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Authors: Carmela Ciuraru

Nom de Plume

BOOK: Nom de Plume
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Nom de Plume

A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms

Carmela Ciuraru


For Sarah, everything

(and for Oscar)


World is crazier and more of it than we think.

Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion

A tangerine and spit the pips and feel

The drunkenness of things being various.

, “Snow”

On whom, then, my God, am I the onlooker? How many am I? Who is me? What then is this gap between myself and me?


“Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.

“Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said, with a short laugh. “My name means the shape I am and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape.”

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

The self is like a bug. Every time you smack it, it moves to another place.



Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Brontë & Acton,
Currer, and Ellis Bell (1816–1855)

“Once there were five
sisters. . . .”

George Sand & Aurore Dupin (1804–1876)

“It began with an
ankle-length gray military coat, matching trousers, a cravat, and a
waistcoat. . . .”

George Eliot & Marian Evans (1819–1880)

“Charles Dickens was
suspicious. . . .”

Lewis Carroll & Charles Dodgson

“A show of hands if you've
never heard of Alice in Wonderland. . . .”

Mark Twain & Samuel Clemens (1835–1910)

“How the protean Samuel
Clemens became the world's most famous literary alias will never be known
for sure. . . .”

O. Henry & William Sydney Porter

“If you are now reading or
have recently read a short story by O. Henry, you are most likely a
middle-school student. . . .”

Fernando Pessoa & His Heteronyms

“You will never get to the
bottom of Fernando Pessoa. . . .”

George Orwell & Eric Blair (1903–1950)

“Had Eric Arthur Blair been
a working-class bloke from Birmingham instead of an Old
Etonian . . .”

Isak Dinesen & Karen Blixen (1885–1962)

“She was descended from
Danish royalty, but her childhood was filled with the traditional privileges
of an aristocratic upbringing. . . .”

Sylvia Plath & Victoria Lucas

“She was a good girl who
loved her mother. . . .”

Henry Green & Henry Yorke (1905–1973)

“He's the best writer
you've never heard of. . . .”

Romain Gary & Émile Ajar (1914–1980)

“He was a war hero, a
Ping-Pong champion, a film director, a diplomat, and an author who wrote the
best-selling French novel of the twentieth
century. . . .”

James Tiptree, Jr. & Alice Sheldon

“On May 19, 1987, a
seventy-one-year-old woman and her eighty-four-year-old husband were found
lying in bed together, hand in hand, dead of gunshot
wounds. . . .”

Georges Simenon & Christian Brulls et al.

“He claimed to have had sex
with ten thousand women. . . .”

Patricia Highsmith & Claire Morgan

“She was one of the most
wretched people you could ever meet, with mood shifts that swung as wildly
as the stock market. . . .”

Pauline Réage & Dominique Aury

“Not many authors can boast
of having written a best-selling pornographic
novel. . . .”


At its most basic level, a pseudonym is a prank. Yet the motives that lead writers to assume an alias are infinitely complex, sometimes mysterious even to them. Names are loaded, full of pitfalls and possibilities, and can prove obstacles to writing. Virginia Woolf, who never adopted a nom de plume herself, once expressed the fundamental and maddening condition of authorship: “Never to be yourself and yet always—that is the problem.” She was describing the predicament of the personal essayist, but identity can seem crippling to any writer. A change of name, much like a change of scenery, provides a chance to start again.

To a certain extent, all writing involves impersonation—the act of summoning an authorial “I” to create the speaker of a poem or the characters in a novel. For the audacious poet Walt Whitman, it was possible to explore other voices simply as himself. He embraced his multitudes. (“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then, I contradict myself.”) But some writers are unable to engage in such alchemy, or don't want to, without relying on an alter ego. If the authorial persona is a construct, never wholly authentic (no matter how autobiographical the material), then the pseudonymous writer takes this notion to yet another level, inventing a construct of a construct. “[T]he cultivation of a pseudonym might be interpreted as not so very different from the cultivation
in vivo
of the narrative voice that sustains any work of words, making it unique and inimitable,” wrote Joyce Carol Oates in a 1987
New York Times
essay. “Choosing a pseudonym by which to identify the completed product simply takes the mysterious process a step or two further, officially erasing the author's (social) identity and supplanting it with the (pseudonymous) identity.” Elide your own name, and imaginative beckoning can truly begin. As the French journalist and writer François Nourissier once noted (in a piece entitled “Faut-il écrire masqué?”), a nom de plume provides a space in which “obstacles fall away, and one's reserve dissipates.”

The merging of an author and an alter ego is an unpredictable thing. It can become a marriage, like a faithful and sturdy partnership, or it can prove a swift, intoxicating affair. A clandestine literary self can be tried on temporarily, to produce a single work, then dropped like a robe; or the guise might exist as something to be guarded at all costs. The attraction is obvious and undeniable. Entering another body (figuratively, ecstatically) is almost an erotic impulse. Historically, many writers have been lonely outsiders, which is why inhabiting another self offers an intimacy that seems otherwise unobtainable. In the absence of real-life companionship, the pseudonymous entity can serve as confidant, keeper of secrets, and protective shield.

