor do I expect that an author has experienced every sexual act they’ve written or participated in every cultural ritual or historical setting. If we start limiting it to that, it’s hardly fiction, is it.

    This type of castigation is starting to sound very much like the crap that’s been said about romance readers and writers for years. Only now we’re doing it to ourselves. What’s up with that?

  56. Persephone Green
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 23:16:19

    @Susanna Kearsley:

    Exactly right. There is a difference between not liking cover art and knowing that it’s a racist whitewashing of one’s characters.

    If I were ever in a situation where I faced severe backlash for even mentioning the fact that my cover art was racist…would I really want to work with people who would refuse to acknowledge something so egregious? Ignoring it would make me feel dirty for the rest of my life.

    I would feel ethically and morally compelled to broach the subject, albeit in a manner appropriate to the situation. Screaming at people is rarely effective.

  57. Persephone Green
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 23:37:56

    @Laura Kinsale:

    I was wondering if you could clarify what you meant in this comment? I’m not being snarky; I’m genuinely confused as to what part of Jane’s post you are responding.

    As a potential reader of yours (since the reviews at DA make me want to try your work), if your response was a general one out of anger or annoyance towards political correctness as a concept, that would be useful to know, at least to me and probably a few other people.

    [I’m asking because the phrasing sounds remarkably similar to a response Sharon Lee (fantasy author) had to a discussion on authorial responsibility a couple of years back. It turned out to influence my purchasing of her books so as to avoid running into prose that would be hurtful to me and to avoid having my money go places I don’t ever want it to go.]

    I just want to make sure I’m not misinterpreting what you’re saying, because that happens a lot on the Internet.

  58. Anonymouse
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 23:49:35

    when an author is trading on a sexual orientation or ethnicity that does not belong to them and *does* belong to a group that is discriminated against, that starts to feel ethically dicey to me.

    So it’s OK for someone to pretend to be white or straight, but not OK for someone to pretend to be gay or a minority?

    I may be misunderstanding your position, but I don’t understand why it’s only “ethically dicey” in some cases.

  59. Robin
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 23:58:16

    @Persephone Green: I just want to clarify that I, Janet, wrote this post. So all the blame goes to me, not Jane. ;D

  60. Angelia Sparrow
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 04:59:42

    First, What Laura Kinsale Said.

    Second, “gay villain willfully spreading AIDS into the blood supply to poison heterosexuals” could actually work in the right hands. After all, if I can write a man rerouting the Mississippi river and drowning the entire city of Cairo IL for his male lover…why not, given a proper motivation and backstory? (I know, it’s an ugly stereotype and a scary lie spread in the 80s. But it could be done well with the right character and set-up.)

    Third: some places the author does get to give an opinion on the cover. When Ellora’s Cave gave me a pair of white gym bunnies on the cover of Glad Hands the first thing I said was, “Chuck is Cherokee. Please fix this.” But at a NY house I wouldn’t have that option.

    Fourth: having been on the receiving end of an attack by the Fighting 501st Keyboardists, let me say there are times to take the criticism seriously and times to say “You are a known wanker and troll. Take a long walk off a short pier.” But research your critic enough to know whether they have a point or are just hopped up on Offense and looking for a place to take it out.

    When a friend said “It might be a bad idea to make the Carolina Giant black,” I listened. When a random troll said “Stupid cis-bitch wrote about transfolk without permission and the cover just shows the cis-male. Now give me 10,000 copies to make papercrete.” I rightly flipped them the bird.

    Fifth: I tend to assume every m/m writer is female. As a rule, gay men write something entirely different from m/m romance. This is not true in every case, but for the most part, I find women’s stories don’t read like men’s.

    My responsibility is to the story and secondarily to the characters. The only responsibility I have to the readers is to deliver the best story I have in me.

  61. Marsha
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 05:52:57

    @hapax: I don't find it difficult to understand when a friend is speaking as his identity as the guy next door with the two obnoxious Labs, his medical authority as a physician, his SCA identity as a thirteenth-century warrior, his DnD character as a female Elf, his LARP identity as a robot assassin, etc.

    Am I too flippant if I interject here that I’d really like to meet this guy?

  62. Sparky
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 07:44:20

    I wouldn't support a ban because banning books leads to very bad places. But I would definitely support people who object criticising, spreading the word, organising against, drawing awareness and generally playing holy hell.

    I would also expect a responsible author – or a decent person – to consider the implications when they write a book that is heavily problematic.

    I don't think it's a matter of divorcing reality from fiction. Fictional accounts can and do affect people's views and they can certainly perpetuate stereotypes, prejudice and even violent bigotry. And that applies to everyone – not just kids and women, but to everyone reading any book.

    We don't have to believe fiction is real to be shaped by it, especially since the stereotypes of a marginalised group are so often the only story that is told – over and over. This not only shapes the prejudice of society around them – but it also shapes how marginalised bodies view themselves. It's very damaging – and, to the extent our society is saturated with it – toxic

    Exactly – I don't think ANYONE is advocating the banning of books, I think that;'s a straw man that can be discarded.

    But an author who doesn't see it as ethically necessary to be careful, sensitive, respectful and non-appropriative as possible when exploiting a marginalised body shamelessly – or a publisher who decides to white-wash a cover because ZOMG no-one buys books about blacks! – IS going to face a lot of fire and fury from the people they hurt – AND RIGHTLY SO.

    I think the debate is far more “should an author be immune to criticism and attack when their acts are offensive?” than “should offended people be able to ban books?”

    No, we don't expect authors of murder mysteries to have killed people etc – and NOR DO THE AUTHORS suggest they have. And that's different

    The issue of pseuds isn't about an author writing about something they have no experience of – it's about authors writing something they have no experience of THEN IMPLYING THEY HAVE. It isn't saying that someone can't write about medical dramas unless they're a doctor. They're free to write such books and more power to them – it's saying it would be wrong of them to write a medical drama and CALL THEMSELVES a doctor when they aren't.

  63. Christine Rimmer
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 08:21:17

    Sorry about the PC comment yesterday. That was beyond snippy.

    But as to an author taking a pseudonym because, say, she’s not a gay man, I see this as a push to get beyond the READER’S prejudices. And if the author doesn’t nail the world and the reality of those characters’ lives (well, I mean within the fantasy and popular fiction arena that is Romance), I think readers should call her on not doing the work to learn the world of the story, rather than the readers judging her because she took a psuedonym and implied she was someone she wasn’t. Authors often take psuedonyms in an effort to get readers who may have their minds too firmly made up to give them a chance.

  64. Sparky
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 08:50:30

    Except that pretending to be a gay man isn’t about overcoming prejudice. You cannot realistically say that the m/m romance genre is prejudiced against women – you really can’t.

    She is lying to people and deceiving them to try and get them to buy a product. She’s not doing it to avoid prejudice – she’s doing it to claim something she doesn’t have. Just the same as her putting “Dr.” before her name when writing a medical drama or picking a Native American name when writing about Native Americans. This isn’t to overcome reader prejudice, this is to claim authenticity she doesn’t have, to claim experiences she doesn’t have, to claim insight she doesn’t have – and that is only exacerbated by the fact she is choosing to tell the story of a marginalised group as a MEMBER of that marginalised group when she isn’t one.

  65. Christine Rimmer
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 09:01:55

    Sparky, well, I do think there is some prejudice against women writing m/m romance, a perception that they could just never “get” it. And I get why an author–and publishers–might want to subvert that perception, that’s all I’m saying.

  66. Deb
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 09:23:12

    @ Polly: “Does having a name mean that you have special knowledge/experience? No. But that doesn't stop the name from signifying special knowledge/experience.Does having a name mean that you have special knowledge/experience? No. But that doesn't stop the name from signifying special knowledge/experience.” But which body of reader is correct in their assumptions? Mine may be different from yours. Due to our own knowledge/experience, a name can mean / imply different things. What we perceive from the author’s name may in fact be incorrect. I may find a fellow reader’s assumptions not only incorrect but offensive as well. Profiling leads to significant problems for everyone.

    My opinions here: Marketing is and always has been, a manipulative game. The person/department, who owns control of the marketing package, bears the responsibility when the marketing package crosses a line. The reader can’t dictate responsibility. If the publishing house maintains control of the cover, it is the publisher’s responsibility to respond however it sees fit. If the reader is dissatisfied, he/she has a right to speak out, but is not entitled to whatever redress he/she may want. A reader ignorant of the contract between author and publisher may draw an inaccurate conclusion regarding the author or publisher. Is the reader entitled to knowledge of those terms? No. As long as a contract exists, the author and publisher have to abide by it, or challenge it’s terms. Again, that is between author and publisher. It would be up to an author to decide to continue on with a publisher when a new contract is being drawn.

    Again, With the sale of a book, I don’t feel a reader is entitled to anything more than the book itself.

  67. Sparky
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 09:46:09

    Can anyone “get” another’s life experience? Truly? That’s not prejudice – that’s authenticity

    However, we can hardly say that being female in the m/m genre is damaging to sales or profile

  68. Christine Rimmer
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 09:52:15

    Can anyone “get” another’s experience? Probably not. Which is why it’s called fiction.

  69. Beau
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 11:01:32

    @ Sparky

    When you are saying that a woman can’t write a man’s experience, I think it’s equivalent. In the beginning of this market (which maybe had it’s growth spurt what, 20 years ago?), there was cultural pressure to be a male, just as there was 40-50 years ago in Scifi. Some people may have been writing that long, some may view the writing “persona” that they have as male, some may have chosen pseudonyms because knowledge of what started as a part time job or hobby could negatively impact their RL in some way. An individual should have the right to identify themselves as they wish. While you may say that being female in the m/m genre is not damaging to sales, I would say it’s not damaging to sales *now.* There certainly has been a long tradition of slash fiction written by females and sold way back when, but I don’t think that’s what we are discussing here. To get back to other genres, The mystery/thriller genre still has an expectation of male authors being better and pseudonyms, but that doesn’t seem to trip your trigger.

  70. DSv
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 11:09:55

    @Moriah Jovan: Yeah, it hit me kind of hard, also. He was outed by his cousin in a journal article in the early 90’s.

  71. Sparky
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 11:42:10

    I don’t think anyone can truly know another’s experience – not really know it. they can write about it, they can research it, they can work through it and respect it – but truly know? You have to live an experience to know it. The only people who knows what it is to be a gay man is a gay man. The only people who know what it is to be a black woman are black women. That doesn’t mean others can’t write – or shouldn’t write – about these characters, far from it. But it means they WILL be writing the other

    That doesn’t mean you can’t write it – but it means that, no, you’re not coming from a place of first hand knowledge and implying that you are is deceptive.

    Of course people will use pseuds to protect their identity – pseuds are not inherently wrong. But there is a world of difference between a pseud used to protect the author and a pseud used to deceive. I don’t realistically believe that anyone here cannot see the difference, I really don’t.

