On Revealing Everything Except Who You Are

Many of us lead double lives, if not triple or quadruple ones, with semi-anonymous online personalities that we try to segregate from who we are in real life.  Some of us are writers beyond our blogs, too, and so have to make a decision about whether to publish under the name typed on our legal documents or whether to use initials or a pen name.  To the extent we maintain anonymity, a rare feat these days, there is a certain comfort and freedom associated with it, but it may come at the cost of reducing our ability to build a platform and share our creative work.

As a blogger, I have opted for a limited degree of privacy through the use of initials.  So far, this minimal privacy has kept these entries under the radar of Google searches related to my full name.  It has reduced the extent to which the whimsical, creative side of my personality collides with my stodgy profession (I would rather not discuss my thoughts on literature, politics, and parenting with clients and opposing counsel).  The separation of these aspects of my life may be harder to accomplish in the future if I decide to publish my manuscript, particularly if I choose to do so under my given name.

No Peeking: The Benefits of Hiding

In an interesting essay entitled Portrait of a Pseudonym in The American Scholar,** Hortense Calisher (1911-2009) talks about her own short-lived experience using a pseudonym — Jack Fenno — after a decades-long career during which she published novels under her own name.  She writes:

The nineteenth century was one of the golden ages of the pseudonym… I belong to a century in which it has become ever more important to be known as who you are… When you start out as a writer there are two rules of thumb nobody any longer suggests. One: Do not reveal who you are. Two: The best place for you is in your books. There you are free to be anybody and anywhere you have the power to describe.

Calisher refers to a time, not her own and not today, when authors could hide inside their books.  They did so for many reasons, “ranging from the political safeguards against being killed for [their] subversions, to the merely social, when [they] didn’t want the king’s court, or [their] relatives around the corner, to know what [they] wrote… [or] simply because that was the custom.”

Hiding can be liberating for writers, enabling them to speak freely without attaching their real names to their words.  Problematically, it can also encourage harassment, bullying, and dishonest behavior, an example of which we saw when British author and notorious “sock-puppeteer” R.J. Ellory was discovered bashing his competitors’ books in fake Amazon reviews under a pseudonym (see The Next Step for Dishonest Writers: A Legal Career?).

Rather than using a pseudonym, there seem to be many authors who have preferred using their first initials, including J.K. Rowling, which may have given them some degree of privacy in the early “hedging their bets” stage before their work became popular.  The use of initials hides gender and possibly ethnicity, if it is different from what the last name implies, and could make a book appeal to a wider audience of perhaps implicitly-biased folks who might not buy a book written by a woman or by an ethnic minority.

Recently, Rowling had considered hiding behind a pen name to publish her latest work, The Casual Vacancy, a book aimed at an adult audience rather than the younger audience enamored by the Harry Potter saga.***  In the end, she concluded that it was “braver” to publish her novel under her own name and take responsibility for the work, regardless of whether it would win or lose in the court of public opinion.

I can’t decide whether I think it was brave or cowardly for Rowling to publish The Casual Vacancy under her own name.  We’ll never know how that book would have fared if it had stood on its own: whether the negative reviews are from Harry-loyalists who cannot bear to see Rowling write anything new or whether the positive reviews are from Rowling-loyalists who will forever love any word she puts to paper.

Ollie Ollie Oxen Free   

Whatever the reason for choosing to write under a pseudonym, it is difficult for authors to maintain anonymity in today’s world, and few stay in hiding for long.

Beyond books, as the Paula Broadwell–David Petraeus affair shows us, there’s really no such thing as internet anonymity. Most authors probably have nothing to fear in terms of internet surveillance, but a culture that allows that degree of warrantless searching is one that expects and tolerates easy access to information about everyone and everything.  Readers expect their favorite authors to “reveal who [they] are,” requiring even the most private writers to remove their mask of anonymity.  As the great author and curmudgeon E.B. White (1899-1985) reminisced in 1961:

When I was a child, I liked books, but an author to me was a mythical being. I never dreamed of getting in touch with one, and no teacher ever suggested that I do so. The book was the thing, not the man behind the book.

