Stung by gender bias in the writing biz, Tawni stings back

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My experience growing up in a rough and tumble town in the blue-collar world of Western Pennsylvania in the 1970s was that anything a man did was always more important than anything a woman did. I never consciously questioned the injustice of this at the time, choosing instead to adopt the code: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. I was an avid tomboy, and as long as I could ride my bike just as fast, hit the ball just as hard, and catch just as many garter snakes, I was accepted as one of the boys and enjoyed all the perks of superiority.

It wasn’t until many years later, after I had traded in my Pirates ball cap and my pocket knife for mascara and motherhood, that I would feel the sting of gender bias in an area of my life where I least expected it: the publication of my first novel.

“Back Roads” was set in the coal-mining area where I grew up and was a dark, gritty portrayal of a family in crisis told entirely in the male first-person voice of 19-year-old Harley Altmyer. My publishing house was over the moon about the book, proclaiming me brilliant and tossing around phrases like “formidable talent” and “pitch-perfect prose.” The book was so good, as a matter of fact, that they thought it would be best to conceal the fact that it had been written by a woman.

I was informed over the phone one morning that Tawni was a “biker chick name” and no one would take the novel seriously if we used it.

I was stunned, not only because I had naively thought art was one area where sexism didn’t exist but because standing in my coffee-stained bathrobe in my suburban Chicago kitchen handing out juice boxes to my kids, I could hardly imagine anyone mistaking me for a biker chick.

My editor went on to inform me that they had decided to publish the book using my initials. That way they wouldn’t actually be lying and claiming I was a man but since the book was written in the male first person, everyone would assume it had been written by a man. Pretty sneaky.

There was only one problem with their reasoning: The book hadn’t been written by a man. Not to mention one of the things everyone found so amazing about my novel was that it was so convincingly written from a male perspective by a woman. Wouldn’t that be ruined if we pretended I was a man?

I was heartsick for the next few days as I numbly passed the time waiting to hear from my female agent who was negotiating valiantly with my female editor for my right to remain a female writer. Little did we know that my gender problem was about to be solved but in a way that would be equally offensive to me as both a writer and a woman.