Posts Tagged ‘Names’

The year is 1991; the setting, my kindergarten classroom. I am not quite five years old, and if this isn’t my very first day of school (memory being understandably hazy about such things) it’s certainly sometime in my first two weeks. Our young class has spent the morning seated on the floor, and now our teacher, Mrs Pallier, tells us all to stand up and find a desk. There is no seating plan; the ‘desks’ are actually conglomerates made of four or so smaller tables, big enough to seat about eight students each. Despite our newness, groups of friends have already started to form – one such being the cadre of boys who, by Year 6, will have become the male half of the popular crew. They pick a desk and sit down together. I don’t have a group yet; the boys, though, are interesting, and there’s a spare seat at their table. I go to take it, but no sooner have I sat down than they all leap up again, yelling about the undesirability of girls, and run to colonise the next desk down. This leaves me with a choice: either I can stay where I am, feeling hurt but pretending I really did want this particular chair, or I can follow them and see what happens. Desks are starting to fill up, after all – they have to sit somewhere. More importantly, though, I’ve discovered a secret power: I can make the boys run, and even though I really did want to join them, thinking of it as a game – one where I’m in charge, the chaser – is easier, less hurtful, than staying still and accepting their rebuff. And so I get back up, and follow them again.

What happened next is hazy. I couldn’t say whether I won or not, if I claimed a seat at their table or ended up somewhere else. But I remember the choice, and the thoughts preceding it, with clarity.

I mention this because there’s been some recent discussion about the perception of women SF writers within the industry generally and their relationship with feminism in particular, and when it comes to the assertion that such authors are given less credence, less prominence and less publicity than their male counterparts – when I am presented with the image of women writers chasing after acceptance in a male-dominated area – the first thing that always springs to mind, or rather the first memory, is the image of a table of five-year-old boys in shrieking fear of Girl Germs. It’s not just this debate, either: earlier this year, there were questions asked about the feminisation of epic fantasy, and more recently VS Naipaul has asserted that women writers are “unequal” to him. Unclenching one’s teeth sufficiently to talk about this latter case, there’s something interesting to unpick in Naipaul’s claim that:

“I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not.” 

It’s an argument I’ve encountered elsewhere: that women just write differently to men, that everything from their subject matter to their sentence structure and word choice sets them apart. It’s a breathtakingly flawed assertion, and yet so fiendishly simple that, like most such lies, it is easily believed, repeated and socially countenanced. Ignoring the fact that this is an unquantifiable, personal claim hinging entirely on anecdotal evidence, how often do we read anything without seeing a name attached? Almost never, would be my guess – unless, of course, you’re someone in charge of vetting anonymous submissions to an academic publication, which is by no means irrelevant to the topic at hand. Surely, if Naipaul is correct, the flaws which distinguish women’s writing and ideas from those of men will be present in any type of writing, and not just works of fiction? If so, wouldn’t the publication records of academic journals with a policy of anonymous submissions – or better yet, journals which had recently switched from named submissions to anonymous submissions – be the perfect venue to test the theory? What about studies assessing the difference a male or female name makes to the reception of a single piece of writing?

As it happens, such data and studies do exist – bur rather than confirming Naipaul’s assertion, what they show is that switching to anonymous submissions increases the number of female-authored articles accepted for publication in academic circles. Take a moment to appreciate the significance of that finding. By removing a writer’s name – and, by extension, their gender – from the equation, more women are being published. This is all that changes. For obvious reasons, blind submissions will not translate as a solution to the bias in literary circles and awards: books are published with names on the cover, and even in the case of novels we’ve not yet read, there’s still a strong chance that we’ll know who the author is. But when, for instance, Gwyneth Jones expresses a wish to have used a male pseudonym for her earlier feminist works in order to have bettered their success, rather than criticise this as a betrayal of the sisterhood, we could perhaps extrapolate that the same biases which afflict academia are just as omnipresent in the fiction/SFF world, and that wanting to avoid their ill-effects is entirely understandable.

