Recently, I witnessed a good friend, someone who loves what I do get caught up in yet another terrible game of catfishing. The whole debacle was rather painful for her which only brought about pain on my part because you never want to see any of your friends go through something like that. What made this round particularly painful was that my friend only recently started writing herself. She is a champion of my works, something I still find astounding, so naturally I wanted to comfort and help in any way I could. You’d have to be living under a very large rock, and have been there since the early 2000s to not know what catfishing is. For those that don’t, I’ll give you a quick rundown – I looked it up.
Oxford’s online dictionary defines it as:
US informal [with object] Lure (someone) into a relationship by adopting a fictional online persona.
In the case of gay fiction writing, particularly in the MM Romance genre, it is generally a woman who professes to be a (gay) man in order to establish legitimacy within the genre. Catfishing should be a thing of the past – indeed, if there was any real reason for it to have existed at all – because I’d always assumed (yes, I know where that gets me) that the feminism cause was to have parity with their male counterparts in every way. Full equality, right?
Evidently, not so much.
I’ve come to think the real danger of Catfishing is that it sets the feminism cause back decades when someone does it. Sure the degree of that “resetting” is tempered by how prominent or prolific the catfishing author was at the time of exposure. But you see, that’s where I start to scratch my head. Why do it if you’ll run the risk of being caught? And you always get caught. I’ve not witnessed any catfishing author that wasn’t found out at some point in their career.
I get why authors use pen names. There are a great many good reasons to do so. Anonymity being just one of them. I use one. Not because I want to hide behind it – on the contrary, I’ve made it quite public via the Wrote Podcast how I came to use a nom de plume. It was a gimmick on my part. I used it because the book I was writing at the time was being told by the main character’s (MC) point of view. I thought, rather silly of me at the time, why not have him write his own novel? Thus, Sebastian Alexander Collins became SA Collins. That’s the only reason I did it. Which is now rather odd considering that I’d shelved that particular book’s development in favor of my current series.
So pen names, yeah. The reasons to use one are varied and have been used probably for as long as publishing has been around. I get that part of the game.
What I don’t get is the need to use one to purposefully to employ deceit in the name of legitimacy. That part escapes me. Why profess to be a gay man at all when you are a woman? I think that women who do this aren’t confident in their own work enough to let it stand on it’s own under your own (female) name or a pen name that doesn’t try to come across as a (gay) male. And that part is most puzzling to me.
I have a daughter and granddaughter that up until recently had lived with my husband and myself. A multi-generational home. I spend a great deal of my time worrying about their future. Fretting over what society will try and throw their way as they make their way though life. I’m a parent and grandparent – it’s part of the job. I want what’s best for them. I want them to have amazing lives that are (hopefully) better than mine. It’s how my parents reared (not raised, by the way – you raise corn, you rear children) to be. I want equality for them with as much passion and conviction as some of the staunchest feminists out there. The recent women’s march that consumed the globe a little over a week ago was so incredibly awe inspiring that I often misted up as I watched all the videos play from around the world. Truly breathtaking stuff.
Which brings me back to this whole catfishing thing.
I mean, even JK Rowling (arguably the most successful female writer of all time) used a male nom de plume for her first book written after the global phenomenon that is Harry Potter. But she was quickly found out and when asked, she simply said that she did it because she wanted to see if the work could stand (it was her first adult oriented novel) on it’s own – separated from her fame. It was an experiment of sorts. Got it. And she quickly copped to it when it was discovered. I don’t consider that catfishing – and if some do, then I’d like to understand how this fits into that category. Rowling didn’t do it to deceive and establish legitimacy as an author. She already had decidedly established that. I think her use of a male pen name was only to push that association with her even further out to watch if her work really was as good as people kept telling her. Could she be equally successful in the adult fiction category? Would it stand up under that level of scrutiny? Maybe the male pen name didn’t hurt in that regard, I suppose.
But back to the MM romance genre (which is where most of this catfishing seems to come from as of late). I struggle with their reasoning of why do it at all. MM Romance (as a recent genre) was started by straight women writing for other straight women – something that when pressed up into my grill I often fire back that while they can write what they want, they need to understand they are writing about a very oppressed community and with that comes great responsibility. I am all for women writing about we gay men. But if they cross that line and try to tell me how gay men are I’m gonna step up right into their grill and push back … HARD.
But maybe that’s where this catfishing thing stems from. I don’t have any answers here, just pondering the whole thing as I watched the recent events concerning a woman who not only professed to be a gay man writing MM romance, but a veteran, a staunch Trump supporter (which I think was the beginning of her undoing – that one is a real red flag for queers though there are some who actually do support him which is beyond all reason), and always tried to come across as if the IQ level in the room rose significantly the moment they arrived. She kept telling my friend that her male catfish persona was the smartest person around.
To which I replied to my friend, “Yeah, people who feel the need to profess their intelligence, often aren’t that intelligent at all. If you’re intelligent, people will glean that for themselves. You don’t have to go charging into a room like the proverbial bull and bellow I’m the smart one in the room. People will perceive that for themselves.” In reality, that was probably the biggest red flag of all. The audacity to presume they were the smartest at anything. This was revealed to great effect when the catfisher’s author persona “had a heart attack” but was released the following day. As someone who has gone through FOUR such situations as I have with my husband I can tell you that NO hospital would do such a thing. The catfish was unwittingly revealing herself. It was the biggest stupid move she could’ve made, thereby proving my earlier statement. Not the brightest crayon in the box by any stretch of the imagination.