Imagine what White would say about the internet, the immediate means by which readers get to know the women and men “behind the book[s].”  Authors must have a social media presence to “engage” with readers and show the “real” person, perhaps a tall order for an author writing under a pseudonym who loathes the idea of self-promotion.

Final Thoughts

All we know is that the names on books matter, whether they are real, partially real, or entirely fake.  A pseudonym is an opportunity for authors to shed the dull names their parents gave them without their blessing and the personal history given to them by fate, and to choose more interesting identities, perhaps names, as Calisher recommends, with “a buried meaning, some private thrill of ownership, or tribute.”  These days, though, clever pseudonyms probably won’t allow authors to hide their real identities for long, not even during the “hedging their bets” stage, not if they want to promote their work effectively through social media and other means.

*Image above:  Many thanks to Jae from Lit and Scribbles who created this wonderful comic rendition of yours truly.

**Hortense Calisher, Portrait of a Pseudonym, 67 The American Scholar 53-61 (Summer 1998).

***UPDATE: This post was written before the whole J.K. Rowling/ Robert Galbraith situation.

29 thoughts on “On Revealing Everything Except Who You Are

  1. Pingback: Deception: On & Between The Covers | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  2. Pingback: Pen Names: Burying Your Identity to Avoid Bias | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  3. Great post! It’s something I’ve thought a lot about, because in today’s world it’s so easy to find out everything about a person, including contact information and where they live, etc. I recently read a post about author Cassandra Clare, and how some haters published her address as well as some really nasty accusations about her which effectively scared her away from the internet for a bit. Scary stuff.

    With our blog, my sister and I decided we would include some personal information, including photos of ourselves and our real names; right now it doesn’t matter because we’re not famous or anything, and I figured assuming things go well and we do publish our book in the future, it’s almost impossible to stay anonymous these days anyways.

    1. Thanks! I hadn’t heard about the harassment Cassandra Clare endured. How awful! The internet can be a nasty place. If we had less anonymity, as Zuckerberg endorses, we’d probably have less cyber-harassment. But we’d also have fewer honest discussions and interaction.

  4. Pingback: Is a Form Letter Ever Personal Enough? | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  5. What a thoughtful, intelligent post. Thank you for exploring yet another intriguing subject. My professional life has been in technology and economic development, and you’d think I’d have had a clear sense of the pros and cons of anonymity when I started blogging 9 months ago. No, I’m also very intuitive in my decision making! I started off anonymous and then got myself in an interesting situation where I volunteered to take care of the new wordpress blog for our local Women in IT group. A few days later, when I posted something for everyone on that blog, I came up as Robby Robin. You can imagine the questions. So I switched to my real name and kept my Robby Robin icon. Eventually I decided that was too unprofessional as well, even though I loved it. All poor planning on my part. 🙂 On another note, the person from whom I took a blogging workshop last Feb had an anonymous blog; when she had a post that went viral she realized that she couldn’t claim it retroactively. There are, indeed, many pros and cons. Again, great post.

    1. Thank you! It’s a subject I’ve thought about a lot. I’m pretty happy with the semi-anonymity I enjoy currently, but it will probably change in the future. You raise an interesting point about not being able to claim content retroactively. I’ll have to think about that a little more.

  6. great post! i admit i’m hiding a bit behind my blog too. i just like to keep my blogging world separate from my real life world. although it wouldn’t be hard to connect the dots if anyone came across my blog so i guess its only semi private.

    1. I’m the same way. My full name isn’t really a secret (I’ve mentioned my first name and last name on separate places on this blog), and anyone who was motivated enough would be able to figure it out (not that there’s any reason to!). So, I’m not concerned about my readers finding out who I am. I’m more concerned about a potential client or opposing counsel Googling the name I use professionally and then coming across this blog.

    1. So true! It amazes me that someone like White, who turned out to be more of a curmudgeon than I had expected, would spend so much time responding to fan letters. Maybe he wouldn’t have minded the time-saving features of email correspondence and FB fan pages, but he definitely would have balked at sharing the type of personal information that many authors have on their blogs these days.

  7. This is something I struggled with when I started thinking about writing and blogging. I originally adopted a pen name but because I work in the world of reading, it was impossible to keep it separate. Of course there are consequences, and I’ll deal with them. It’s a decision that I think everyone has to make for themselves based on a variety of factors.