    My parents didn’t name me Sparky – shockingly enough. But I use the pseud to protect my identity. However, my pseud makes no inaccurate claims about me and I have a bio that helps assuage any possible inaccurate implications. I use a pseud, but do

    I could call myself John Smith and write books about gay men. It’s not my name – but it’s a pseud that implies nothing about me that is not true.

    I could call myself John Smith and write books about women and their experiences – again it’s not my name, and I’m writing the other – but my psued makes no innaccurate claims and I wouldn’t find it problematic (albeit, my protrayals could be)

    Now, if I were to decide to call myself Jane Smith and produce books about women’s issues and a woman’s life and experience – then I am claiming an authenticity I do not have. My pseud is deceptive – ESPECIALLY if no “about the author” or bio of “Jane Smith” mentioned that, actually, Jane’s a guy.

  72. Heidi Cullinan
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 11:50:20

    Full disclosure: I’m an author of m/m (that’s “male/male” for the poster who asked) romances who publishes under her own name. That said, I have a few points I’d like to raise on the issue of pseudonyms and authorial identity.

    My house (Dreamspinner Press) is composed right now of just over 100 authors, and while I don’t know the exact number of male-to-female ratio, I know it’s closer to half than it isn’t. I also know our readership is evenly split male and female.

    But among those authors, there’s a wide array of identity that has nothing to do with marketing. Some of our authors are lesbian and some are transgendered. Some are married, some are not. Some are females using male names, and some are females using neutral initials. Some are gay men using neutral initials. Some people use their legal names, and some do not. As far as I know, I’m one of the few who do.

    I actually got the most heat to use a male pseudonym from gay men who said they wouldn’t want to read a male romance by a female; this was an attempt to influence my marketing, yes, but I got the sense too that it was for personal comfort as well. It felt friendlier to these men to read books that at least seemed to be written by men, even if they weren’t. And I think a lot of it boils down in a similar manner, no matter which way the argument is going: it may be partially about marketing, but it’s also about positioning. Sometimes that positioning is for the reader, but sometimes it’s for the author.

    Sexual identity is so hard to define. I can’t tell you why I am so at home in m/m, but I am. I’ve head it explained that this is some sort of psychology, or something, about how it’s my way of accessing my inner male, or how I wish I were male-‘honestly? I don’t know. I just know that I love it so much that even though I’m home today sick and am just now able to sit upright in a chair without passing out, right now I want to go work on my WIP. It just works for me. And yes, somehow it does feel like it’s about my sexual identity, but I can’t explain it. I am intellectually (and yes, often physically) attracted to gay men. Not because I think they’re marketable but because I find them fascinating. I think I write them so they don’t feel like a Them anymore. I think I write to know and to understand. I can’t explain why it works like that, but for me it does. And I also write m/m romances because it’s so open and free. For me, it feels like there are millions and millions of stories untold in this genre, each of them fresh and amazing to my mind. It’s invigorating. It’s enlightening work. If I can help pay down the credit card with my royalty statements? So much the better.

    So I’m willing to be generous in reasonings m/m authors give for using pseudonyms and neutral or male identities. Maybe it makes it more real for them. Maybe the writing for them is invigorating but also scary, and this feels like a mantle of protection. I do know that for some authors writing m/m accesses a personal masculinity they feel deeply, an identity which does not necessarily drive them to identify as transgendered but which feels heard and validated by the writing. And yes. I think some of it is commercial and possibly even inconsiderate from a moral standpoint and nothing more. But personally I’m willing to let karma take this one on.

    I do understand the sense on the part of some gay men of being co-opted and/or used. I appreciate their complaint, and I think it’s valid for discussion. But I think that’s the other part; it needs to be a discussion, because as in so many things, especially when sex is involved, it is or can be so, so much more than that.

  73. Kalen Hughes
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 12:24:20

    I, for example, am not white. If I were to publish a romance novel, I'd probably use a pseudonym in part because I think that there's an awful lot of assumptions mainstream readers make about a name that's obviously “ethnic,” and what those authors know or should be writing about. I don't want the burden of proof that comes with writing historical romance, say, with a clearly “ethnic” name.

    And said ethnic name may not even represent your ethnicity if you had crazy hippie parents, LOL! I'm half NA and half Caucasian and my “real” name happens to be African (from the Ibo in the Ivory Coast). For me it's about not putting something out there that might make it appear that I'm claiming to be something/someone I'm not. I create enough cogitative dissonance in my day to day life . . .

  74. Janine
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 14:52:42


    So it's OK for someone to pretend to be white or straight, but not OK for someone to pretend to be gay or a minority?

    I may be misunderstanding your position, but I don't understand why it's only “ethically dicey” in some cases.

    I’m not sure if this will clarify it for you, but whereas I am okay with using an English surname pseudonym, even though that is not my ethnicity, I would not feel okay using a Hispanic surname psuedonym, because then I would be co-opting someone else’s minority status. There is a distinction there in my mind.

    Similarly, if I were to learn that an author who goes by the name Ruth Goldberg and writes fiction about concentration camp survivors is really a WASP named Mary Wilson, I would be irritated at the very least. OTOH, it wouldn’t bother me at all if an author named Midori Yamamoto published regency romances under the name Jennifer Stone. I’d view it differently and if you can’t see the distinction then I don’t think I can explain it better than I have with this example.

  75. Polly
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 16:03:16

    Argh–I don’t have time for a proper response. So, briefly:

    @Christine Rimmer. Of course you can’t “get” another’s experience. Of course you don’t have to live everything you write about. Yes, that is why it’s fiction. But when your pseudonym or biography implies a relationship to the material that is not real, is the problem. We expect fiction within the pages, not in authorial claims. In the case of m/m, I’d say, go with a gender-neutral name. That way you’re not promising anything, and not claiming anything either. But I do recognize that sexuality is a fluid thing, and I actually have less problem with a woman using a masculine name or vice versa than some of the other pseudonym cases being discussed (though, and no one can know but the author, I suppose, I’d rather a woman who publishes with a masculine name or vice versa do it from a queer identity perspective than because of a marketing decision).

    @Kalen Hughes. Ha!

    @Janine. Exactly.

  76. Christine Rimmer
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 16:30:11

    This is getting like a Chris Rock routine. “Can a white man call a black man a n*****?” “Not exactly.”

    It also falls under the category “Nothing needs reforming so much as other people’s habits.”

    I still feel the author has a responsibility to the work, period. And there is no way for any reader to really know what that author knows–or doesn’t–about the experience she/he is portraying. So why the burning need to judge others on this?

    Maybe Mary Wilson has a single Jewish/American great-great-grandmother on her mother’s side. That makes her about as Jewish as I am–and I am, I have a Jewish relative several generations back. Mary feels sympathy for the plight of Jews in the holocaust. Though none of her extended family was involved in the holocaust, and all but that one great-great-granny are not even Jewish, she does her research on it and writes the book of her heart. And then she uses her great-great-grandmother’s last name as a psued, because it has meaning for her–and yeah, gives her credibility. How is she any more out of line that Midori Yamamoto who chooses a fake British-sounding name out of a hat so people will get past their prejudices and read her Regencies?

  77. Janine
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 17:46:56

    @Christine Rimmer: Mary Wilson having a Jewish ancestor whose name she uses changes the equation from the one in the scenario I described, and I’m not saying there aren’t also instances in which such choices become the lesser of two evils (see my post at #25), but unless I knew what the greater of the two evils was in this instance, there’s a good chance I’d feel doubtful that she was truly sensitive to the plight of Jews during the Holocaust. Speaking as someone whose relatives barely escaped the concentration camps, and whose grandmother was unable to even talk about how her sisters and parents were killed, I would wonder if Mary’s identification with Holocaust victims stemmed from true empathy, or from a desire to appropriate the suffering of others in order to serve her ego in some fashion.

    I see a world of difference in the case of a woman of Japanese ancestry writing regencies because the characters in those books are in a position of privilege, and the books are not about the minority experience.

    Again, if you can’t see the distinction, I’m not sure I can explain it any better.

  78. Anne Douglas
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 18:05:11

    This is the sticky wicket for me:

    OTOH, it wouldn't bother me at all if an author named Midori Yamamoto published regency romances under the name Jennifer Stone. I'd view it differently and if you can't see the distinction then I don't think I can explain it better than I have with this example

    Why does cultural appropriation NOT cut both ways? As someone said above, it’s not okay to choose a pseudonym that has the perception of a certain ‘minority’ culture, but it’s perfectly fine for them to do the opposite. (I’m leaving aside the action of assuming a total fictional persona).

    While I do see the big picture of ‘attempting to fit in’, I’m confused as to why flipping the coin (say a woman from Pakistan writing about life in middle America and using an Anglo name to sell it) is viewed as okay?

  79. Robin
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 18:37:39

    @Heidi Cullinan: I appreciate your perspective on this, I really do. And I think your comments, although running in somewhat the opposite direction to what I suggested in my post, confirm what so many here have indicated, namely that these issues are extremely complex, sensitive, and fraught with political, cultural, and individual identity implications.

    There are obviously myriad ways that writers relate to their work and to the process of finding a place for that work, and I can understand how the public authorial persona can not be so clear cut to the author him/herself. And I don’t take lightly your point about how an authorial persona can be self-affirming or self-legitimating in ways that are important to the author but not necessarily known to the readership.

    What disturbs me, though,(not about your comment but about the issues more generally) is that for the most part when this discussion comes up (although I am so grateful this has not been the case here) the issues are belittled, lampooned, and dismissed out of hand. And while I more or less understand the defensiveness, I’ve always found these responses thoughtless or insensitive, sometimes in ways that make me wonder how much respect the author has for his or her own work.

    So I guess that in terms of the pseudonym issue I would simply hope that someone who adopts an identity that to the outside world would come across as false and intentionally designed to capitalize off a historically marginalized group would be aware of and sensitive to the fact that some readers will find such a thing deceptive and offensive.

    It would be one thing, I think, if we were talking about writing a private diary or something like that. But when we’re talking about economic profit garnered from commercial art, readers may hold authors to a higher standard when it comes to the terms on which a book is marketed. Especially when the profit is perceived to be won by erasing or claiming a historically marginalized identity.

    When it comes to how books about historically marginalized and oppressed groups are sold, from cover images to pseuds to other uses of race, sexual orientation, etc., the stakes increase I think, not only in the eyes of readers, but also in terms of how we collectively regard, respect, and norm different racial, sexual, religious, class, cultural, etc. identities.

  80. Edie
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 18:47:19

    *waves to Anne*

    I think the main difference, well in my opinion, that the “white” m/s ‘experience’ is heavily documented, it’s story has been told a million and one times. Which kinda makes it the “common” experience, even if you are not ‘common’ yourself.
    There is also less room to stuff it up.

  81. Robin
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 18:55:03

    @Anne Douglas: I can’t answer for Janine, of course, but I do want to respond to this question because it seems pretty core.

