My other half

A typographical slip gave Lois S. Bibbings an authorial sex change, and while she pondered textual 'gender reassignment', her alter ego made off with her kudos. Still, she can't help liking the roguish Louis

September 1, 2011

As I write, a shady figure casts a sideways glance over my shoulder, cigarette-holder poised before his lips, above which a perfect pencil moustache twitches and eyes twinkle with unashamed loucheness.

By appearance and habits, Louis S. Bibbings is very much a '90s man - the 1890s - with a penchant for absinthe and aestheticism, among other things. When at large, he invariably dresses as if for dinner, with a precise deconstructed formality (bow tie at ease, top button undone), his style a timely reminder that scholars may still be able to afford a little eccentricity, not to say fun.

It goes without saying that the text I'm writing would hardly be worth Louis' attention, were it not for the fact that he, along with his oeuvre, is its subject. Who, then, is Louis and what precisely did he write? Louis is, I suppose, my alter ego, my sidekick, my invisible friend. And although he was not my creation, I must confess, Louis is a man of whom I'm becoming increasingly fond. But this is skipping ahead in the story. In order to know Louis (if one really can), we need to return to his accidental beginnings.

Louis made his first appearance on 21 March this year when the journal Gender and History published an online review of my book Telling Tales about Men: Conceptions of Conscientious Objectors to Military Service during the Great War. His existence was subsequently confirmed by the print issue. Written by Daniel Conway of Loughborough University, the review was lovely and, at first glance, I was delighted. However, being unusually organised for once (advanced marking avoidance), a few days later I decided to add the review to my CV. It was then that I noticed that a "u" had mistakenly been inserted into my first name: Lois had been usurped by Louis.

My initial reaction was a mix of amusement and concern - along with the conviction that this mistake had to be corrected: Louis had to go. A key part of my response, and one that was increasingly to prey upon my mind, was that I had been inadvertently gender-reassigned in the textual world. That this had happened in a gender journal was...paradoxical. As a result, according to the review, my book had been authored by a man. Despite rejecting gender binaries (whether by nature and/or nurture) in life and work, I suddenly had a strong desire to assert that I was - at that point at least - a woman. This was, in part, a personal thing, but it was simultaneously intimately intertwined with my research.

I had actually spent some time considering whether to gender my name on the cover of Telling Tales. Should I be L.S. or Lois S. Unsurprisingly, Louis was never in the running. When I embarked on a career in academia I favoured L.S., but latterly I had taken a deliberate decision to be Lois, deciding that I wanted to be read as a woman writer. A re-examination of this approach came about with this book because it was something of a departure from my previous work, being destined for a history series rather than my native social sciences and, more particularly, legal genre. A change of identity might or might not have been in order. In addition, Telling Tales was a book not only about men, but also about a supposedly male preserve - the military.

On the one hand, I pondered with friends and colleagues as to whether sporting a female first name might be important. Presenting this as a book about men written by a woman (or, as one academic described me, "a non-male person") might, we thought, spark interest and could challenge some preconceptions about gender and writing. On the other, we wondered whether indicating the femaleness of the author on the cover might prejudice some potential readers against taking a closer look. In the end, I decided that the fact that Telling Tales was authored by a woman was crucial to its take on gender.

There is, of course, nothing new in a female author carefully considering how she will present herself in relation to her work. Female writers have long been deliberately (although not necessarily enthusiastically or willingly) gender-neutralising their names or adopting male noms de plume, most often in order to ensure that a work is taken seriously. For example, the Bronte sisters wrote as Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell. George Eliot was Mary Ann Evans. James Tiptree, Jr. was viewed as camouflage by Alice Sheldon (but she also had a lot of fun with him and his textual interactions with other male science-fiction writers). More recently, Joanne Rowling agreed to appear as J.K. on the first Harry Potter book. The decision was made on her publisher's advice and reflected a feeling that boys were less likely to read books written by women.

Taking a broader view of the reception of female authors and their texts, there is also a long history of what the late Joanna Russ, a professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle, labels "the suppression of women's writing". In her brilliantly witty 1983 guide, How to Suppress Women's Writing, she draws on examples of literature produced by women over the past few centuries, focusing on texts written in English in Europe and the US. Among other things, Russ demonstrates and unpicks the ways in which women's authorship has been denied or undermined by those who claim that it was not the author's work or that it was produced with male assistance (a well-known example of this denial of agency being Mary Shelley's Frankenstein).

Russ also depicts the contradictory tendencies to belittle women's writing as being limited to inconsequential, domestic and, therefore, female subjects, and to criticise it as unseemly, masculine or, in some other respect, the wrong thing to write. So, "doing it like a dude" is apparently no safer a strategy than sticking to the stuff of fluffy femininity when it comes to seeking acceptance and recognition. Alternatively, she shows that, if a woman's work is accepted as having merit, it is often categorised as an aberration, a one-off that could not be sustained. In the context of this history, my own position (having the shadowy figure of a certain Louis at my shoulder) took on a distinctly troubling complexion. What if, for instance, he (a mere typo) were taken to be the real author - or if I were to be seen as having received his help?

For me, this background had made it all the more important to appear as Lois. A risky approach, perhaps, if the gender of the author is still perceived to sometimes make a difference to the readership and reception of a work. But this is not to say that neutering a female author's name might not also be a worthwhile strategy at times, especially if there is the opportunity to subsequently reveal the gender and thereby confound assumptions and expectations about female (and male) writing.