    1. I wish it were an easier decision to make! I’m leaning towards staying semi-anonymous for much longer, and I worry that my Twitter account, which has my last name, will suggest me to someone I know in real life. The consequences of such exposure aren’t all that great–it’s just that I’d rather not have those conversations at work.

  8. When I started my blog a few years ago, I debated between using a pseudonym or my real name. I chose the latter. I am a technical writer/journalist by profession, and very little of what I write contractually is actually attributed to me in publication, so that partially affected my decision.

    I am fortunate that I have a fairly common name, so it is difficult to “Google” me and be certain you have the right person. But I also find myself writing about “safe” topics on my blog, and I wonder if I’d be a bit more adventurous if writing under a pseudonym.

    My husband is a published author and he writes 3 blogs — only 1 of which is connected with the name he publishes his novels under. His other 2 blogs are more popular, and it has been a challenge in his book marketing to connect his blog readers to the writing he is trying to make a living off.

    1. That sounds like a good reason to use your given name, and having a relatively common one can definitely help with the “Google problem” in the event you veer away from “safe” content (you do manage to write an interesting blog even without the freedom of a pseudonym, though). I’m not sure whether my content would change much if I wrote under my real name, but I would probably second-guess myself more often.

  9. I thought about using one for awhile before I actually published. I even had one all picked out, but in the end, I felt that I am proud of who I am as an author and I want people to know I wrote that book. It was a long struggle to get to that point and I did. Luckily, I don’t have a dull name, but a very lovely one, if I do say so myself!

  10. You bring up several good points here. I think it would have been braver of Rowling to publish her new one under a pen name and see if it could stand on its own. Instead, she fell back on her guaranteed popularity as J K Rowling… and attached a staggeringly high price to the ebook. If she’d published under a pen name, the publisher would not have been able to get away with that.

    I write under a pen name, because as much as times have changed, online activities are being closely scrutinized by prospective employers. In fact, I know an author who lost his job because of what he writes. I’m valiantly trying to keep my real life separate from my writing life.

    Times may seem freewheeling and open right now, but there is a terrible backlash being perpetrated by the extreme religious right in this country. It’s producing interesting, and often conflicting, even dismaying, results.

    1. I agree with you about Rowling. The decision to go with her real name isn’t about bravery v. cowardice. It’s about money. The price of the ebook on Amazon dropped quickly from $17.99 to $14.99. So, now that they’ve squeezed the die-hard fans, they’re trying to capture the rest of us. I’m still holding out for a slightly lower price. I’m in no rush to read it.

      As for pen names, do you find that it reduces your ability to promote your work? I can understand your reluctance to attach your real name to your books in light of the political climate (which I believe is improving) and the lack of employee rights (which is not improving). In most states, an employee can be fired for any reason except specific forms of discrimination. So yes, authors can and do get fired for the books they write.

  11. Very good point on whether the Rowling’s book would stand on its own, but I do admire her for taking the chance at disapproval of her work. As per remaining nameless on the web, I tried for years, but Google picked up on my business name and from then on it was pointless to hide behind my gravatar. Then I posted my photo after meeting many of the Garden Bloggers at the yearly Fling. Plus, associating the blog to FB was the real deal breaker. It happens eventually unless you are on top of everything you do on the web.

    1. Yeah, I have not connected this blog to FB, and so far, most of the people I know in real life have no idea that I do this. I doubt most of my acquaintances would care about what I write on this blog, but in the event they bring it up, it would be a distraction from what I do during most of the day.

      I’m very curious about Rowling’s book, but I’m waiting for the price to drop a bit more than it already has.

      1. None of my clients have accessed my blog either. I like the freedom to explore topics and issues I would not prefer to share with everyone I know. My feelings of what we do environmentally are an example. People want their buildings and landscapes, and don’t care it it is done in deference to nature.I do, and as an architect try to keep my beliefs intact.

    1. I agree that Paula Broadwell seems to like being in the spotlight at least for her biography of Petraeus, but I’m not sure she likes the attention she has received as his mistress. Who knows, though.

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