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.
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.
**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.