    And in my opinion it comes down to power and privilege. The historical reality is that certain groups of people have traditionally had more social privilege. In the US, this would include white people, straight people, male people, Christian people. So if you have someone who has the privilege of any of these groups claiming identity in a group that has historically been disenfranchised, *primarily for the purpose of creating a sense of authenticity in order to sell a book*, it’s like being a commercial tourist in a world you’d otherwise have no interest belonging to. I mean, how many white Romance authors would trade places with AA Romance authors who have their books shelved separately? How many straight people who don’t regularly get harassed for their sexual orientation want to permanently trade places with gay people who are still harassed for that identity?

    People from these historically marginalized and oppressed groups don’t have the luxury of slipping in and out of social privilege (unless they can “pass,” which is a whole other issue), but those from majority groups can come and go as they please. To adopt these personae for the purpose of profit, without all the real life problems people from these groups might and do face, can easily be viewed as one more act of oppression.

    Likewise, when you’ve got a cover image that *erases* the race of your character because it is not the norm, the privileged race, for example, the deception is different in detail but continues to reassert white privilege and can be easily seen as an act of marginalization for the sole purpose of economic gain.

    In both cases, power and privilege are being used explicitly for profit, either by simulating or erasing an identity that has historically faced oppression, harassment, disenfranchisement, economic exploitation (slavery, farm workers, etc.).

  82. Janine
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 19:03:38

    @Anne Douglas: I would have to think more about the example you give to come to a conclusion on how I feel about it.

    But compare a Native American using an English pseudonym to write about Americans with European ancestry to an American with European ancestry writing about Native Americans under a Native American pseudonym. Do you honestly feel the two are equally insensitive?

    I feel there is a difference, for the reasons Janet/Robin has given. Americans of European ancestry pretty much ethnically cleansed Native Americans so for one to come along and appropriate from them in order to profit from what they have suffered… well, it would turn me off in way that the reverse would not.

  83. Anne Douglas
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 19:11:39

    Robin, I guess my issue is exploitation is exploitation no matter who’s doing it, and it rubs me the wrong way that it’s okay to ‘assume’ minority status – that is minority status to ‘you’ in the US, which is by no means the case elsewhere in the world – and it’s all fine and dandy to appropriate a larger cultural value to sell your books.

    If we want to nitpick, how on earth is this any different on a moral level than someone doing the opposite?

    I’m not saying manipulation doesn’t exist, I’m not saying race bias doesn’t exist and I’m not saying someone creating a total other cultural persona just to sell books is right either. But would you turn around and (this is hypothetical here, I have no clue as to your family make up) say to your natural white child “no you can’t do/say that it’s wrong” but then turn to your adopted other race child and say “it’s okay if YOU do that, because you are a repressed cultural minority”. I’d suggest no one here would.

    What is the white lie and what is just a lie? And when does the white lie become a lie? And really, at the end of the day, isn’t a white lie still just a straight out lie?

  84. Alla
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 19:12:58

    @Christine Rimmer:

    I am sure that if Mary Willson is a good writer and had done her research she could have written a great book about Jews during Holocaust, and if she has had that jewish relative I can even buy that she identifies as jew to some degree. But if she does not have any jewish relatives, then my question will be why a need to take jewish pseudonym in the first place?

    Why can’t she let her writing stand or fall on the strength of her writing indeed without adding a claim of authenticity?

    As I mentioned before I do not need m/m romance to be written by gay man to enjoy it, I had read and enjoyed wonderful romances written by women and men, but also I have read absolutely horrible ones written by writers claiming that they are men. I say claiming because I have no idea who they are in real life. These writers may have true first hand experiences of what does it mean to be gay men, but they as far as I am concerned have no writing talent to put it on paper, if that makes sense. I just want to clarify – I also read amazing romances written by gay men, I am just saying that to me writing talent takes precedent. So when for example I think about “Whistling in the Dark” by Tamara Allen as superb, wonderfully researched m/m romance, I do not need for her to be a man to enjoy the romance more. Her writing stands out and makes this book to be a gem in my collection. So if we go back to Mary Willson, why a need to add to her claim that the book is her book of the heart?

    I see that Janine replied below, I have similar experiences, my grandmother barely managed to escaped Natzis from Belorussia with some of her cousins and she run across the country, young woman who in a blink of an eye lost her mom, dad and half of her siblings, nieces, nephews, etc. If the older members of the family would not force others to evacuate, whole huge family would have been dead the next day, as it was Natzi killed half of the family.

    When a writer claims to be Jewish to me the possibility that she may have had at least family members who lived through this horror just automatically skyrockets and I don’t know, it just feels wrong.

    Again, of course I am only qualified to talk about this example, but I would imagine that this something what gay man may feel or other oppressed person when reading that the writer is pretending to be them to sell more books, maybe because reader would feel additional kinship with the writer besides feeling kingship with the book? I am definitely not explaining it well. I know this – if Mary Willson’s books is empathetic and well researched, there is a great chance that I will love it and I will love it no less if she is not taking Jewish pseudonym.

  85. Anne Douglas
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 19:29:29


    “But compare a Native American using an English pseudonym to write about Americans with European ancestry to an American with European ancestry writing about Native Americans under a Native American pseudonym. Do you honestly feel the two are equally insensitive?”

    If the NA author sat down and thought to him or herself ‘damn it, I’m going to use a very white-sounding Anglo name because it will make me more sales’ how, at the very bottom of it is it any different?

    Both authors have sat down and decided culturally appropriating a name will help them profit. For both of them, it’s about having those greenback to rub together.

    I also question some of the assumption that this is a world wide ‘white’ issue. There are very large chunks of the world where Anglo’s are the minority. Would this discussion be still at all relevant if we were talking about minority resident anglos in China assuming a chinese name to sell a book to the main cultural identity? Because by the current logic that is all fine and dandy (of course with the opposite Chinese author assuming a white name to sell to minority anglos in China is bad)…

  86. Laura Kinsale
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 19:56:55

    @Persephone Green:

    Whenever somebody starts worrying publicly about MY ethical and moral responsibilities, versus their own, I get very cynical very fast.

    It appears to me that the article is indeed very much about “what’s in the book,” ie, can I write a book about a character who is not like me in certain defined ways (who defines that?) and if I do, do I have to follow some particular rules about how I go about it.

    This blog is often pretty aggressive about pressing authors to toe certain lines that are defined by the bloggers. There’s an underlying threat here, and it’s fairly clear to any author: “We can shame you in public and people will harangue you and won’t buy your books. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.”

    That is certainly the right of the bloggers. My response as an author, however, is “publish and bedamned.”

    Persephone, if you want to know how I feel about writing, you can go here:

    Please, don’t buy my books if you don’t like what I write. Or even if you don’t like me as a person. I do not like censorship and this article sounds to me like the slippery slope to censorship; only certain people are allowed to say certain things under certain circumstances defined by other people.

    I write under a pseudonym and always have. I am a fiercely private person. For all anybody knows I hire models for author photos. (I’m using my dog for an author photo at the moment!) I could be from Mars.

    I also have no idea who the person is who wrote this blog post. They seem to post under Robin and Janet and Jane and who knows what else–they could be posting half the comments too, for all I know. I don’t know if they think they have any ethical obligations to the readers of this blog (or to authors for that matter) and I don’t spend my time worrying about it on their behalf.

    But I will respond to their ideas with my opinion, which is pretty strong in this case.

    The one thing I do hold myself to is that I always use Laura Kinsale when I post on the web in any book-related forum. I don’t make any anonymous posts. This keeps me honest in my own eyes.

    I assume this blog is about ideas and indeed about differing opinions. But that underlying threat is there–“Dear Author–Toe The Line. You’ve seen what we can do.”

    This time it’s what’s on the cover that becomes the author’s “ethical responsibility.” Next time it will be something else.

    That is the beginning of censorship. It is a constant threat, and it comes from many angles. Censorship doesn’t just come from outraged fanatics, it’s also low-grade chilling pressure that results in self-censorship. This post strikes me as the inching toward the latter.

    When I comment here, I stand behind what I say, because yes I do have a book on the shelf and something to lose, if sales count as something worth losing.

    I define my own ethical responsibilities, and I don’t define them by my sales numbers.

  87. Polly
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 20:12:35

    @Anne Douglas. I do think this discussion would look different if it were taking place outside of a white majority space. It’s not about taking Anglo names in general, but in taking Anglo names when writing for a predominantly Anglo mainstream culture. It’s definitely a question of relativity, and the relation of the mainstream to the minority. I, at least, would not have the reaction you cite as your gut reaction to the case of anglo writers in China–anglos writing under a Chinese pseudonym for a Chinese audience is a different matter than anglos writing under a Chinese pseudonym for an anglo audience.

    Yes, you’re right that the name issue can cut both ways, and both are an appropriation of sorts, but I do think there is a difference. For the case of historical romances or regencies, no one alive has experiential knowledge of the subject. No matter what your name, your name makes no claims as to your authenticity as someone with a special knowledge/experience of the subject matter (unless you want to make the argument that a white, Christian middle class life today is the same as a white, Christian aristocratic life two hundred years ago–which, as a historian, I find pretty unconvincing). In this case, an author’s name can make a reader less likely to pick up a book, but a “neutral” name (in this case read Anglo) promises nothing. It’s the equivalent of a gender neutral name of a woman writing m/m romance, to me.

  88. Janine
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 20:20:54

    @Anne Douglas:

    If the NA author sat down and thought to him or herself ‘damn it, I'm going to use a very white-sounding Anglo name because it will make me more sales' how, at the very bottom of it is it any different?

    Both authors have sat down and decided culturally appropriating a name will help them profit. For both of them, it's about having those greenback to rub together.

    I think we can just agree to disagree on that. IMO it is different because one author is profiting off of a history of suffering and oppression and the other is not. I do agree with your second point that circumstances matter and the operating assumption is that we are talking about a book published and marketed in the U.S.

  89. Janine
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 20:28:20

    @Laura Kinsale: Several of your books have a hallowed place on my keeper shelf and I am a huge fan of your writing, but honestly, I feel you are ascribing motives to Janet/Robin (whose real name is Robin and who only uses Janet because of a tradition that was established at DA before she joined, that we all use pen names beginning with the letter J) that she simply does not have.

    There has been just as much pressure on readers to toe the line in their internet posts as there has been on authors — I’ve seen more than one author rally their fans against a reader who dared to voice an opinion the author did not like. So I guess I would say that censorship is in the eye of the beholder, and shaming, a knife that cuts both ways.

  90. Polly
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 21:01:39

    @Laura Kinsale

    I find it fascinating what reads as an attempt at censorship to different people. What reads to me as a discussion about the baggage and consequences attendant on various authorial decisions, apparently reads as an order not to do x y or z to someone else. Ultimately, however loudly, frequently, or beautifully I express my opinions, I’ve never assumed that authors everywhere will follow what I have to say, or indeed, any of it. I may wish they would, but I’m all for autonomy and self-determination–theirs in choosing what to write, mine in choosing what to read.

