Reclaim the Author’s Brand Name?

Ellen Gruber Garvey, New Jersey City University (Retired)

At a yard sale, I once saw a bundle of towels of miscellaneous sizes and colors and degrees of usedness laid out. The seller insisted it was a set because she had tied it with a ribbon. The boxed set of Reclaim Her Name books reminds me of those jumbled towels, here united by spiffy graphic design and the insistence that the works have something in common.

When Baileys, in partnership with the Women’s Prize for Fiction, issued this set of twenty-five works that originally appeared under masculine or gender-ambiguous pseudonyms, they asserted that these editions would somehow allow each of these writers to “#reclaimhername.” On the plus side, the project offered some well-known and unknown works for free, in digital editions, and supplied a handsomely designed set on paper, intended for libraries, with the words “RECLAIM HER NAME” stretched across the multicolored spines in an assertive sans serif typeface.

However, as others on this forum have pointed out, the advertising agency that developed the scheme was more interested in attracting attention than accuracy. This approach resulted, almost immediately, in needing to change one work’s cover, after discerning readers noted that a biography of African American author Martin Delaney by Frances Rollin Whipper embarrassingly bore an illustration of Frederick Douglass on its front. Another work was silently yanked from the lineup without explanation. The banished item was a trio of unpublished stories by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, which Dunbar-Nelson herself never grouped together. The website consistently refers to all the works as books, though some are only a few pages long, padded with blank pages. Some websites that picked up the campaign’s publicity refer to them all as novels.

If the scholarship was clumsy, the books’ graphic design is crisp and alluring. Pulling Dunbar-Nelson from the series presumably lopped off part of the R in HER on the set’s spine, but the set is intact in the photo on what’s left of the website. Unlike a boxed set of a single author’s works, or a set united by genre – poetry, or detective fiction, or horse stories – here, the works have nothing in common but the quirk of their pseudonymity. The website displays the boxed set as the icon of the project. The box itself is stamped Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The Baileys logo dominates the boxed set and website. These books and authors are no longer themselves, but part of the Baileys set. That’s an extreme statement to make about Middlemarch, to be sure, now no longer written by George Eliot but attributed to Mary Ann Evans (not Marian or Mary Anne, or any other spellings the author used). The name an author publishes under is a kind of brand name. Readers come to expect some consistency or perhaps a common thread from work to work issued under the author’s name. Or at least we like to look for it. It’s an attribute of what Michel Foucault calls the author function. As Foucault explains, the act of writing does not instantaneously or automatically make someone an author, but rather the author function arises socially, as works are interpreted and classified—grouping texts under a name, establishing a relationship between some texts, and differentiating them from others. Think of Dorothy Canfield Fisher writing fiction as Dorothy Canfield and nonfiction as Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

In Reclaim Her Name, authorship is not reclaimed at all, but defaults to Baileys.

The technique is familiar to corporate entities. For example, the works of Carolyn Keene, the “author” of the Nancy Drew mysteries, were written by many biological beings, female and male, but are all authored by Keene, under the direction of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and then subsequent corporate owners (and all include Nancy’s girlfriends, George and Bess — maybe George has become a female name after all!). The syndicate’s male counterpart series, Franklin W. Dixon, “author” of the Hardy Boys, likewise encompassed both male and female writers. Lifting Middlemarch out of George Eliot’s oeuvre, and proclaiming it – but not the rest of her works — to have been written by Mary Ann Evans, disrupts this grouping. Doesn’t Middlemarch have more in common with Mill on the Floss than with George Egerton/Mary Bright’s short story collection Keynotes, which is part of the Baileys set? In Reclaim Her Name, authorship is not reclaimed at all, but defaults to Baileys.

Authors create their pseudonyms for many reasons. A pseudonym makes space between the person who writes and what they write. It can be like an avatar, with a separate existence from the biographical being. It allows the writer better control of how the works are understood.

What is the Baileys brand? It too is an avatar or mask. It is a corporation masquerading as an Irish person, appropriating the name of a London restaurant named Bailey’s, and using an invented signature on the bottle. Why the association with a women’s literature prize? The creators of this liqueur, Tom Jago and David Gluckman, called it a “a woman’s drink” and a “girly drink,” respectively, according to a liquor industry blog. The idea that women like sweet, even gooey drinks is developed further on the Reclaim Her Name website. If in August 2020, you followed the already defunct link to the Alice Dunbar-Nelson story, the error page you reached took advantage of readerly disappointment. It read: “Oops! Something’s not working. But we are – making lovely Baileys. Would you like some?” It was accompanied by photos of drinks that look like sundaes. (Dunbar-Nelson herself drank highballs, according to her diaries.)

This all leaves me with a conundrum: complaints about the sloppiness of the Reclaim Her Name project have prompted Baileys to add a bit more nuance to their claims about using masculine pseudonyms. The website initially read: “Throughout history, many female writers have used male pen names for their work to be published or taken seriously… [W]e have put their real names on the front of their work for the first time to honor their achievements.”  It now reads “Many people still do not know that some of the greatest works of literature were written by women. We recognise that historical and personal factors surrounding the relationships between a writer and their pseudonym or pen name may vary in every case. We also recognise there are many intersectional challenges that women may have experienced during these historical periods or in their lifetimes.” They now nod toward the many reasons writers chose masculine or ambiguous pen names. But they have removed the one unambiguously worthwhile feature of their project: the free, downloadable texts. Some teachers had planned to use this website in their classes, to teach about the complexities of pseudonymity and other publishing issues. There was no indication that it was time-limited, or that Baileys or the ad agency would go off in a huff and take its texts with it. (The WaybackMachine has archived some of the web pages themselves, but not the digitized works originally accessible through them.)

In “Missed Opportunity,” Mary Chapman asks what would happen if a corporation like Baileys funded a serious scholarly project of reclaiming women’s writing. We imagine it as a choice between an ineptly executed project like Reclaim Her Name, and a good one that could somehow still be used to advertise a liqueur. Of course it doesn’t work that way. Corporate sponsors are fickle. They don’t stick around for controversy that might undermine their brand. Their investment was never in the writers or literature, but in the hope that it could sell their goods.

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