This is something that my husband has always maintained – “Just keep giving those type of people rope. Eventually, they will hang themselves with it. You won’t have to lift a finger.”
But it was still painful to watch someone I cared about go through the reveal. Practically everyone in the writing community that writes MM Romance chimed in. I was just as angry as my other gay brothers. It bordered on nothing less than queer culture appropriation. And again, that brings me back to why not just be who you are (as a sex – not the name being used)? Some of these women don’t seem to get that on the social totem pole Queerdom is at the bottom and not likely to move any time soon – especially with Tyrant Trump and his ilk in office.
Some female authors have said to me on the topic (and we’ve interviewed several on the podcast) that females struggle to “make it” in the business. So let’s look at that, shall we? I think you’ll find the answer to that question rather telling at dispelling (to a degree) that myth.
The first interesting article I read came from the Guardian in the UK. This pretty much has been the established argument. But what I find particularly telling is that while women find it extremely hard to get their works reviewed and taken seriously, a number of those reviewers are women. Why would women not value or press to review other women’s work – if anything, just to give rise to it’s legitimacy? That particular point I find very troubling. I realize there could be extenuating circumstances that preclude them from doing just that. I don’t presume to “have the inside scoop” on the goings on of the reviewing side of the industry.
But it was this little ditty that really was an eye opener … while it doesn’t remove the stigma women face to get noticed, it does however show that in terms of moving vast numbers of book units, women are the dominating factor here. The headline alone explains it –
So while there are more male writers and reviews for their works, it seems that if you’re a woman who cracks the top and becomes a major player, you sell big. BIG TIME sort of big.
Admittedly, this was published nearly two years ago. But I don’t doubt it’s validity. So maybe it’s just getting the work noticed? Because once you do, female writers are extremely successful.
As I said before, I don’t have answers. I am only pondering this as I help my friend pick up the pieces of her burgeoning writing career (she was doing PA work for said catfishing author who insisted that she (my friend) personally endorse this author and recommend them to others). My friend’s personal and professional integrity were called into question because she had unwittingly put herself in the cross hairs of this recent catfisher.
So here’s my takeaway – ladies, write from who you are. I’d rather have truthfulness and authenticity in picking up a book and knowing who the author is to whatever degree they make their lives public. I don’t crave to know everything about them, but a little goes a long way to forming an opinion of their work. I’ve stopped reading other catfishers work simply because I can’t stomach it. That deceit clouds everything. And that probably is the hardest part to swallow. I know what goes into writing a novel. I do it myself. It’s lonely and (at times) grueling work. Literally your blood, sweat and tears go into it. So why run the risk of having all that hard work tarnished by publishing it under a lie? It’s a waste, that’s what it is.
Maybe that only points out the lack of confidence in the work or some form of self-loathing that is just convinced that the work won’t be taken seriously unless it is written by a man. But if women never push at that with author names that proudly proclaim it was written by a woman, will we ever see parity? JK Rowling did it. EL James, Toni Morrison, the list goes on. Women can be extremely successful in the industry. You just have to find some inner Rosa Parks and sit further up in the bus and demand that parity. I know it’s always easy to say, “but I’m not big enough to take this on.”
I would say, “Remember this: the history makers are those who put themselves out there, taking the risks; they don’t play it safe. They don’t go with the status quo. They lean into the hardness that come their way. You, my brilliant sisters, can do this. On your own terms. But it has to start somewhere. Why can’t it be you?”
I once asked an author on our show why she wrote MM romance and not MF romance with a strong female character. The response was rather telling – they claimed that they just couldn’t envision that type of strong female character within the confines of a MF romance trope. I was flabbergasted by that. My immediate thought (I just know the ghost of John Adams rages inside me) was, why not upend the trope then? Why can’t it be you? And maybe that’s the critical difference between male and female writers. Men take risks. They are not adverse to them because from our youth we are conditioned to be that way. Maybe that’s the cue women need to take then in order to bring their cause forward? I’ve always been a supporter of women moving into fields dominated by men. I think it benefits both when there is parity. The world would certainly be a better place if we did.
There is a brilliant book I think all women should read – Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, ISBN 006223062X ASIN: B00DB368AY. It is written by two women I admire greatly. I think they’ve nailed it when it comes to women seeing the value in themselves and believing it. I highly recommend it to anyone. Men would find it fascinating.
But as I’ve said, I don’t claim to have answers, just musings on this recent catfishing scheme within our gay fiction writing community. One thing is abundantly clear: when it happens no one wins. That much is certain. I just wish that women wouldn’t feel the need to do it. Believe me, there is nothing lower on the totem pole than a gay man. Our lesbian sisters are oppressed, too. But in a male dominated society, gay men are still seen as the most perverted, the most reviled. To be honest, writing as us in the MM Romance genre is probably not going to win you any points as an author anyway. So why not be the “you” you’re willing to put out there (nom de plume or not)? I’d love to hear some thoughts on this topic.
Until next time …
– SA C