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Reclaiming her name or erasing her agency?

Written by Arts, Culture

The campaign #ReclaimHerName is a collaboration between The Women’s Prize for Fiction and Bailey’s, offering 25 free eBook downloads of novels previously written under male pseudonyms.

The purpose of the campaign was to empower women in Literature by honouring female authors for their work. By crediting those who felt the need to hide behind a male pen name, there is a hope to overturn the history of the often silenced and hidden female voice. Despite this positive intention, the campaign has caused quite the controversy in the reading community.

Baileys/ Women’s prize for fiction

The controversies began with critics pointing out an error on the front cover of ‘The Life of Martin. R. Delany’. The campaign mixed up their abolitionists, accidentally putting the prominent silhouette of Frederick Douglass on the cover of Delany’s biography. Such a huge mistake was labelled sloppy and undermined the credibility of the campaign from the offset. Bailey’s have withdrawn the cover and issued an apology for the mix-up, claiming it was a human error which will be investigated.

Baileys/ Women’s prize for fiction

Another problem quickly arose when it was revealed that one of the novels had been ‘reclaimed’ with scarce evidence. Only one scholar, Mary Chapman, has speculated that Edith Maude Eaton wrote under the name Mahlon T Wing. Therefore, to publish How White Men Assist in Smuggling Chinamen Across the Border in Puget Sound Country with her name has been viewed as potentially inauthentic.

There have even been challenges to the marketing of these eBooks as novels, due to the inclusion of short stories and an autobiography.

Despite the feminist positivity of the campaign, many in the reading community are not impressed by this effort. Even without the previous blunders, debates have arisen on the actual morality of putting female names on covers, when the authors chose to remain anonymous. Not all included women solely used a male pseudonym to avoid sexist persecution, some using the move as a creative choice or an experiment in anonymity. Is it right to take away this choice for feminist agenda when it goes against the original authorial intention? The Death of the Author question really does haunt Literature…

There is no clear answer as to whether the ‘reclamation’ is an empowerment of identity or erasure of agency. A Bailey’s spokesperson has rebutted the negative perception, claiming that:

“For many of the female writers we came across, using a male pseudonym was seen as the only option if they hoped to be taken seriously in a male-dominated genre, reach a wider audience, or even be published at all.”

Overall, it seems that despite the best intentions, the #ReclaimHerName campaign has not wholly captured the hearts of readers or critics.

Featured Image: Baileys/Women’s prize for fiction

Last modified: 3rd September 2020

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