    I think the key thing in this debate is that you are willing to stand behind your work and accept that people may love it/hate it/etc. I have no problem with “publish and bedamned.” In fact, I’ve never had a problem with your approach to most topics–when something in a novel of yours hasn’t worked for me, it hasn’t worked for reasons to do with my own story-sensibilities (and I say this as the happy owner and frequent re-reader of most of your books).

    But if this blog discussing this type of topic seems problematic to you, where’s the appropriate forum? Why shouldn’t this be a space to discuss potentially sensitive topics? I’m a wide reader, and I have a set of issues (including this one) that I appreciate the chance to think about and express my opinion on. Why is that discussion a threat?

  91. Robin
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 21:22:47

    @Anne Douglas: You know, I think it *is* exploitive to adopt any pseud merely for the purpose of selling books, and I know there are readers who have problems with that. I am at once more cynical about marketing and also more sympathetic to the myriad sound, even desirable, reasons people have to use pseuds to find every example equally objectionable.

    But the pseud issue is only part of a larger set of issues I’m trying to address here, all around the question of profiting off peoples who have been historically disenfranchised or oppressed. So yeah, I agree with you that the exploitation issue works in other cases, too, but I think the identity politics issues are of a unique and more problematic character.

  92. Jane
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 21:50:47

    No one blog post is an edict to do anything. It’s an invitation for discussion on a particular topic. I fail how to see a blog posts that discusses ethics and marketing can be seen as censorship in any way. I assume that the readers of Dear Author are smart and can make reasoned decisions on their own, reading a piece and determining if that piece makes sense to them. Readers are not a bunch of sheep that mindlessly follow one blog post and another. Witness the debate in this thread alone.

    And, for the record, we are not sock puppets and have always stood behind our individual comments and took responsibility for our own statements unlike the multitude of authors that we allow to post anonymously and under their own names.

  93. Robin
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 22:00:19

    @Laura Kinsale: I find it thoroughly inexplicable that a post questioning the ethics of using a false race or sexual orientation, merely for the purpose of selling books, is transformed to censorship in your eyes.

    That said, how about we make a deal, you and I: I won’t tell you how to write your books and you won’t tell me how to read them, melancholy or otherwise.

    I’m confident I can meet my end of that bargain.

  94. Edie
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 23:32:19

    Seriously DA and it’s readership you should all be ashamed of yourselves!
    How dare you treat romance novels as a commercial product, sold to the masses to make money, like movies, literature and media, by querying it's content and it's impact on society you are bringing it down to the same base level that those lesser things!
    How dare you all?
    Did you not know romance is above all that??
    And have you not realised all discussion is censorship?
    What is the world coming to? Next people will be querying the esteemed Vanity Fair's all white faces of Hollywood? The censorship will spread!!!

    Think of the children people! Think of the children!

  95. Lori
    Feb 03, 2010 @ 23:50:25

    I become tongue-tied with discussions like these because I hate to sound too Mary Poppins-ish or elementary but on the other hand…

    I’m a white, middle class raised, Jewish, single woman in her 50s. My brother is multi-married. My sister is a lesbian. My daughter is Chinese. I have a dear friend born female, now male. I have worked in an AIDs hospice and one of my closest friends is HIV+.

    What I know and what I’ve exerienced is more than the face of who I am. I assume the same of almost everyone I meet.

    When someone says *appropriating* an identity I question how any of us are to judge what somebody’s identity is. I work at a large hospital and if a patient stands before us with a full beard, a prominent Adam’s Apple and a bulge in the bulgy place and says that she’s a female, well, that patient gets registered as a woman.

    That isn’t to say that the bearded lady will be placed in a labor & delivery floor but rather it is not for us to judge or decide what lays inside another person’s skin. And the treating doctors will make the appropriate choices for treatment. But the first step to any encounter is acknowledging the person for who they say they are.

    My writing partner and I are working on a story where the heroines are in Greece. Neither of us has been to Greece, neither of us are Greek and neither of us has any Greek fetishes. (Thank God for Google!!) And when we question if we’re insane, we remind ourselves that it’s fiction and we’re doing the best we can.

    The book is fiction. If I chose to identify myself as Greek, then who is someone else to question my self identity?

    (So this might ramble a bit here…)

    I just finished reading eat pray love by Elizabeth Gilbert and she tells a story of a friend who is a therapist and asked to work with refugees. Her friend was afraid having never experienced anything close to what these people experienced. However, once she started working with them she discovered that their concerns and issues were the same as anybody else’s. They worried about lovers, family, whether they were loved.

    I’m also reminded of a post not dissimilar to this awhile ago on this blog which led to a small group of writers trying to out a male writer as a female. There was no proof for the claims and it really came down to what’s your motive for doing this. It was uncomfortable at the time because (and this is my opinion only) it was nobody’s business.

    To say that a writer has appropriated an identity is ascribing motives that you can’t guarantee. If an author is silent, whether about identity or cover art, again, motives are suggested. When do we stop and realize that when we’re talking about fiction, the story is doing the talking.

    And if a woman writer chose to write under a masculine pen name and did an excellent job describing a male experience, is the work lessened because the writer was a woman? Are we cheated as readers because she made a choice we can only assume the reasons for?

    Sorry for the ramble. I just get nervous when we talk about minority experience and the evil appropriating straight white writers when living the life I’ve lived has shown me that people are all multi-faceted and unknown in all their dimensions. What you might consider an appropriation might be an experience or a knowledge that you could never even guess.

  96. Robin
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 00:35:18

    Thinking a lot about this, I guess I’m at a point where I think that fiction does not necessarily equal false, but not everything made up is mere fiction.

    Fiction can resonate as “real” in a very deep way to readers, even if neither the author nor the reader has direct experience with what’s being related in a book. That’s why I think there’s a difference between what an author writes and how a book is marketed.

    So let me flip the situation for a second: Say as an author you rely on someone who presents themselves as an expert in something you’re writing — a member of the military, for example. And you gather much information from this person, including a great deal of personal anecdotes and knowledge, integrate that into your books, begin giving this person public acknowledgment for his contributions to your work, and bring him along on signings to meet readers. He starts getting fan mail himself, and you are so grateful for his personal and intellectual experience and how you feel it has added authenticity to your work.

    Then you find out that this person is not who he says he is at all. He has no experience in the military and has been lying to you the whole time about who and what he is, intentionally falsifying his identity and background. In the meantime, he has become a very public part of your book marketing process, and you have been offering him to readers as the “real deal.”

    Would you feel betrayed? Would you feel like what he did was wrong, even if readers had adored all those books, many of the things he told you were not necessarily wrong, and his reasons for lying were not intended to inflict harm on you or your readers (and assuming he is consciously lying and not experiencing delusions)?

    Some of you might recognize some of the details of this story, because something quite like it happened to a very well-known author. But even if you don’t, would the authors commenting here really think what this guy did was perfectly okay? That you and your readers would have no reason to feel that your trust was betrayed?

  97. SonomaLass
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 01:00:02

    @Laura Kinsale: “the slippery slope towards censorship”? Really? I don’t see anyone here dictating right and wrong; I see discussion wherein people have different opinions and where there’s a gray area worth exploring between the extremes where almost everyone can agree “that’s wrong” or “that’s okay.” I’ve been following the discussion with interest, because these are complex and sensitive issues. More thinking and talking about them has to be a good thing, in my experience.

    Frankly, it gets a little old that practically every time one of the DA reviewers opens up an interesting controversial topic, someone comes ranting in about how DA is trying to control the industry or punish authors or kiss publishers’ asses or whatever the latest bullshit.

    In my experience, all the DA writers and most of the blog’s readers are intelligent, reasonable people. Giving them the benefit of the doubt as to motivation seems to me a reasonable approach, especially on their own turf. I don’t always agree with Jane, or Janet/Robin, or Joan/Dr. Sarah, but they consistently open up questions that seem worthwhile to me as a reader.

  98. Stumbling Over Chaos :: Chaos re-butts… :)
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 02:05:45

    […] Janet at Dear Author wondered whether authors have ethical responsibilities beyond their books. […]

  99. Kim in Hawaii
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 02:50:57

    Janet asked, “So back to the original question: should authors be held to a higher responsibility beyond the book when they choose to appropriate the experience of historically marginalized peoples?”

    My answer would mirror Ms. Kinsale's – fiction writers have a responsibility to themselves (and their contract), but not to the public. The public can buy the book or not.

    We don't expect other “entertainers” – athletes, actors, and singers – to engage in ethical conduct outside their performance. These entertainers, at times, appropriate experiences outside of their own.
    Certainly we don't expect politicians, who seek to serve others outside of their own race/gender/ethnicity/social/economic experience, to engage in ethical behavior “off the clock”. In fact, it is a strong American sentiment that public official have the right to a private life.

    Surely readers can afford fiction writers the same courtesy. I believe Janet answered her own question, “I do think that fiction can bridge the chasm of difference between people of different experiences and backgrounds, promoting understanding, compassion, and edification. Even those books any of us might find insulting, offensive, unworthy, whatever, have a basic right of expressive existence in the vast realm we refer to as creative freedom.”

    I also believe we allow public figures to have private lives because our society has come to understand that each of us have different expectations on personal behavior. While it is necessary to have some standards for law and order, it is not necessary for reading and writing fictional work. Let us not backtrack in the gains we have achieved in freedom of speech, appreciation for arts, and understanding among people different than ourselves.

  100. Sparky
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 07:54:51

    On greater duty with marginalised groups:
    A few here have asked why we need to be more careful appropriating a marginalised body then a dominant, privileged body

    Well, I look at my capacious book shelves now (hey, anyone know how to fit book shelves on a ceiling?) and I think about how many heterosexual, cis gendered, white, male characters there are on the shelves. I boggle because I can't even count. So I try to think about what they do…

    They're the hero, they're the villain. They're good, they're bad, they're honest, they're liars, they're brave, they're cowards. They're smart, they're foolish, they're funny, they're boring. They're saints and they are sinners. They're soldiers and priests and wizards and bankers and lawyers and strippers, they're singers and traders. They drive space ships and ride horses, they play games and fight wars, they colonise and are enslaved they rule and they rebel, they lead and they follow

    They're everywhere and they do everything. Their story is not only told a thousand times, but it's told in a thousand different ways. When someone adds another story about them it just adds to a huge diversity that is already out there – every characterisation is just one of a huge body of characterisations.

    No-one looks at the portrayal – or even the real life actions – of a straight, white, cis-gendered man and says “all of them act that way.” No-one looks at the stereotype and says “all whites are like that. All straights are like that.”

    The same cannot be said about the marginalised. Marginalised people aren't found in every book and when they are they are so often adjutants to the main character – sidekicks and love interests, foils and friends, but parts and walk ons, advisors and followers. Their story isn't told – they're a part of someone else's story.

    So when someone writes about the marginalised, they are telling the story of one whose story is rarely told. They are presenting a character that rarely gets centre stage. And that portrayal matters – because it won't be absorbed by and be part of a great mass of characterisations that already exist, it won't be one story among millions, one characterisation lost in a sea, it won't be one facet of a group that is portrayed as so diverse it defies stereotyping. It will be one of few and, if it follows the same shallow stereotypes, one of few that follow the same story, the same assumptions and the same message.