The term “alter ego” is taken from Latin, meaning “other I.” This suggests the writer is not so much wearing a mask as becoming another person entirely. Have the two selves met? Maybe not, and it's probably better that way. Sometimes there's no reason to explore how or why the other half lives. Knowing that it does is enough.

In his influential 1974 book
The Inner Game of Tennis
, author Timothy Gallwey applied the notion of doubleness to the tennis player, describing how each self hinders or enhances performance. With almost no technical advice, he provides a prescriptive guide to mastery. He focuses on what he describes as two arenas of engagement: Self 1 and Self 2. When his book was first published, Gallwey's ideas were so radical that thousands of readers wrote to express their gratitude, saying that they'd successfully applied his principles to pursuits other than tennis, including writing.

Gallwey, who majored in English literature at Harvard University, portrays Self 1 as “the talker, critic, controlling voice,” and notes its “persistence and inventiveness in finding opportunities to get in the way.” Self 1 berates you, calls you an incorrigible failure. But the nonjudgmental Self 2 represents liberation in its purest form. As Gallwey writes, Self 2 is “much more than a doer. It is capable of a range of feelings that are the most uniquely human aspect of life. These feelings can be explored in sports, the arts . . . and countless other activities. Self 2 is like an acorn that, when first discovered, seems quite small yet turns out to have the uncanny ability not only to become a magnificent tree but, if it has the right conditions, can generate an entire forest.” In the context of authorship, the freeing of an alternate identity (Self 2) can reveal not just a forest but new worlds, boundless and transgressive, thrilling beyond one's wildest dreams.

A pseudonym may give a writer the necessary distance to speak honestly, but it can just as easily provide a license to lie. Anything is possible. It allows a writer to produce a work of “serious” literature, or one that is simply a guilty pleasure. It can inspire unprecedented bursts of creativity and prove an antidote to boredom. For that rare bird known as the commercially successful author, there is typically less at stake in toying with a pen name. If the book produced by an ephemeral self fails, it will be viewed as a silly misstep. All is forgiven when an author retires a pen name and returns to giving critics and fans exactly what they want: the familiar.
Lesson learned, let's move on.
If you're writing the equivalent of high-fructose corn syrup, perhaps it's unwise to serve up organic spelt, even under a different brand name.

For best-selling authors like Nora Roberts (a truncated version of her actual name, Eleanor Robertson)—who has written more than two hundred novels, including under the pen name J. D. Robb—having a transparent or “open” pseudonym is a savvy marketing strategy, a way to keep up her busy production line and show off her versatility. Roberts had initially resisted writing as someone else, but her agent had talked her into it by explaining, “There's Diet Pepsi, there's regular Pepsi, and there's Caffeine-Free Pepsi.” It's all about brand extension.

A new work by Stephen King, whose books have sold more than 500 million copies worldwide, is a reassuring promise of success to his publisher. It's also critic-proof. Yet in the late 1970s, feeling hemmed in by his phenomenally prolific output, King introduced the pen name Richard Bachman. As he later said, it was easy to add someone to his interior staff:

The name Richard Bachman actually came from when they called me and said we're ready to go to press with this novel, what name shall we put on it? And I hadn't really thought about that. Well, I had, but the original name—Gus Pillsbury—had gotten out on the grapevine and I really didn't like it that much anyway, so they said they needed it right away and there was a novel by Richard Stark on my desk, so I used the name Richard, and that's kind of funny because Richard Stark is in itself a pen name for Donald Westlake, and what was playing on the record player was “You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet” by Bachman Turner Overdrive, so I put the two of them together and came up with Richard Bachman.

King's practical measure to avoid saturating the market (and avoid openly competing with himself for sales) was a success. But in 1985, a bookstore clerk in Washington, D.C., did some detective work and exposed King's secret. The author subsequently issued a press release announcing Bachman's death from “cancer of the pseudonym.” King dedicated his 1989 novel
The Dark Half
(about a pen name that assumes a sinister life of its own) to “the late Richard Bachman.”

Prominent writers such as Robert Ludlum, Joyce Carol Oates, Anthony Burgess, Anne Rice, Michael Crichton, John Banville, Ruth Rendell, and Julian Barnes are also known to have indulged in pseudonymous publication. The Nobel laureate Doris Lessing, who tested out a nom de plume in the early 1980s, learned that she was better off sticking with her own identity. One of her aims had been a respite from the public's perception of her work; she sought to upend preconceptions of what it meant to read a “Doris Lessing novel.”

She also had something to prove. Lessing wanted to see how her books would be received if no one knew they were by the author of
The Golden Notebook
(a novel that had sold nearly a million copies), as well as more than twenty other books. “I wanted to highlight that whole dreadful process in book publishing that ‘nothing succeeds like success,'” she said later in an interview. “If the books had come out in my name, they would have sold a lot of copies and reviewers would have said, ‘Oh, Doris Lessing, how wonderful.'”