The men who write under a gender-neutral or female pseudonym might similarly be said to destabilise stereotypes. But it's also different - the major distinction being that literary men, along with their texts, have not been subjected to the same dismissal and denigration (by men and women) as female authors. Both the reasons for their adopting a literary disguise and the effect of their doing so tend to differ.

Take the case of prolific Mills & Boon author Gill Sanderson, who used a pen name because he felt that a female author would be more accepted in this field. Once a reader with firm views on what men and women should, can and do write discovers that Gill is actually Roger, there is perhaps a moment of surprise that a man could convincingly produce this particular type of (supposedly) womanly fiction. The realisation may conceivably be accompanied by a dawning sense that perhaps there is no clear distinction between female and male writing. There may even be a sense of celebration that a man can appreciate and produce romance fiction.

However, it is also possible that such a man as Roger may be disparaged because of his gender; why, it might be asked, would a man choose to write what are generally assumed (given the tendency to suppress or undermine women's writing) to be particularly feminine and, therefore, especially trivial texts? Alternatively, his maleness could be seen as confirmation that literature written specifically for and by women is less weighty because of the ease with which a man has replicated it.

All this makes it all the more interesting (as well as annoying and disturbing) that, even before Louis appeared on the scene, some readers have assumed that I am - or at least that the author of Telling Tales is - a man. As far as I can gather, this masculation seems to come from a possible unfamiliarity with the name, a supposition that it is a different spelling of Louis and/or an assumption that such a book must have been written by a man; because I apparently write in the masculine (whatever that might mean), I must be a dude. So it seems that for a few readers out there, Telling Tales will always have been written by a man, whether they know about Louis or not. While some female authors might, I suppose, take this presumption of maleness as a compliment, this was not precisely how it struck me.

Alongside these thoughts, I had more mundanely career-focused worries about Louis. Namely, that anyone looking for information about my work would not find the review, as at this stage searching online for my name did not result in a hit. This sort of thing might have serious implications in terms of promotion, applying for jobs and, dare I say it, demonstrating impact. It was also a worry in the context of the forthcoming research excellence framework. This is because "significance", one of the three key criteria for gauging the quality of outputs, might take into account the citation of a work and the extent to which it has been reviewed. In these uncertain times, such concerns were not to be taken lightly.

Having said this, it would only be fair to admit that vying with any sense of irritation and worry about being made into a man was an appreciation of this farcical state of affairs. Despite my best efforts to appear female, here I was unintentionally masquerading - and actually passing - as male. And (crazy as it might seem) doing it like a dude was not at all difficult. Besides this, I was quite relishing the liminal experience of being able to be Lois/Louis. In short, all this gender confusion was kinda fun.

With all this in mind, however, the need for remedial action took precedence and so I decided that it would be wise to come out. I sent a brief email to the journal's editors explaining the situation and expressing my hope that things could be put right. This resulted in an apology and a promise to contact the publisher who would, they hoped, be able to rectify the online error. Follow-up emails resulted in further assurances that this would be pursued and another apology. Changing online content, it seems, is not always as easy as one might think.

Meanwhile, Louis was not only out there basking in the review, he was also managing to sow his seed on the information superhighway. The error was proliferating online as various sites began citing the review of a book he had apparently sired. The longer the online journal content remained unchanged, the more opportunity he had for general begetting - along with all manner of other rascality, I shouldn't wonder.

There is, of course, a serious point to be made here. As Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, professor of internet governance and regulation at the University of Oxford, argues in his 2009 book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, the internet never forgets, for nothing is ever completely deleted. Things on the internet are not as ephemeral as we might believe. Indeed, we leave a permanent "data shadow". Worryingly, people might end up making decisions about us based upon this shadow rather than the "real" person. So we might say that, as in Louis' case, information can take on a personality of its own.

Luckily, although it might be easier said than done to fix an online error, it is not impossible. While I have been writing this article, the online journal has been amended. An asterisk appears at the end of each mention of my full name. The accompanying text reads "Correction added...The first name of book author Lois S. Bibbings was erroneously spelled as 'Louis'. The error has been corrected in this version of the article." Thus, Louis' identity is preserved, albeit in a footnote. What's more, he remains out there in the ether as the results of his spawning live on the various websites where "his" authorship remains.

So there you have it: Louis' story. But where does this leave the accidental author and me? Sure, he stole my book, but I can't help liking the idea of having a male alter ego. More significantly, right from the outset I had a very clear sense of just who Louis was and...reader, I liked him. Indeed (and I'm not sure exactly what to make of this), a fair number of people who know me reasonably well also had very similar images of him.

Louis then is neither entirely the opposite of me (whatever that would be) nor is he exactly distinct from me. In fact, although he might seem from this article to be just a little bit more daring and a lot less serious than me, actually, if you look closely, you can hardly see the join. Or to put it another way, literary avatar he may be, but we have much in common.

So, as it turns out, I'm grateful to Gender and History for creating Louis. Which is not to say that there's not a feeling of relief now that he is no longer (quite) getting away with textual impersonation, but I'm also immensely pleased that he's decided to hang around. Indeed, he now has his own email address, and it is not outside the bounds of possibility that he might at some point be drawn to put (fountain) pen to paper himself.

In the meantime, if there's an evening that needs scintillating, a swash that needs buckling, an attractive captive who needs rescuing, then Louis is your man. And with this sign-off, a wicked chortle and a mischievous wink, he saunters out into the real world.

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