In the same Women’s Hour segment where she expressed that opinion, Jones went on to say:

“If you’re a feminist, it’s much better to be a man, with the science fiction public.”

It’s an inflammatory suggestion, but one which seems all too sadly in keeping with the bias against women. Reading through the reactions of Jones, Timmi Duchamp and Cheryl Morgan to the Women’s Hour interview, much of what’s being discussed is the idea that the US and the UK have different notions of feminism; or that writers from these countries do; or that these particular writers do; or some combination thereof. As a recently expatriated Australian, I don’t know enough about the differences in feminist practice on either side of the pond to contribute to that debate. What I take away from this particular conversation, however, is the fear that simply being a woman SF writer, regardless of the actual content of one’s books, is enough to see those works branded as feminist by readers who have no interest in feminism – a misapprehension which ineluctably forces the writer to argue that their gender ought not stand in the way of their writing. Thus, the author is forced to speak out as a feminist – thereby reinforcing the perception of their works as feminist writings – only because this was already assumed to be a foregone conclusion. And so we go round, and round again, until it’s easier just to pretend to be male feminist, the way George Sand once did, than to confess to being a female one.

What a squeamish irony that is: that even feminism is more palatable when espoused by male advocates! Presumably, this is because women, as the movement’s primary beneficiaries, are seen to have more of a personal agenda in putting it forwards; whereas men, who are casually assumed to gain nothing from its success, and are vindictively assumed to lose everything, are seen to be more objective. If male feminists become passionate in their writing, then it is a rational passion, commendable for its intelligence; but if women feminists do likewise, then they’re guilty of pushing a personal, politically correct agenda, or of being angry, hysterical writers. Obviously that’s a provocative statement. Obviously we want and need male feminists: I am by no means suggesting that the feminism of men is less important, less relevant or less meaningful than the feminism of women. But I can and will criticise those members of the public, be they feminist or unfeminist, male or female, who find feminism to be more palatable when it comes from men; because if you think men are intrinsically more lucid on the subject than women, or think women can’t be trusted to speak dispassionately about it, then you’ve probably missed the point.

Back in 1991, I chased the boys rather than be ignored by them, and some time over the next seven years of primary school, they stopped running and became my friends. Regardless of genre, authors in the fiction world – like children in a playground – have no recourse to anonymity, no ready means of stripping names and faces away, to let our words stand on their own bare merits. Instead, we must take the harder road: to actively consider the principles of equality, to hold ourselves accountable for our own biases, and to continually question whether or not we’ve truly overcome them.

As has been discussed elsewhere, I am, among other things, a fan of names and a fantasy geek. These are both areas in which taste is subjective, varying wildly from person to person; but with fantasy, you only need please yourself. Names are a different kettle of fish: not only do both partners have to agree on what to call their child, but it’s generally wise to consider the child itself. This is a blend of social pragmatism and courtesy: no matter how much you love the spelling, calling your daughter Melyndah is probably setting her up for a lifetime of everyone getting it wrong.

Well do I know the pain of this, because while I’m quite fond of my given name – Philippa – there are four different ways of spelling it, depending on how many L’s or P’s you include. Almost every single award or school document in my cupboard has it spelled incorrectly, along with my maiden name (Grahame – also with multiple versions). This got so bad at university that when I won a literary award in first year, the prize cheque was made out to ‘Phillip Graeme’ – which, apart from being a boy’s name, is so far distant from both actual spellings that I temporarily lost all faith in humanity. (Needless to say, I couldn’t cash it, and had to wait two weeks for one with my actual name to come through. ) On the flip side, there’s not an over-abundance of Philippas in my generation. Unlike friends called Sarah, Jessica, Matthew or David, I only had to share with one other person. Plus, I had Foz to fall back on. (For those who are interested, my dad first called me Foz as a little baby, after Fozzie Bear in the Muppets, because I smiled a lot. It stuck, and that’s pretty much all my family and family friends have ever called me.)