    You've also got to consider how marginalised people are used an appropriated by the privileged. There's a lot of arrogance in privilege – and assumption that people, their stories, their lives, their culture, etc can be just taken and used any which way. That's part of what annoys me by the whole “I'm only making shit up!” and the “it's only fiction!” argument – yeah to them it is. But it actually means something to the people they're using. And it's hard to divorce from that history of casual use, abuse and assumption

    And this is also why it's important that the cover reflect that, yes, this is one of those stories. This is a story where a woman with darker skin gets her story told. This is a story where she gets to be centre stage – because these books are rare – and by camouflaging it it not only hides this one and makes it harder for those looking to find – but it also sends the message that these stories SHOULD be rare. That they SHOULDN'T be centre stage – because if black women could be centre stage and that was ok – why why why does the cover have to pretend there isn’t as black woman in the book?


    What disturbs me, though,(not about your comment but about the issues more generally) is that for the most part when this discussion comes up (although I am so grateful this has not been the case here) the issues are belittled, lampooned, and dismissed out of hand. And while I more or less understand the defensiveness, I've always found these responses thoughtless or insensitive, sometimes in ways that make me wonder how much respect the author has for his or her own work.

    Very much this. I've, frankly, backed up on the whole debate recently because of the extremely strong feeling that the vast majority of the people involved just didn't give a damn at all. There was a lot of silencing, a lot of derailing, a lot of “what about meeee and my hurt feelings!” and minimal to zero effort to try and address what was raised.

    We're also seeing that in the constant claims of “censorship” we see and the linked “you’re telling me what to write!” It's a straw man. People are not trying to ban books, really. Not in this thread, not in any thread I've seen. But people are saying “if you do this, you're causing harm. If you do this, it isn't ethical. If you do this, you're being privileged. If you do this, you're showing no respect, you're being offensive.” That's not censorship, that's simple reaction and criticism. And if criticism = censorship then wow, the publishing industry's just going to collapse!

  101. Sparky
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 08:08:40

    I thought we very much did judge entertainers who behaved unethically. We condemn – and rightfully so – white actors who dress up in blackface. Surely you’ve seen the conversation about the the racial themes in Avatar? Or the white-washing of The Last Airbender?

    Politicians are certainly judged on what they say and do. And that includes their private lives

    I’m confused why you keep referring to private lives – I shouldn’t think an author’s works and characterisations and professional persona would really be considered “private lives”

  102. Susanna Kearsley
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 08:33:07

    @Sparky: You wrote, “So when someone writes about the marginalised, they are telling the story of one whose story is rarely told. They are presenting a character that rarely gets centre stage. And that portrayal matters.”

    This. You’ve stated this so beautifully, I think I may just copy it and keep it by my desk as a reminder.

    Thank you.

  103. hapax
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 09:37:49

    SonomaLass said

    In my experience, all the DA writers and most of the blog's readers are intelligent, reasonable people. Giving them the benefit of the doubt as to motivation seems to me a reasonable approach, especially on their own turf.

    I echo this sentiment 100%. And in return, can we not afford the same courtesy to authors?

    I see an awful lot of assumptions being made here about *why* authors choose the pseudonyms they choose, and it’s all pretty nasty-minded: “raking in the bucks”, “claiming authenticity they do not possess”, “appropriating someone else’s identity.”

    For all we know, a pseudonym could be chosen because (like Kasey Michaels’ “Cleo Dooley”) the author liked the way all the “o”s looked on the cover!

    Sometimes (as in the sad case of Forrest Carter) we DO have evidence as to motivation, and it ain’t pretty. In such cases, ethical judgments can be made.

    But in the vast majority of cases, we simply do not know what goes behind the selection of a pseudonym. We DO know what’s in the story itself. Shouldn’t we base our judgments on the latter?

  104. Jane
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 09:38:40

    @Kim in Hawaii We actually do expect entertainers to engage in ethical conduct outside their own performance. Probably the most notable is/was Michael Vick. There was GM or manager of a major league baseball team that was found to have lied about military service and he was terminated.

    Politicians are often held up to super ethical standards. The governor of South Carolina’s career is said to be over because of his affair with the Argentine mistress. John Edwards and Elliott Spitzer are two others who I can think of offhand whose extracurricular activities have gotten them into hot water.

    I’m fairly certain that if anyone of those politicians would have presented themselves as having racial backgrounds that they did not have or by claiming authenticity that they did not have, they would be excoriated.

    In fact, doesn’t the idea of understanding among people different than ourselves encompass being respectful of the other experience that one is appropriating for commercial gain?

  105. hapax
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 09:39:32

    Or, y’know, what Lori said so beautifully @95.

    (sheepishly works on reading comprehension)

  106. Janine
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 09:43:15

    @Kim in Hawaii:

    My answer would mirror Ms. Kinsale's – fiction writers have a responsibility to themselves (and their contract), but not to the public. The public can buy the book or not.

    My answer to that would be that if we don’t expect ethical conduct from others (be they entertainers, politicians, or our next door neighbor), it is because they’ve disappointed us in the past, and not because they don’t have ethical and moral responsibilities. IMO all human beings have ethical and moral responsibilities, and being an author doesn’t give one a free pass. I also fail to see how a civil discussion of whether those responsibilities exist and what they might be is censorship.

  107. hapax
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 09:43:31

    I'm fairly certain that if anyone of those politicians would have presented themselves as having racial backgrounds that they did not have or by claiming authenticity that they did not have, they would be excoriated

    Yeah. For example, no Connecticut-raised prep-school cheerleader who was afraid of horses would dare to try and sell himself as a manly, brush-clearin’, tough-talkin’ Texas cowboy, would he?

    Nor would an retired B-movie actor try to pass off his military movie roles as actual combat experience.

    Nope, people would NEVER support that!

  108. mythicagirl
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 09:43:44


    I second Susanna about your statement, and I have to add your whole post is one I’d like to copy and share. I’m really enjoying this thoughtful discussion.

  109. Christine Rimmer
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 11:11:00

    Jane wrote: In fact, doesn't the idea of understanding among people different than ourselves encompass being respectful of the other experience that one is appropriating for commercial gain?

    If that’s so, why isn’t Midori Yamamoto more respectful of the experience of being an upper-crust British person when she appropriates that identity? Is it that only people who have suffered and are mariginalized deserve to be treated with what some seem to define as respect? Who decides who is worthy of respect? As Sparky explains it, people who have very few literary representations of themselves as protagonists are marginalized and every representation of them as a main character, as the character the story is about, becomes more important. Thus, they deserve more respect than, say,a WASP. (Excellent comment, BTW, Sparky)

    But then, is everyone else fair game? Somebody above said a lie is a lie. And it is. But the thing is, if one is sympathetic to the lie, many think that makes the lie okay. I think it’s a lie, period.

    But, since I tend to be judgmental, I try to watch the things I make judgments on. And whether or not someone is ethically wrong in what circumstance to take a psuedonym is just something way too gray to make a judgment on.

    It’s like people who love to play the victim and put me in charge of their emotions–their pain, their suffering due to being misunderstood…or marginalized. My DH is always joking about that. I try to put how *I* feel on him, to blame him because he “made” me mad. His reply: “Hey, if you’re going to put me in charge of your emotions, how about your lust? Put me in charge of that.”

    I personally would never take a psuedonym in order to pretend I was from some group of which I wasn’t. I just wouldn’t do that. I take reponsibility for my actions and pretending I have a certain crediblity I don’t possess is a responsibility I’m not willing to take. However, that doesn’t mean I would judge another out of hand, for doing it. Maybe that other would have a better reason for doing it than I would.

  110. Robin
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 11:29:36

    @hapax: I think you’ve EXACTLY expressed the power of white privilege with those examples.

    As for assumptions being made about authors choosing pseuds, I have several responses. First, the pseud issue is just a small part of a very widespread practice of using race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and culture to sell books.

    And yes, I expect that people who write books and then have them professionally published are, indeed, trying to make money. That may not be the whole of their intent, but how many authors don’t want to sell their professionally published book? They are certainly placing their work with publishers whose sole purpose is to make a profit.

    Honestly, the most aggressive and hostile comments I’ve seen in this thread have been directed at readers, not authors. Why it’s so horrible to ask people to think about the ethics of using another race, sexual orientation, etc. *as part of the marketing of a commercial art product* seems strange and extraordinarily problematic to me. It’s not like we’ve suggested that the ethics and morals police take these authors to ethics and morals jail.

    If there’s a perception that horrible assumptions about authors are being made here, I don’t think it’s by the vast majority of us who are trying to keep this as an open, viable, port of inquiry about these issues. And, you know, if authors feel uncomfortable with these topics, then I’d suggest that’s even more reason for thoughtful consideration of how those to whom they’re trying to sell their books might feel about these off-page choices. Because it is a nerve-wracking conversation, and I think it should be — that there’s a fair amount of discomfort to me just shows how much we need to be having it. Especially when authors seem very desirous of having their books widely read, reviewed, and recommended. The flip side of that marketing is that readers may not like everything they’re being sold or how it’s being sold.


    I'm confused why you keep referring to private lives – I shouldn't think an author's works and characterisations and professional persona would really be considered “private lives”

    Thank you. This was my response, too — we are not talking about the private lives of authors here, but the public choices made as part of book marketing and the public persona of the author as it relates to the marketing of a book. I don’t, frankly, give a flip about an author’s private life, and for the most part, I don’t want to know what an author does in his/her free time.

    The other night, someone reminded me of Anne Perry’s case (, the woman who writes crime fiction and who is a convicted murderer herself (matricide). The whole story came out with the release of the film “Heavenly Creatures,” where before it had been kept private by Perry and her publisher. And I don’t begrudge her desire to keep that private at all, even though the story was obviously big enough to catalyze a film. I don’t know whether the truth being let out has amplified or diminished her success (or had no effect), but for the most part I find it an incredible blessing that we don’t know too much about who authors are in their private lives. There are times when the one or two dimensions I see online feels like too much. ;D

  111. Robin
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 12:05:40

    @Christine Rimmer: I don’t know if you’re a US author or not, but I work in US higher ed, and I can tell you that any individual person would be literally crushed under the weight of research that has been done over many decades on how educational opportunities are distributed and what the effects of that distribution are on different groups of people.

    First, education is still the number one predictor of social mobility, and the educational achievement of kids is influenced primarily by the educational achievement of their parents.

    One of the most powerful reasons for this is that income is directly proportionate to educational level reached (a bachelor’s degree translates to something like a million more dollars earned over a lifetime than a high school diploma, for example). And people with lower income levels tend to live in areas where the schools are weakest, in part because schools are funded in part from local property taxes, so less affluent areas often have less money to spend on schools (especially in the middle ranges). And one of the first things that get cut are college prep courses (I highly recommend Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life for a great discussion of how educational tracking works, too).

