Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Pen Names

A commenter on my last post (hi Diana) mentioned that Joyce Carol Oates also writes under the name Lauren Kelly, so her prodigious productivity is actually greater than it appears. I think she also writes under yet another name, Rosamund Something, does she not? (Wikipedia says Rosamond Smith.) The other day I was putting some thriller titles into our database and I thought the names seemed wonky, like "Douglas Preston" and "Gwen Hunter" and "Manning Coles." I thought, Who are these people really? Does Thomas Pynchon write thrillers between literary block busters? Or maybe Stephen King -- we know about Richard Bachmann, but are there other personalities? Maybe there are only a handful of super-productive writers out there, each with a list of aliases as long as their arm.

This might be truer than one would think. I once read an article about a science fiction writer who couldn't sell any more books because her sales figures weren't so great. So she added an initial and sent the book out again. Apparently, publishers would look up her name on a database, see the sales figues and pass, but the system considered a name with an initial a whole different name. So she got a fresh start and sold the book. And three books down the line, had to change her name again. Still!

I've often thought I'd like to write under a different name. Would my writing be noticeably different, I wonder, if an alter-ego were writing it? It would be nice to dodge the burden of who I think I am. Unfortunately I can't think of a good name. The easy way to go would be to take my middle name and my husband's last name: Margaret Lennon. Not terrible, but a bit drab. She's too much like me. How about Penelope Vinewinder?

No, I would definitely pick a man's name. Not a tough guy name (not Brad Gunn or Ted Armantrout) but a sensitive guy's name: Elliot Sands. Timothy J. Fern.

Small pet peeve: why do book jackets so often reveal the true identity of an author's pen name? Well, obviously, it's to have it both ways: get the name recognition of the established author without the expectations. Still, I think a pen name should have to go the distance. An alter-ego should have to struggle like any other new writer, not float in on the reputation of someone else.

13 comments:

myles said...

You could try an anagram of your name. Say, Earl Linish or Asher I. Nill.

I really don't understand the practice of revealing the writer's real name on the cover. "Fred Nerk, writing as Orlando P. Quince" What's the point of that? I can understand using a 'nom de trash' if you don't want your airport thrillers to diminish your reputation as a high-literary styliste, but why put both names on a cover. Just confuses the whole deal, I'd have thought.

Diana Holquist said...

Timmy Fern. Love it. Very shade-loving, yet still upbeat.

I wrote under my real name and think it was a huge mistake. I underestimated the lack of control I'd have over my titles and my covers.

I also started publishing five minutes before the internet exploded. Now, a reader can find anything about me--how much I paid for my house...where I live...wanna see it on google earth? Yep, that's my Subaru in the drive... One of my buds suggested that this was okay, as my readers are 99% women, but some of them scare me. Especially the ones who "ask" for things (mostly free books) as if it was their right because of their disease/disability/divorce/employment woes/etc.

It still does make me giggle, though, when people Google my husband, the professor, and come up with me.

Hee hee.

jrlennon said...

Rhian thought up the perfect pen name for my crime novelist alter ego. I'm not telling what it is though. Anyway, I haven't been able to use it yet.

jrlennon said...

And by the way Myles, Rhian's one and only true acronym is RAISIN' HELL.

rmellis said...

No, I really like Earl Linish and Asher I. Nill.

Diana, if I ever write a book that people actually read, I will take your advice to heart and definitely get a pen name!

Joe L. said...

Blog environments sometimes feel like masquerade balls. I suppose there are several reasons a writer adopts a pen name. For someone like Oates, it may be to experiment in a genre she’s not known for. But there’s this from the Roshmond Smith home page: “It may be that, after a certain age, our instinct for anonymity is as powerful as that for identity; or, more precisely, for an erasure of the primary self in that another (hitherto undiscovered?) self may be released.” So while pen names may have something to do with branding (as in marketing), it may also be that the adoption of, not just the pen name, but the personality of the name, frees one to write in a way otherwise unavailable. But why would a writer clearly as capable as Oates not be able to assume a different identity (via a 1st person narrator, for example) under her own name? And surely she’s comfortable enough with her status to not worry about the ego deflating irony of having to accept the award on behalf of some other writer – “…and here’s Rhian to accept the award for Earl.” But I think it may also have something to do with whatever’s inside that just likes the idea of a masquerade ball. You might want to check out the Oates essay (http://jco.usfca.edu/rosamond.html ): Pseudonymous Selves, by Joyce Carol Oates. Originally published as "Success and the Pseudonymous Writer: Turning Over A New Self" in the New York Times Book Review, December 6, 1987. Reprinted in (Woman) Writer. Copyright © 1987 by The Ontario Review, Inc.

rmellis said...

Thanks for the link, Joe L. I'll read the essay. But until I do, I'm still going to think it's a wee bit cowardly not to let Rosamond have her own career free from the water wings of "JCO writing as..."

joe l said...

Oh, yes, I agree with that; otherwise, what's the point? How can you have it both ways? And why would you want to? The purpose (and therefore integrity)of the true double identity (like Zorro, or Bruce Wayne) relies on no one else (with the possible exception of the sidekick) knowing the secret. Maybe it's a battle of the two egos. That's why I don't understand Oates not being satisfied with keeping her pen name a secret.

Mr. Saflo said...

The "X writing as Y" deal is also to let people know what they're getting. A famous example would be Donald Westlake writing funny caper novels under his own name, and violent crime novels as Richard Stark. Recently, there's John Banville (inspired by this, if his piece in Slate is anything to go on) writing mystery novels as Benjamin Black. I'm sure the novelty of the respected highbrow novelist writing what might be considered pulp also factors in.

rmellis said...

I just had a long chat with my younger son about whether his future superhero identity should be kept secret or not. Advantage to keeping it secret: Bad guys won't be able to find you. Disadvantage: less attention and prizes.

Not sure if this applies to writing or not.

Writer Reading said...

Leonard Neeble would be my pen name, a character from a children's book by Daniel Pinkwater. Oh, wait, I already have a pen name: Writer Reading and Poetmouse. They had to start from scratch after I deleted by last four blogs. Because, as one commenter says, yes, my real name can be googled with my real address, my real job, a photo of me and my entire resume. No, that would not be comfortable at all. Leonard Neeble could also just be my next blog.

rmellis said...

I don't think there's anything interesting to be found googling me, but I refrain from googling myself, so who knows -- maybe there's someone out there with my name committing crimes and making nasty videos. It's not me, really, it isn't!

Leonard Neeble is a good name -- like a real name, it's just on the edge of plausibility...

Alicia said...

I have always wanted to write romance novels under a pen name like Samantha Smith or LaShonda Groves(which would have been my actual 1st name if Hurricane Alicia hadn't hit Texas).