Point being, there’s a balance to names. If written down as a formula, it might be something like: familiar enough to spell correctly, but not so common as to lose all individuality. Even so, you can’t please everyone, and trying to do so is probably a recipe for disaster. Ultimately, it makes sense just to run with your preferences – after all, it’s going to be years before the kid can complain (if they ever do) and even then, you’ve got nicknames and the final option of deedpoll. So long as they don’t cop too much teasing for it in primary school, you’re good. (Which just makes me think of the Simpson’s flashback where Homer is trying to decide what to call Bart based on how kids might react, and settles on Bart over Louie, because it rhymes with smart rather than screwy. I’ve heard worse theories.) 

Which brings us to celebrity names, and the recent spate of interesting ones. The biggest complaint I’ve heard of Sunday Rose is the similarity to Sunday Roast, while most people just think Shiloh Nouvelle is odd. (Keen observers of tabloid gossip will note that Angelina Jolie now has three sons whose names end in X – Maddox, Pax and Knox.) The new Packer heir, today’s paper says, is called Indigo, while the notoriety of Gwyneth Paltrow’s children Moses and Apple is well-documented. At the tippy-top of the list are the children of Bob Geldof and Paula Yates: Fifi Trixibelle, Little Pixie, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily Hutchence, and Peaches – whose full name, for those who are morbidly interested, is Peaches Honeyblossom Michelle Charlotte Angel Vanessa Geldof.

All of which, by conventional naming standards, are pretty unusual. But as a fantasy geek, a significant part of me doesn’t mind – after all, I enjoy far stranger names when it comes to beloved characters. The level on which I object (if at all) is one of childhood taunts and, in a couple of instances, adult embarassment: but both these things are socially conditioned. We object to weird names, not because of any inherent property in the name itself, but because it’s not what we’re used to, or what we’d choose ourself. It’s different. It’s pretty much guaranteed that kids will find a way to tease other kids, but in the adult world, why don’t we just get over it?

The truth is, we use names as a kind of social measure. Based on our own preferences, we make assumptions about the kind of people who’d call their child X or Y, weighing it up against a mental list. It crosses generations: looking at names on paper at work, I automatically assume that anyone called Beryl belongs to my father’s era; that Chrisie could be aged between twenty-five and forty; and that Melissa is around my own age. It’s easier with women than men, because for whatever quirk of masculine pride, we tend to be more conservative when it comes to boys, presumably thinking that men are more likely to suffer for having a different name. However snobbish and judgemental it makes us, we all do it. And in our adult way, we tease.

Some names don’t lend themselves much to mnemonic insults: thankfully, Philippa is one of them. A few inventive boys tried out ‘Philadelphia Cream Cheese’ in year 4, but decided, somewhat unsurprisingly, to let it die out. Pip was safe, too, until South Park made mockery of a certain nerdy English kid. With so many new names hitting the spotlight both in and out of celebrity circles, it’s tempting to speculate as to whether we might reach a point where unusual names no longer attract attention, both because it’s celebrities setting the precedent, and because, past a certain volume, novelties inevitably cease to be novel. But I doubt it. The more likely scenario is that a new notion of ‘normal’ names is adopted, and retro parents who favour Jane and Michael will be seen as revolutionaries compared to those with offspring called Aqua and Eldritch.

So in the interim, why not stay indidivual and stick with what you like? After all, it’s what everyone else is doing.

As a life-long afficionado of names, I can tell you off the top of my head that Alinta is an Aboriginal word for flame; that Byron means born by the cowsheds; and that J.M. Barrie invented the name Wendy because he wanted something ‘friendly’ to call his female lead. Even when writing short stories in primary school, I was convinced that my character names were crucial to who they were, and disagreed fiercely (though privately) with my teacher, who said that they could all be called Bob and it still wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference. Once I got my hands on a book of children’s names I found at home, I spent endless hours reading through and making lists of all my favourites – not for any children I might one day have, but to use as characters. Names I liked wented to heroines (and, occasionally, heroes). Names I didn’t, or which sounded ominous, went to villains. Inspired by Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series – in which most of the horses had Aboriginal names – I procured an Aboriginal dictionary from my mother’s study and started my own story along similar lines, looking up words for things like stars, water, speed and various horse-related colours.

