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What's in a name?

11th August 2011 - Rachel Darling

Have you read the latest David Cornwell book? What do you think about Margaret Ogden's new one? And which is your favourite Sydney Porter story?

Never heard of any of these authors? Well, you probably will have, as they're all world-famous... just under different names. David Cornwell is John le Carré. Or is it more accurate to say that John le Carre is David Cornwell? Margaret Ogden writes her novels under the more androgynous name Robin Hobb, as she felt her own was too feminine for the fantasy genre's predominantly male readership. William Sydney Porter began signing his stories O Henry, following a spell in Ohio's Columbus penitentiary, in order that the public would never know of his shameful past.

So, what exactly is in a name?

Nom de PlumeJudging by the number of hugely popular and/or acclaimed authors writing under pen names there must be something. This is also the question Carmela Ciuraru asks (and yes, that is her real name) in her engaging look at pseudonyms, Nom de Plume. She looks at the lives of several different authors and the reasons behind their adoption of a new name, often including humorous accounts of how these names came to be chosen.

The most renowned of all authorial pseudonyms - Mark Twain, George Eliot, Stendhal, Lewis Carroll, George Orwell - as well as the authors' 'real' names (Samuel Clemens, Mary Ann Evans, Marie-Henri Beyle, Charles Dodgson and Eric Blair) are now common knowledge and they were often all but common knowledge at the time. The only contemporary writer I can call to mind whose real name is still unknown is former SAS operative 'Andy McNab'.

In the same way that many actors and musicians perform under 'stage' names writers adopt pen names, in some cases to hide their real identity but more often then not secrecy is not the main aim of a pseudonym - they work to separate different aspects of a writers life - the public from the private - but, as in many ways an author is always a self-constructed persona it is an almost natural expression of this dual nature.

Other reasons for adopting a pen name are varied. Orwell allegedly didn't want to embarrass his parents with some of the more colourful renderings in Down and Out in Paris and London, whilst the desperately private mathematician, Reverend Charles Dodgson, became Lewis Carroll in order to separate his academic life from his Alice stories.

Brian O'Nolan was an Irish civil servant who shielded his career by writing novels under Flann O'Brien, as well as a popular column in the Irish Times under the name Myles na gCopaleen and Anne Desclos was considered a prudish, middle-aged journalist when she published The Story of O as Pauline Réage in order to prove her lover wrong when he said women were not capable of writing erotic novels.

Covers of The Bell JarSome authors initially published under pen names are now known by their given names, for example: Sylvia Plath first published The Bell Jar as Victoria Lucas. Georges Simenon wrote pulp fiction variously under Christian Brulls, Jean du Perry, Gom Gut, Jacques Dersonne and many more before he decided it was about time he was recognised as himself, which coincided with the conception of Maigret; Fernando Pessoa had over 70 pen names (although he saw them as distinct characters and referred to them as heteronyms) and Claire Morgan was the name under which Patricia Highsmith, already a successful novelist, originally published The Price of Salt, as she felt its autobiographical content was a little too close to home. Stephen King wrote books under the name Richard Bachmann in order to diversify his oeuvre and avoid saturating the market; Booker prize winner John Banville also writes crime fiction under the alias Benjamin Black and Agatha Christe published romance as Mary Westmacott.

Some noms de plume deviate little from the writer's real name, with a simple change to either first or surname. Eleanor Robertson writes romance under Nora Roberts and crime under J D Robb. Henry Yorke became Henry Green to spare his aristocratic family's scorn of his vocation. Florence Smith changed her first name to Stevie. Isak Dinesen was the name chosen by Karen Blixen, Dinesen being her maiden name; her father wrote under the pseudonym Boganis.

Interview with a VampireAlisa Rosenbaum and Edith Pargeter kept the same initials but changed names (to Ayn Rand and Ellis Peters respectively). Anne Rice was born Howard O'Brien. She took her husband's last name - Rice - although having always been self-conscious about her given first name, she had already adopted 'Anne' during as a young girl.

That Rice deliberately dropped her male sounding name for something distinctly more feminine tells how far the literary world has come since Ellis, Acton and Currier Bell, aka Emily, Anne and Charlotte Bronte thought up their pen names merely in order to be published. Of course they are now known by their actual names, unlike perhaps the most famous female-male pseudonym - George Eliot. Although writing in the Victorian era when female novelists were accepted, Mary Ann Evans chose to stick to her pen name as she felt she was more likely to be taken seriously as a male writer.

Roman Kacew employed two pseudonyms - Romain Gary and Emile Ajar. Under the first he wrote numerous bestselling and critically acclaimed novels and won France's most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt. After Gary's popularity waned he invented the second persona and kept his real idenity a closely guarded secret. Ajar's novel quickly became immensely popular and Gary employed his cousin to 'play' Ajar in public. Ajar also went on to win the Goncourt, even though an author can only be awarded the prize once: when the truth of his identity was revealed it outraged the French literary establishment. He killed himself a few months later.

The Heart is Deceitful above All ThingsMore recently a public scandal erupted around J T Leroy when it was revealed that Laura Albert, the real author, had hired someone to inhabit the character Leroy - who was supposed to be a teenage boy, although it was the half-sister of her then partner who took on the role. As the books were supposed to be autobiographical, this caused controversy and upset amongst Leroy's fans, amongst whom were many celebrities including the director Gus Van Sant; author Dennis Cooper and actors Drew Barrymore, Winona Ryder and Chloë Sevigny. Even Madonna was a fan. The deception caused Albert to be sued, successfully, for fraud and neither Albert, nor Leroy, have published a novel since.

As well as a host of other reasons, writing under an assumed name gives a great measure of authorial freedom. It also gives weight to the notion of writers' essentially dual nature - the one of who writes and the one who lives. A pseudonym demarcates the writing side, solidifying into almost an entirely other person: Eric Blair, an old Etonian from an upper-middle class family, probably couldn't have written Down and Out in Paris and London whereas George Orwell could: Blair had to become Orwell, had to separate his life in that way, in order to do so. Equally Samuel Clemens, as Mark Twain, gained confidence from the freedom a pen name afforded him. Even the name itself, 'Twain', denotes a division.

The questions remains would Twain, or any of these authors, have had the same results under their own name or did they need the presence of another self to embody their writerly instinct? I certainly believe that, for these writers, the pseudonym was a necessity not just vanity or prank.

Should you feel inspired to write under a pseudonym of your very own, but feel strapped for inspiration as to what to call yourself, try this Pen Name Generator.

I'm 'Jon Stall' or 'Gladys Potter'.

 

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