    Now this gets even more problematic because educational opportunity is largely distributed along lines of SES and race, which often intersect (poorer areas often have higher populations of underrepresented minority students). So over time, students from lower SES areas have access to fewer college prep courses, which in turn makes them ineligible for many four year higher ed institutions. And most often these groups of students are OVERrepresented by underrepresented minority students.

    So are you going to tell me that it’s because these kids are making themselves victims and putting other people in charge of their feelings? Other people ARE in charge of many things in the lives of these kids, in powerful, lasting, material ways.

    I know this is not your intention, but to equate historical cycles of social disenfranchisement with “playing the victim” comes across to me as extraordinarily belittling and not even accurate, historically or socially.

    I get what you’re saying about individuals feeling victimized and wallowing in that, but I think it’s really problematic to suggest that groups of people who have, indeed, been victimized by a majority population, are just ‘playing the victim.’

    I mean, if a battered woman came to you and asked for help getting out of her abusive relationship, would you simply tell her to stop being a victim? You know, experts spent 25 years researching women in DV, certain there was some pattern to women who were abused. Funny thing was, they never found it – women of every class, profession, culture, confidence level, educational achievement, etc. were included. So they turned their attention to the batterers, and voila, patterns galore emerged. But we are so used to blaming women for being raped and battered, it took a quarter of a century to get the clue that it wasn’t us, at all.

    Likewise, I think we tend to blame the poor for being poor and for underrepresented minorities for being overrepresented in lower SES communities. And yeah, we all have a certain number of choices and many individuals have overcome horrific conditions and over time we see progress being made to true social and political and economic equity. But those gains have not occurred without intervention, without an intentional effort to break historical cycles of disenfranchisement.

    I think it’s great that you and your husband can joke about feeling victimized, but not everyone has that luxury, unfortunately.

  112. Polly
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 12:37:44

    @Christine Rimmer
    “If that's so, why isn't Midori Yamamoto more respectful of the experience of being an upper-crust British person when she appropriates that identity? Is it that only people who have suffered and are mariginalized deserve to be treated with what some seem to define as respect?”

    I really think the distance between author and subject is what’s key here. There is no one alive who has lived as an upper-crust British person of the early 19th century. Midori Yamamoto and Jennifer Stone are equally separated from that lived experience. And since it’s a pretty well documented experience, both have an equal opportunity to learn about and imagine that experience. I don’t see how a pseudonym in this case counts as a cultural appropriation (again, unless someone wants to argue that the human experience is so unchangeable over time that someone can inherit how their eight times removed grandparents understood their world, assuming of course, that their eight times removed grandparents were upper-crust British people). Contemporary or recent history is different in that there are people who lived that experience, and thus some people have special access to that experience. In other words, what is being claimed/what can be claimed, varies by situation.

    I am in no way, shape, or form saying that authors have to only write what they have lived. Write what you want. Imagine what you want. Even publish under whatever name you want–unless it becomes public knowledge, how will I ever know? Let the artistic imagination roam free. But all the situations that have come up in this discussion aren’t the same, and I don’t think it’s as simple as a lie is a lie is a lie. If that’s the case, wouldn’t any pseudonym be wrong all the time? And if that’s what you feel, please let me know, because that’s not how I’ve been reading your comments.

  113. Jackie Barbosa
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 12:39:10

    When choosing my pen name, I gave absolutely no thought to what ethnic identity it might suggest. I chose it because it uses parts of my real name and I thought it had a dashing, pirate-y sound to it.

    I guess what concerns me in this conversation is that people are imputing facts not in evidence from certain choices an author makes. This isn’t to say that in some cases, the motive isn’t patent and morally suspect. It’s just to say that, as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, a pseudonym is sometimes just a name.

  114. Polly
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 12:48:08

    @Jackie Barbosa

    Ha! I’m actually reminded of a bit from Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, where the protagonist wrote romances under “a more thrusting name.”

  115. Christine Rimmer
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 12:50:37

    I do see your point, Robin. And it’s well taken. But I’m thinking almost everyone who has contributed to this discussion is capable of rising above their victimhood. I can see that my example was ill-conceived. Still, I think we have to be careful not to let any pendulum just swing wildly in the opposite direction and call that change for the better.

    Yes, I live in the continental USA and I’m a citizen. A WASP citizen and a woman.

    For much longer than you and I can remember, women have been victimized by abusive men. Finally, the courts have bestirred themselves and tried to fix the problem. Now, a woman can claim that her husband physically abused her when he didn’t, just because she decides he’s an SOB who deserves whatever he gets and she is willing to lie about what actually happened. She can go to a judge–with no evidence but her word on the matter–and get a Victim’s Protective Order against that man. The man then must leave the house he shares with her and his children. He is cast out. He cannot see his children or that woman for at least two weeks until he gets his day in court–in front of the same judge who believed the woman in the first place. If the VPO stays in place, he still cannot go near her or his (and her) own home where she lives with their children for whatever period of time (usually two to three years) that the laws of that state decree. If he does go near her, she can have him arrested and get him into REAL trouble with the law. Even if he never approaches her, just with the VPO, he now has the kind of blot on his record that can keep him from being a teacher–and will definitely mean he can’t go into law enforcement. I just don’t see that as change for the better. I see that as the pendulum swinging wildly in the opposite direction.

    I think we have to watch for that. And that fact that no one here will bust to the idea that if it’s wrong for a woman to take a male psuedonym because she writes m/m erotica, then it’s wrong for Midori Yamamoto to take one so *she* can pretend she’s someone she’s not.

  116. Robin
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 13:04:11

    @Christine Rimmer: Thank you for your response.

    As to your example about DV cases, all I can tell you is that the situation varies widely and drastically depending on the state and the local jurisdiction. There are still many, many, many judges and courts where DV is viewed as a nuisance and where batterers (more than 85% of whom are male) are NOT given any jail time or even criminally prosecuted. Countless women who have received protective orders are still routinely stalked, harassed, beaten, and even killed. And women who do kill their abuses *outside the moment in which a pure self-defense case can be mounted* are jailed for life (check out the Free Battered Women project for stats in CA alone). And in many states, women are being arrested as readily as men upon DV calls. And when there are children involved, they often get taken right into CPS custody, which remains a substantial deterrent to calling the police in the first place. Statistically speaking, how many women do you think lie about DV as compared to how many women never even report?

    The one area of DV law I take issue with is in those jurisdictions where the woman does not have the option of dropping the case. IMO that runs very close to paternalism on the part of the police and judicial systems, and as much as I understand not wanting women to back out of prosecuting their male partners out of fear, the reality is that many, many more women are likely to do that than to falsely pursue prosecution. In so many of these cases, the male partner is still the primary income source, and it can be extraordinarily difficult for the woman left behind to support herself and her children, especially if she’s been habitually battered.

  117. Polly
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 13:05:36

    @Christine Rimmer

    And maybe I should add, that I, personally, would feel uncomfortable writing a contemporary romance about middle class white people and publishing it under an Anglo name because I would be uncomfortable with the claims the name would make about my relationship to the subject matter. I wouldn’t mind writing about contemporary middle class white people, but I wouldn’t do it under a name that implied I was a contemporary middle class white person. So no, the discomfort with certain pseudonyms doesn’t only go one way.

  118. Robin
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 13:05:50

    Also, am I the only one whose comment perpetually shows up as loading when, in fact, it has already posted to the blog?

  119. Robin
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 13:13:35

    Also, am I the only one whose comment perpetually shows up as loading when, in fact, it has already posted to the blog?@Jackie Barbosa: I understand why authors have focused on this pseud issue, but that’s only one part of this issue. Let’s look at the cover issue for a moment.

    I don’t automatically assume that Bloomsbury is racist when they whitewash a cover, nor do I think that of any other publisher that engages in the same practice. But the motive there, IMO, becomes secondary to the effect, namely that there is a deception, a falsification, in the marketing of a product. And that the falsification is centered on the erasing a non-white image in favor of a white(r) image. That is sigificant no matter what the conscious motive, IMO, in ways that affect how readers are sold books, how we receive them, how we regard them, and how society more generally continues to treat these issues. And yes, I think how authors choose to market their own work is part of that, too, even if they may see their own motives as consciously benign.

    If this conversation accomplishes one thing, perhaps it will be that authors, when making these choices about how to sell their books with their own names, will not simply say ‘I never thought about it.’ That might be a game changer right there.

  120. hapax
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 13:18:25

    @Robin, I see your point, and believe you me, there have been more times than I’d like when I’ve had to “check my privilege.”

    But I think that you’re not addressing MY point. Almost every example of deceptive pseudonyms that have been mentioned on this thread are purely hypothetical: “Well, IF an author chose to take THIS name for THAT reason, boy-howdy that would be awful!”

    The only actual cases that have come up are the very problematic use of male (or neutral, which is a whole nother kettle of worms) pseudonyms in m/m romance, which is said to “imply” that the female author is a gay male.

    Aside from the fact that I would argue that this is a matter of reader inference rather than author implication (with the concomitant shift of responsibility), several commenters have suggested that this is a historical artifact from a time when female authors in this genre faced real and genuine discrimination, similar to that faced historically by women sf and thriller writers. I don’t know enough about the history of m/m romance to feel comfortable discussing the ethics of these pseudonyms and what they are meant to convey.

    But I *do* know enough about the history of women in sf to argue that conclusions about motivations are much more complex than people like to think. For example, the well known case of James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Bradley Sheldon) is often presented as an archetypical “marketing”-type pseudonym, chosen simply because female sf writers couldn’t get published; but later research has discovered that Tiptree / Sheldon’s relationship with sexuality, gender, and her various writing “personas” was a much more complicated and fluid issue.

  121. Christine Rimmer
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 13:26:45

    Robin, my comments show up as posted–*and* still loading, until I close my browser and return.

    And all you wrote above about battered women is spot on. I just…the extrapolation seems to be, so what if some man gets screwed, too? Let him find out what women have been going through for centuries. And I don’t think that’s helpful.

    Polly, good then. Thank you.

  122. Robin
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 14:04:53

    @hapax: Actually, I did give a few examples of false authorial personae in my post, and DS offered the Little Tree example, as well.

    I think I addressed the larger issues in your comment in my response to Jackie Barbosa, but if not, let me know. One of the reasons I’m not calling out authors in the post is because I’ve found it tends to degenerate conversation into a battle over the author him/herself. But also, as I’ve said a few times, to me the pseud issue is only one of the larger pattern of personal identity exploitation as part of the book marketing process. It just so happens that the pseud issue is one where authors are making the initial choice. But let me restate that it’s not the pseud per se that I think is problematic — it’s an insistent attempt to present an alternative identity as the face of the author. Sparky offered a specific example of that in his comments, as well.

    @Christine Rimmer: Yeah, I’m having the same issue with my comments; thanks for letting me know.

    I just…the extrapolation seems to be, so what if some man gets screwed, too? Let him find out what women have been going through for centuries.