Now that I’m older, I still care just as deeply about what to call my characters. Even in RPG games, the thing that takes even longer than rolling stats – either in real life or through a game engine – is choosing a name. It has to match my avatar’s history, what they look like, who they are; and the thought of just calling them Stephanie and getting on with it rankles in a deep and resonant way. Because once you’ve named something, it stays named. And I’m ancient enough at heart to believe that there’s power in names. Roma gypsies have always thought so, and children in that culture are given three names: one private, and never told lightly; one commonly used among the clan; and one for everyone else, which is almost never used except on paper. Fantasy writers as diverse as Kate Elliot, Ursula K. le Guin and David Gemmell have all been fascinated by the concept of true names, and put it to appropriate use in their stories. But although most people might dismiss the idea out of hand, it’s worth having a look at the all-too-common disparity between the names we are given, and the things we are actually called.

For instance: my mother-in-law’s name is Margaret, but only as far as records are concerned. To everyone else, she is Janie. My niece’s name is Heather, but the family calls her Annie. Back in highschool, a friend’s boyfriend was introduced to everyone as Tain, which suited him, and it wasn’t until almost a year later that we realised it was short for Martin, which didn’t. At college, everyone had at least three names by which they were known, not in the least because we were asked to make them up and adopt them in Orientation Week. Those of us who already had familiar nicnames used them, and were consequently never known by our actual given names; everyone else had either a corruption of a first-or-last name, or something entirely random. One girl, called Lauren, asked to be known as Trucka, following the logic that Lauren abbreviated to Laurie, which sounded like lorrie, which is a kind of truck. But it stuck, and nobody ever called her anything else. Then there’s the Great Australian Tradition of oxymoronic names: fat blokes are Slim, short folk are Lofty, redheads are Blue, and so has it ever been, to the extent that an airline recognised globally for its distinctive red planes is called Virgin Blue. It’s multi-generational, even: two of my mother’s friends have been known as Chook and Vobbles since the sixties for reasons that are now completely forgotten, while there are people I know only by their online handles.

And in all this malarkey of names, I start to wonder: which are the ones with power? Which are, to borrow a term, merely safe and innocous use-names; and which are truly us? Juliet (or rather, Shakespeare) posited that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; which is true. But a rose by any other name would not be a rose; because the very nub of language is the point at which the word not only means, but is the thing. Think of Aztec pictograms, where each symbol stands for a whole word rather than a single letter. Then magnify the idea outwards. A word doesn’t just stand in place of an idea; it is the idea. Looked at this way, names don’t just mean us casually, merely as distinct from everyone else: they mean us specifically, behind the eyes and down to the bones, impossible to mistake.

The same idea is exhibited elsewhere in fantasy as the basis for spoken magic: the concept of a universal language, in which the word equals the thing to such an extent that speaking it aloud brings that thing into existence. For a real-world counterpart, one needs only look at the Bible: ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God’ is undeniably rooted in the power of names, and it’s worth noting that Hebrew, to the Jews, was (and still is) seen as the language of Creation; God’s lingua franca.

Which brings us back to names, and the choosing of them. What with genetics, friends, cultural influences, free will and individual reactions to upbringing, there’s a good argument to say that apart from life, a name is the only lasting gift a parent can give (unless, of course, the child grows up to change their name by deedpole, a-la commedian Yahoo Serious or that bloke in the Sydney phonebook called Zaphod Beeblebrox). So why not make it a good one? Granted, not everyone agrees on what makes a fantastic name, and given my geekish tendencies, there’s a good chance that what I consider lovely might make the rest of the world flinch, but at the end of the day (to borrow a phrase abused to the point of ritual castigation by one forgettable Deputy Headmaster), it’s putting in thought that counts.

Or, to recall that much-thumbed book of children’s names, one could just read the notice that says, in bold print, not reccomended, placed with sensible good reason next to Jezebel (Hebrew), Lesbia (Greek) and Everhard (Old English).