A female author conducted an experiment, sending queries to 50 agents as herself, and 50 agents under a male pseudonym. You can read it here.
What she found was really disturbing: 2 agents asked her as female for the whole manuscript; 17 agents asked her as male for the same manuscript. Why was it suddenly better or more interesting if the author was male? Why did the writing stop being ‘lyrical’ and start being compelling? Why was the narrative more engaging if the pen that wrote it was wielded by a man?
We’re all guilty of unconscious bias at times, I’m not saying we’re not. I remember being surprised when I discovered author Robin Hobb was a woman, so I’m as much a perpetrator as I am a victim of it. But it does worry me. My writing style is gritty, my settings are often blood-soaked, my characters get bits of themselves chopped off. They swear, they kill, they screw, they make mistakes, they die, they’re cowards, they’re heroes, they’re self-centred idiots. They’re people.
So my question is, do agents read my name and then my synopsis and think: Nah, she won’t deliver on what she promises. It’ll just end up being a love story or some other female stereotype.
And yes, there is love in my writing. People fall in love, out of love, make love. They do it during the middle of a war for survival when, frankly, love is the best antidote for horror and terror. But not all of them.
But should this discredit me? And if so, someone needs to have a word with Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie and Myke Cole and Peter Brett and Tom Pollock, all modern male authors who all unashamedly have love and relationships within their novels of war, intrigue, torture and death. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. And there’s Tim Willocks’ The Religion. That’s a love story set during the 16th century Turkish siege of Malta. So is his novel Green River Rising, about a Texas prison riot.
And so, here’s a scene for you. Note: it includes swearing. And the beginnings of love:
‘You’re not just anything, Crys Tailorson,’ Ash said, changing the feel of the conversation with a sentence. There was something there, something he couldn’t identify, but he felt himself blush, refused to answer. He wondered where Dom was, felt a flare of guilt. Shouldn’t’ve left him.
‘There’ll be lots of people having sex tonight,’ Ash mused eventually and Crys grunted. Not me, with my unlucky eyes. Fucking the night away between two battles’s one thing, but you want a chance of bastard living and folk don’t think they’ll get that with me. Crys flicked a twig into the edge of the fire. Maudlin tonight.
‘People celebrating they’re still alive, remembering why they’re fighting, being with who they’re fighting for.’
‘No women in the Rank. Soldiers’ll just be getting drunk.’ He poked at the fire with a stick. ‘No fucking for them.’
‘Not all men need women for loving,’ Ash murmured and Crys swivelled on his heels, face twisting with outrage and embarrassment. ‘Want to remember why you’re fighting?’ Ash said, his hand on Crys’ foot.
‘What? What the fuck? That’s, that’s illegal,’ Crys hissed, his eyes narrow. His hand was on his belt, near his dagger. Was this what all that interest had been leading to? Fucking pervert.
Ash tipped his head back and laughed, the sound swallowed by the trees. ‘Illegal? Says who?’
‘King Rastoth,’ Crys said in icy tones, ‘the man we’re fighting this war for.’ He shifted his foot so that Ash’s hand fell away and glared at the red coals, folding his hands into his armpits. This was outrageous. He’d go behind the wall, find Bort and get let in. That’s what he’d do.
‘I’m not fighting for the king. I couldn’t give a fuck about him. We’re fighting for our kin, for the man in the Rank next to us. The Dancer. And anyway, the king’s laws don’t often reach us out in the west. Why do you think they call us savages?’ Ash ran a tanned hand through his brown curls and leaned forward slightly, trying to see Crys’s face. Crys turned away. ‘And besides, what harm in two people loving each other when they both might be dead tomorrow? But if you don’t like me -’
‘It isn’t that,’ Crys interrupted and then blushed scarlet. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.
‘Then what harm?’ Ash repeated, his eyes soft and hungry in a way that made Crys’s belly tighten. No one had ever looked at him like that. No one. Not the whores, not the girl in Three Beeches who’d been prepared to marry him before he joined up. No one. Crys could feel his pulse pounding through his chest, almost rocking him on his heels. Incessant. Insistent.
‘I won’t brag of it, Crys. Not that anyone would care; but if you don’t want anyone to know, we won’t tell anyone.’
‘It’s just … I’ve never…’ Crys tried, but found he couldn’t form words. Ash’s eyes were pools and he wanted to drown in them. He couldn’t look away, couldn’t put voice to feelings he realised had been there all his life. What are you thinking? What are you doing? Get up and walk away, you fucking fool. You’ll be court-martialled, maybe even executed. Leave.
One corner of Ash’s mouth lifted in gentle mockery of a smile. ‘Exactly, Crys. You’ve never. And seeing as we might both die tomorrow…’ he let the words hang and then stood and held out his hand. It was a simple gesture and one that would be easy to ignore. Crys took it and rose to his feet. He laced their fingers together, their hands the same size, both of them calloused, both strong. Both with blood beneath the nails. Fuck the king, fuck the law and fuck the Rank. This wasn’t wrong. This was so right it hurt.
Chest tight, tears in his throat. ‘Where are we going?’
‘Somewhere private. Somewhere quiet. If you want?’ Crys nodded, breathing hard, and Ash squeezed his hand in reassurance. ‘Come on, then, I’ve got a scrape set up.’