It sounds like the setup to a joke: What happens when a woman sends her novel to literary agents under a male pseudonym?
The punchline, however, is entirely predictable.
When author Catherine Nichols sent the opening pages of her novel to 50 agents, only two requested the full manuscript. When she presented herself with a male pseudonym, "George," from a new email address, and sent the same cover letter and pages to 50 agents, it was requested 17 times.
In one case, the same agent who sent her a formal rejection as Catherine asked to read “George’s” book, and then asked to send it to a more senior agent.
“He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book," Nichols wrote in an essay for Jezebel. "Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25. The judgments about my work that had seemed as solid as the walls of my house had turned out to be meaningless. My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me – Catherine.”
The results of Nichols' experiment highlight the literary world's enduring gender problem. Male writers continue to dominate literary criticism, both as reviewers and as reviewed. In 2014, only 27 percent of authors represented in The Times Literary Supplement and 29 percent represented in The Nation were women, according to the annual VIDA count.
Another study has found that a novel is more likely to win a prize if its protagonist is male, and just under 40 percent of books submitted to the Booker prize over the past five years were by women.
It was enough to inspire the novelist Kamila Shamsie to declare 2018 "the year of publishing women"; for author Joanna Walsh to launch the #readwomen project and run @read_women, a Twitter platform highlighting issues around women, writing and publishing; and for Francine Prose to author a pair of explosive essays, "Scent of a Woman's Ink," and "On Women Writers and V.S. Naipul."
But the bias Nichols reveals is not limited to literature.
"Men are rated as better mentorship candidates, more hireable, more competent, and deserving of roughly $4,000 more each year," writes Bustle.
Nichols' experiment is also nothing new. Scores of other female writers disguised their names. Middlemarch author George Eliot was Mary Ann Evans in real life, Louisa May Alcott wrote as A.M. Barnard, and the Brontë sisters as Currer and Eliis Bell.
The tradition continues today. Nora Roberts, the prolific romance writer, published detective mysteries under the pseudonym J.D. Robb. Even Joanne Rowling adopted two more masculine-sounding pseudonyms: J.K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith.
The bias these guises reveal, Nichols says, is enough to end the careers of many women who have gotten their share of rejections.
“In theory, the results of my experiment are vindicating, but I feel furious at having spent so much time in that ridiculous little cage, where so many people with the wrong kind of name are burning out their energy and intelligence," she wrote.
Being told a work is “clever” or "well-constructed" by an agent “might be enough to steer [a writer] toward a bolder plan”, she writes, while being told it is “not very likable” will move the writer “back to conventions," or quit altogether.
For her part, Nichols used the feedback "George" received to rework her novel and now has an agent.