That's debatable, but on another level, Lessing had revenge in mind: the ruse was a way to strike back at critics who she felt had “hated” her then-recent Canopus novels, a five-volume science-fiction series of which she was extremely proud. (She considered the series her most important work.) So Lessing became “Jane Somers” and wrote the novel
The Diary of a Good Neighbour
, which her longtime UK publisher, Jonathan Cape, rejected, insisting that it was not commercially viable. The novel traced the friendship between two women: a middle-aged magazine editor and an octogenarian. After Lessing found a publisher, Michael Joseph, the book was released in the UK in 1983. (The coy jacket copy indicated, falsely, that Somers was the pen name of “a well-known English woman journalist.”) It sold only a few thousand copies, and the American edition fared poorly, too.

Was its failure due to people's fixation on famous authors, or was it a bad book? Lessing blamed the former. Was her test nothing but an egotistical publicity stunt? A critic from the
Washington Post
, Jonathan Yardley, seemed to think so. He argued that it was not at all the “success syndrome” that had troubled Lessing, but rather that “reviewers refused to be seduced by her name on the ‘Canopus' novels and picked them to pieces.”

Regardless, Lessing followed up a year later with a Somers sequel,
If the Old Could
, and soon after its publication she confessed that she had written both books. “The reviews were more or less what I expected,” she said of her experiment. “It was interesting to be a beginning writer again because I found how patronizing reviewers can be.”

Of course, authorial charlatanism isn't always provoked by malice, fear, guilt, or any other dark motive. The best-selling author Tom Huff, who died in 1990, was a Texan who published gothic novels, but he rechristened himself Jennifer Wilde to venture convincingly into bodice-ripping historical romance. He did so with the 1976 novel
Love's Tender Fury
, and although he had used other female pseudonyms, none earned him the kind of success he experienced as Wilde.

Terry Harknett, the prolific author of nearly two hundred books, wrote westerns—as in gun slinging and tobacco chewing—using rancher-sounding names like George G. Gilman. Harknett once described himself as a frustrated suspense writer: “For fifteen long years, I wrote mystery novels that were published twice yearly—and sank without trace at the same rate.” In a rather unlikely way, he had stumbled into the genre of westerns, and his Gilman novels went on to sell millions of copies. Not bad for a British man from Essex with a decidedly unmasculine name.

Sometimes, however, literary fakery crosses the line from being a harmless alias, employed for the author's private, benign purpose. It is perceived as mendacity, as an appalling betrayal of trust. The consequences of this exploitation can tarnish the poseur's reputation irrevocably. And when not only does the supposed background of an author prove fraudulent, but the material presented as autobiographical is itself a lie, the backlash is especially dreadful.

In early 2008, a writer named Margaret B. Jones published
Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival.
This was a harrowing story of the author's experiences as a foster child and a Bloods gang member in South Central Los Angeles. She recalled one of the crucial lessons she had learned in her former life: “Trust no one. Even your own momma will sell you out for the right price or if she gets scared enough.”

Writing in the
New York Times,
in a review accompanied by the headline “However Mean the Streets, Have an Exit Strategy,” the critic Michiko Kakutani called the book “humane and deeply affecting” and praised the author for writing “with a novelist's eye for the psychological detail and an anthropologist's eye for social rituals and routines.”

The book was a fabrication, and “Margaret B. Jones” did not exist. (The author's duplicity was exposed by her own sister.) “Jones,” it turned out, was the persona of Margaret Seltzer, a thirty-three-year-old white woman living with her daughter in a four-bedroom 1940s bungalow in Eugene, Oregon. Seltzer had grown up with her biological parents in affluent Sherman Oaks, California, and had attended a private Episcopal day school. She did not have a black foster mother whom she called “Big Mom,” nor foster siblings named Terrell, Taye, Nishia, and NeeCee. She was neither a Blood nor a Crip. And she had not, at fourteen years old, received a gun as a birthday gift.

Riverhead Books, the publisher of
Love and Consequences
, promptly canceled the author's publicity tour, recalled copies of the book, and offered refunds to those who had purchased it. For her part, Seltzer claimed that her intentions had been honorable. “I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don't listen to,” she said in an interview. “I was in a position where at one point people said you should speak for us, because nobody else is going to let us in to talk. Maybe it's an ego thing—I don't know. I just felt that there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it.” Seltzer had written much of the book at a Starbucks in Los Angeles.

The morbidly shy young writer JT LeRoy, a teenage drifter and recovering drug addict from West Virginia, courted (mostly by phone, mail, and fax) the sympathetic attention of Hollywood celebrities such as Winona Ryder and Drew Barrymore, and prominent authors including Mary Karr and Dennis Cooper. Another fan of his work, Madonna, once sent LeRoy some books on kabbalah as a gift. No one actually met him.

BOOK: Nom de Plume
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