    Who’s making that leap? I have not said nor implied anything of the sort. What I objected to in your comment was your assertion that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. IMO and IME studying DV and DV law, the pendulum is still firmly on the side of female victims being stigmatized and punished (by having their kids taken away, for example) NOT the male batterers.

    All systems have flaws. Innocent people are convicted of crimes. It’s horrible and one of the reasons I wouldn’t ever want to work in criminal law. Interestingly, race and SES plays a role in that, too, and I think you can guess the direction in which that most often plays.

    But in any case, ITA with you that we should never get to the point where we are okay with sacrificing innocent people for the sake of the system. But at the same time, I don’t think we can dismiss the imbalances in the DV system, which do not currently favor the victim, by focusing on the cases where a lie might land someone in jail. I hate that charges of rape can be falsely made, too, but that doesn’t change the reality that women still bear the social and legal stigma of those charges far more cruelly than men. I mean, there are still states that do not recognize marital rape — that boggles my mind, even as I understand well the conditions that have allowed that to persist.

  123. Robin
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 14:25:42

    @hapax: One more thing, by way of clarification: I can see an argument being made by a publisher that portraying a white person on a book with a non-white protagonist is a way of getting readers to keep from rejecting the book on its face, so to speak, out of unconscious or even conscious prejudice.

    But does that make the practice right?

    I think some of us are saying no, it doesn’t. It doesn’t make the publishers horrible racist people, either, but for some of us, the practice itself is problematic, even if the aim is to bypass prejudice (because you still have the element of false advertising and, hey, what about the fact that the substance of the book is about a person of color).

    First of all, I have yet to see any comprehensive (or non-comprehensive) research that says readers won’t buy books with people of color represented on the covers (and I think the separate shelving issue in Romance exacerbates this notion, because the books themselves are marginalized and thus sold to readers as “other” — an inverted example of what is essentially part of a whole). I also know there are many women who write m/m under female names or pseuds.

    But even if that were not the case, you still, IMO, have to deal with the power issues around majority and minority positions, as well as the way those dynamics influence everything from reader responses to casual perceptions of otherness and inclusion. In the same way I don’t buy the assertion that readers in general turned off by non-white books, I also don’t buy that they will only read certain books if they feel the author has “been there” via an artificially constructed public persona. And I certainly don’t think playing into those stereotypes remedies the perceived underlying problems, beyond the erasure and appropriation aspects in play.

  124. Maili
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 14:49:43

    @Jackie Barbosa:

    It's just to say that, as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, a pseudonym is sometimes just a name.

    It’s not about just a pseudonym. Let me present two examples and why I was fine with one but not with the other one:

    Author A and Author B write Scottish historical romance novels.

    Author A’s pen name is Janet McDonald.
    Author b’s pen name is Aislynn McKee.

    [Note: I made up those names for this post]

    Janet McDonald’s web site has a biography that openly acknowledges her usual pen name is Jane Farlane, she was born and raised in the US, hasn’t yet visited Scotland, and she adores all things Scottish including men in kilts.

    Aislynn McKee’s biography clearly states she was born in Scotland, has two homes – one in the US and one in Scotland; her grandfather was a well-respected Scottish historian, and she adores all things Scottish including men in kilts.

    In theory, McKee knows more about Scotland than McDonald so it’s easy to assume her books would have a ‘better’ representation or portrayal of Scotland and its people than Janet McDonald’s books may have.

    It still doesn’t mean Janet McDonald’s books shouldn’t be respected or taken seriously.It’s Janet’s writing skills and research alone that decide it all for her. McKee merely has an edge over McDonald’s books in terms of ‘authenticity’.

    But what if McKee’s books, articles (in form of blog posts) and her online responses clearly show she knows zip about what she’s supposed to know? If you ask her about inconsistencies or incorrect ‘facts’ she used in her blog posts or books, she’d try to hide by offering excuses or simply ignore your question.

    How do we suppose to take this? Accept it as part of a ‘marketing/branding’ plan? I don’t think so. I don’t like it when some authors do this. I feel this way because to me, they deceive their readers. Readers – like me – have no reason to question or doubt authors, so for an author to take advantage of this? It’s morally repulsive.

    I respect and support SHR authors – like Janet McDonald – who are upfront about their pen names and backgrounds, a lot than those who knowingly deceive readers for the sake of book sales. Or whatever reasons they have for doing it in the first place.

    If an author doesn’t want readers to know her background in case it’d affect the ‘authenticity’ of her stories, use the ‘lying by omission’ clause.

    But honestly, it’s better to just let her writing do the talking (and let readers vote with their money), rather than fabricating her background and names – just to get that sense of ‘authenticity’.

    I mean, in spite of my bitching and whining about misconceptions and mistakes in Gabaldon’s Outlander, she IS a good researcher (well, mostly), storyteller and more importantly for me, honest.

    She was upfront about the fact she hadn’t visited Scotland when she wrote Outlander, for instance. She’s never tried to deceive her readers for the sake of her books, and I respect her for that.

  125. Janine
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 15:00:10


    I echo this sentiment 100%. And in return, can we not afford the same courtesy to authors?

    I see an awful lot of assumptions being made here about *why* authors choose the pseudonyms they choose, and it's all pretty nasty-minded: “raking in the bucks”, “claiming authenticity they do not possess”, “appropriating someone else's identity.”

    For all we know, a pseudonym could be chosen because (like Kasey Michaels' “Cleo Dooley”) the author liked the way all the “o”s looked on the cover!

    Sometimes (as in the sad case of Forrest Carter) we DO have evidence as to motivation, and it ain't pretty. In such cases, ethical judgments can be made.

    But in the vast majority of cases, we simply do not know what goes behind the selection of a pseudonym. We DO know what's in the story itself. Shouldn't we base our judgments on the latter?

    I don’t see any assumptions being made about authors. Hypothetical examples are being used to discuss and explore how we would all feel about those types of situations. IMO it goes without saying that there may be other considerations that go into choosing a pseudonym.

    But since you are bringing it up, I will use myself as an example. My main reason for wanting to use a pseudonym should I get published is that I am protective of my privacy. It does not have anything to do with ethnicity since were I to use my real name I would have a choice between my maiden name (which people misspell on a regular basis and which sounds Jewish, but isn’t truly indicative of my ethnicity within that subgroup, since my grandfather changed it when he was young), my grandfather’s surname at his birth (accurately indicative of the majority of my ethnicity [I am a mutt], but not a name I have ever used, plus it’s even harder to try and spell or pronounce), or my married name (WASP, so not at all indicative of my ethnicity, but very easy to pronounce and spell).

    All these choices would be equally available to me. And yet, of those three, my maiden name probably appeals to me most, and I think I would have chosen to use it, if it hadn’t been for the privacy issue. But since I am concerned about privacy and do have to choose a pseudonym to protect my privacy, it makes more sense to choose a surname that is easy to spell and pronounce, and one that will sound good with “Janine” since I am already known under this name in the romance community.

    @Christine Rimmmer,

    I have no more problem with a British writer named Jennifer Stone who lives in Japan and writes historical fiction for a Japanese audience under the name Midori Yamamoto than I do with the reverse example that I gave before. It is not about victimizing WASPs (my husband is one and I love him dearly) but about my belief that trading on the suffering of others who are already marginalized just doesn’t feel like a good thing to me. Which is not to say that there aren’t circumstances that would make it the lesser of evils, as I said before, nor to say that English surnames should be appropriated with absolutely no thought and for no reason other than profit.

    I am going to try to make this my last post on the subject because I have a guest staying with me and need to give my attention to that.

  126. hapax
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 15:33:16

    @Robin — I specifically did not address the whitewashing cover issue, because I have no desire to defend it. It’s dishonest, deceptive, insulting to the reader, the author, and the story.

    I looked for examples of specific real-life problematic author pseudonymns in the various posts (and in Sparky’s OP) and didn’t see them, except for the Forrest Carter one, which I addressed. Of course, this is a lo-o-ong thread, and I’m sorry if I missed examples.

    But let me restate that it's not the pseud per se that I think is problematic -‘ it's an insistent attempt to present an alternative identity as the face of the author. Sparky offered a specific example of that in his comments, as well.

    Once again, I think the issue of author “persona” is a lot more complicated than a matter of marketing. Okay, sometimes it very well may be just that simple; but I feel very uncomfortable when the discussion almost always turns to issues of “authenticity” and “appropriation” that are very very difficult to justify without doing an in-depth examination of an author’s psyche and life experience that I don’t think are any of my business.

  127. Jackie Barbosa
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 17:01:51

    @Maili: I absolutely agree that the scenario you present is different from the use of a pen name without any apparent obfuscation/invention of a fictional persona to stand behind it.

    That said, I think it’s interesting that you’re assuming it’s the author who makes the false claims to authenticity who’ll be the one to “do it wrong.” What if the authors in question were interchangeably good, or if the author with the false bio actually produced the more accurate work?

    I’m not attempting to defend this sort of practice–I don’t like it because it smacks to me of desperation and deceit–but I do wonder how much readers actually CARE about who the author is, where she was born, and what her life experience is, so long as they find her books enjoyable and satisfying. Especially if it’s fiction as opposed to non-fiction or memoir. Provided nothing in the story suggests that the falsified biography is anything but accurate, it becomes a bit of a non-issue, doesn’t it? If you don’t have any reason to suspect the author’s bio isn’t true, there’s nothing about it to bother you.

    Just as an example, my bio mentions that I have an MA in Classics from the University of Chicago. In some of my stories, I use Greek and Latin poetry (in translation) and/or make references to Classical mythology and literature (as do a lot of authors who don’t have my educational background). If at some point in the future, you discovered that I’d manufactured that master’s degree, would you care? Would it materially change your enjoyment of my work (which you might not enjoy anyway, but let’s set that aside for the moment, lol)? Maybe it would, I really don’t know. For myself, I suppose I’d be a disappointed to find out that an author was claiming a degree she hadn’t actually earned, but if I liked her books, it probably wouldn’t affect my choice of whether to continue to buy and read them.

    I know this isn’t exactly the sort of thing Robin was addressing in her post, but it’s an interesting question to me–how much DO readers really care about an author’s claims to knowledge and experience and how much do they just care about a good book?

  128. Rowan McBride
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 18:31:09


    We actually do expect entertainers to engage in ethical conduct outside their own performance. Probably the most notable is/was Michael Vick. There was GM or manager of a major league baseball team that was found to have lied about military service and he was terminated.

    Politicians are often held up to super ethical standards. The governor of South Carolina's career is said to be over because of his affair with the Argentine mistress. John Edwards and Elliott Spitzer are two others who I can think of offhand whose extracurricular activities have gotten them into hot water.

    I'm not sure I agree with these analogies. Didn't Michael Vick just win a courage award? And if Gov. Sanford lose his office as a result of his affair, then doesn’t the deputy governor (a man who has compared free lunches for low-income children to feeding strays and encouraging their breeding) step in?

    I don't think we hold our entertainers, politicians, or even our civil rights leaders to that high a standard. Mel Gibson gets arrested for a DUI, makes anti-Semitic remarks to a Jewish police officer, but he's got a new movie coming out. Members of congress get caught sending nigger jokes about the President and apologize for sending the emails to “the wrong list” and still get to serve “our” interests. Martin Luther King, Jr. cheated on his wife.

    Orson Scott Card is a bigot, but arguably the core message of “Ender's Game” is tolerance and forgiveness. Norman Mailer was high on drugs while he stabbed his wife. Yeats won a Nobel prize and was a big fan of fascism. Hellman once wore white for Stalin (well, technically because of, but the point is she liked him a lot).

    I always have mixed feelings in these waters. On one hand we want our heroes, advocates, our storytellers to be perfect, or-‘and the very least-‘good people. But when they're not, do we separate the work from the person? And what happens if you've cherished a story since you were a child and find out that parts of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” had to be rewritten because they were so racist?

    I'm an adult now. Do I try to shift gears and teach myself to not like the story I know?

    My apologies. I might be derailing here. We're talking about public figures who actively pretend to be something they're not. Although it goes deeper than that, since King was a man of God and as such presented a face to the public that implied he would always be faithful to his wife. We're talking about writers who put lies about themselves onto paper and present them as fact. But it goes deeper than that as well, since most of Hellman's biography is made up. We're talking about the willful and deceptive appropriation of someone else's culture/race/experience for profit. While all of the above are bad, only the last point is the core of this thread.

    But…I think my question is the same. Do we ever separate the work from the person? And if so, when? Do we stop studying the works of Carl Jung because he not only shut many of his own friends out of the Pyschoanalytical Association, he designed clothing for the Jews to set them apart? Do we watch Gene Wilder's performance in the first movie rendition of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and not acknowledge who wrote the story? Do we boycott those books by authors with “very telling” gender neutral names?

    Murky waters. Most people get caught in them over the course of their lives. I've never been able to see my way out. I don't have an answer.

    — Rowan
    Note: Info on Mailer, Yeats, Hellman, and Jung was obtained from “Literary Lives” by Edward Sorel.

  129. Robin
    Feb 04, 2010 @ 18:47:27

    @Rowan McBride: I would actually argue that so many of the things done in the process of marketing a book make it that much harder for the reader to separate the author from her work. From the way cover photos are sometimes shot to make the author look a certain way (was it Robert Parker who was shot in a trench with the dog who was in his series?) or the bio stocked with information that suggests the author has a background in the area of their writing (John Grisham, for example), I think publishers and authors are looking for ways to connect readers more personally to the books, via the author.

    Some Harlequin lines have those “dear reader” letters at the beginning, in which the author often offers a personal anecdote or provides the “inspiration” for the story told. There have been several Rom authors who have dressed similarly to their heroines (Rebecca Brandywine?). I get that marketing is manipulative and IMO there are greater and lesser degrees. But when there’s some truth to the marketing, as manipulative as it may be, at least they’re taking something that’s already there and building on it. Still, though, in terms of your question about separating work from author, I think that’s been made increasingly difficult to do the more *authors as brands* are being sold to readers right along with their books.

  130. Christine Rimmer
    Feb 05, 2010 @ 08:21:34

    Well, this has been interesting. Very. I think I said all I really had to say a number of comments up, but I’ve been sticking it out because of respect for the discourse.

    As hapax has said so well, we just don’t know and will never know what goes on in an author’s mind and psyche when s/he chooses a psuedonym. In the end, the book itself is what we have to judge by.

  131. Rowan Larke
    Feb 05, 2010 @ 15:37:11

    I had to think through some of this when I chose to write as Rowan Larke, which is quite obviously (I think) not my real name. I wanted something that would hint at the dark and often magical themes my books explore. I snagged a stock photo of a 20-something (not a face shot, just back and jean-clad butt) And I debated using that to represent myself, and writing my blog as if I was just some unmarried chick with no kids and no dog…And I decided I couldn’t because, for me, it felt dishonest.

    I’m working on a book now…a historical fantasy based on Ancient Egypt. By necessity, the characters are of markedly different racial makeups from myself. I worried.
    Could I, a chick so white she glows in the dark, write a compelling history for the characters I’ve chosen?
    The only reason I decided yes was the fact that I’m creating my own ethnicities and races to keep with the fantasy setting…but more than that:
    what mattered were their very human situations, emotions, and experiences.

    I think that’s the crux of the argument, isn’t it? That we writers look at the people we are writing, regardless of race, gender, etc. and portray them in all the complexity of human-ness that we would use to describe ourselves?

    That said, I never once considered using a name that suggests Egyptian/African ancestry to publish it, because *for me* that’d be wrong. (In fact, I’ll be using my own first name, and in all likelihood, Rowan as my last name simply because people who know me on groups and forums know my real first name and have tacked on Rowan as they try to embrace my pen name.)

    I know this comment has a lot of “I” in it…mostly because I can’t dictate what other people do. I can only speak to the choices I have made and why. By the same token, I hate to ascribe motives to other people for making the choices THEY have made.

    For me, when dealing with other authors… when a pseudonym goes beyond being a name and becomes a persona, it’s gone too far. I feel duped. As a reader, as a fellow author, and in a few cases, as a friend.

  132. dick
    Feb 05, 2010 @ 16:42:03

    @Robin: I might question the ethics of an author, but I’d forgive him/her if the book were good enough and leave to her/him or a court or public onus the ethics of the matter. Enjoyment of the product, I think, can override a great number of faults in the ethics of the author. I think many forms, such as satire, might fade away if the author of say “A Modest Proposal” had an ethical obligation to reveal, in any way except the way he wrote it, that he was being ironic.

    The only thing I can think of in which I think an author has an ethical or moral obligation is to let buyers know when they re-title and re-issue old books.

  133. Tweets that mention Do authors have ethical responsibilities beyond the book? | Dear Author: Romance Novel Reviews, Industry News, and Commentary --
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  134. Persephone Green
    Feb 07, 2010 @ 12:55:19

    @Laura Kinsale: Thank you for clarifying. I wasn’t sure to whom your responses were addressed, and that is clearer now. I appreciate your candor and your direct response, regardless of whether I agree with you or not – I suspect we will not see eye to eye on this, but that happens a lot! I haven’t read your link as I just found this page again and the comment reply never made it to my inbox, so I’m just going to read it now.

    In any case, thank you for taking the time to elucidate your opinion.

  135. Christine Rimmer
    Feb 08, 2010 @ 09:18:57

    Okay, I said I’d shut up. But here I am again.

    Dick’s comment had me thinking of an example from way back when. My dear friend Vilma was furious over the song Short People by Randy Newman. It’s a song of total irony and I always thought it was so funny.

    “Short people got no reason to live
    They got little hands
    Little eyes
    They walk around
    Tellin’ great big lies”
    and so on…

    My friend, Vilma–btw, Jewish and her dad was a communist who lost his job during the McCarthy era–was all over me for thinking the song was funny. I was like, Vilma chill (okay we didn’t say chill back then. But you get my drift) Vilma, no one is going to think he means it. Everyone sees the humor.

    Vilma lectured me that no, everyone doesn’t see the humor and they *don’t* get it and it will only give them a chance to hate short people.

    Vilma, whom I to this day consider brilliant and subtle and fascinating and never boring, definitely felt that writers and entertainers had an obligation to consider the possible societal ramifications of their work. In the end, we had to agree to disagree.

  136. Sparky
    Feb 11, 2010 @ 08:46:44

    @mythicagirl @susanna
    Thank you

    @Christiane Rimmer
    It's not that everyone else is fair game per se, it's that the damage of the portrayal is so so so much less. In fact, the representation of a dominant body as opposed to a marginalised one. An upper crust British person is really not going to be hurt by Midori Yamamoto’s portrayal – the harm is negligible to the point of non-existence. It is a matter of respect – but part of that is recognition of harm, of impact and of context.

    I don't buy the idea that we put people in charge of our emotions. It strikes me as a silencing technique. We do not have control of our own emotions. We can control how we react and whether we act on them but not how we feel. If someone hurts us, we hurt. Now we CAN make THEM feel better by PRETENDING it doesn't hurt – but that doesn't mean they haven't hurt us. It means we're just trying to deal with the hurt and absolve them for responsibility for hurting us. When we say “don't put me in charge of your emotions” what we mean is “I don't have to consider whether I'm hurting you or not. And if I do hurt you, you have to pretend I haven’t rather than bother me with the pain I caused.” It's a “suck up and deal” argument. It's very siumilar to the arguments of people who use gross slurs and them complain about “pcism” when people call them on it. That's self-absorbed arrogant and rather callous I feel.

    Other people DO affect our emotions. They DO hurt us. They DO cause us pain. Yes, someone can make me mad. Sure, I can pretend they didn't, sure, I can suppress it, sure I don't have to act on it. But, yes, their words/actions created an emotional response. Just as someone can make me sad, make me scared or make me hurt. As a matter of basic courtesy more than anything else, I'd expect my fellow people to take reasonable steps to cause as little pain to others as is reasonably possible.

    I'd also like to call into question the idea that a good or non-malicious intent absolves someone of doing something problematic. I remember someone saying in one post about someone who throws rocks off a bridge and someone who accidentally knocks a rock off a bridge – both are clearly very different i terms of culpability, but to the person walking under the bridge who gets hit by the rock, the result is much the same.

    So an author may choose a deceptive pseudonym for entirely innocent reasons – but the fact that it is innocently chosen doesn't change that it is misleading. Just as an author can write a grossly offensive portrayal without realising they've stepped into a mine field of stereotyping. The lack of malicious intent does not mean they can utterly deny the damage caused – and doesn't mean they shouldn't try to minimise that harm or correct it where possible (nor does it mean they shouldn't have checked and researched before hand to ensure they weren't so mis-informed to cause the harm in the first place). And this is especially the case when the claim of ignorance/non-malicious intent is either of dubious credibility or when it's something they should have known and could have realised with very little effort

    Innocent motives can only go so far.

  137. Romance Reader
    Feb 18, 2010 @ 17:50:48

    I am curious what Janet, the author of the original post, gained from the various comments. Did they answer her question, do authors have an ethical responsibility beyond their books?

    The comments forced me to consider my own ethical responsibility in society, not just as a reader:

    – respect the culture, experience, and thoughts of others no matter the race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

    From the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights,,

    Article One: All human being are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in spirit of brotherhood.

    – support that all people have the right to freedom of speech and privacy

    Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

    – refrain from making judgments about each other because judgments created “marginalized people” in the first place.

    As we celebrate Black History month, let us not forget Dr. King's wise words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. Perhaps romance can help us stamp out injustice and celebrate the spirit of brotherhood.

  138. Robin/Janet
    Feb 19, 2010 @ 19:14:47

    @Romance Reader: I’m not ignoring your comment and will respond with my overall response to the conversations here this weekend. I still need to organize my thoughts a little bit.

  139. Sexuality and Same-Sex Romance: Placeholders, Power Dynamics, and the P-word « Read React Review
    Aug 11, 2010 @ 11:31:35

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