A writer by any other name…

Oh, the luxury of having polished off a long series of posts! I get to write about whatever I want again. And what I want to do is revisit some of the many excellent questions readers have been posting as comments in recent weeks. My psychic detectors (and feedback from some readers) tell me that not everyone follows the comment strings — which, in many cases, would involve revisiting an already-read post — so I want to make sure that these important issues get addressed in the larger forum, too.

For instance, weeks back, inveterate wonderful question-formulator MooCrazy asked:

“Can a writer publish in different genres or on several different topics without diluting her ‘product’ and confusing the ‘customer?’ I think having been a free-lance magazine writer has resulted in my thinking that I can hop from one fascinating topic to the next. Please do a blog or series sometime about strategizing a writing career. Thanks!”

Moo, this is a great question, one that I know will speak to many, many writers. Most of us suffer from what Flaubert called, “the lust of the pen,” don’t we, an excited desire to write on a wide array of topics? Yet opinions differ widely within the industry about whether all of these literary effusions should be released under your primary handle: it really does depend upon both how well-known your writing is AND how common your name is. So lots of meaty discussion material here.

As with so much else that goes on in publishing, the prevailing wisdom varies on this point. Ask any given agent or editor whether a writer should (or could) use the same nom de plume across genres, and you will either be told that it just doesn’t matter OR that it would be absolute folly to use the same name on a horror novel and a mystery.

According to this latter school of thought, revealing that you have, like most mortal souls currently wandering the planet, a broad array of interests is a luxury reserved for only the best-known of writers: Anne Rice, for instance, or Stephen King. For lesser luminaries, this ilk advises, stick to one name per genre.

Well, that clears it up nicely, doesn’t it? Next!

No, but seriously, it’s worth looking into why each school of thought has its adherents before you make a decision on the subject. Publishing is a business, after all: presumably, if how we bill ourselves is of interest to the people who sell our books, it can only fascinate them for reasons related, however obliquely, to marketing. If using the names on our birth certificates for everything we write is going to be problematic, obviously, we should know about it.

About 75% of the authors I know who use pen names do so for non-marketing reasons, however. They may want to use their maiden names, perhaps, having spent their high school years fantasizing about how “Edna Curmudgeon” would look on a dust jacket. They may want not to use their current names, because they are writing a roman à clef, or because they have a nasty habit of incorporating their coworkers’ secrets into their novels, or because they really do not want their junior high school-age children to know that Mommy writes erotica. Sometimes, they just hate their birth names, or want to honor a passed-away grandmother. The reasons vary.

Or – and this is more common than one might suspect, given how hard it is for a writer to gain recognition in the first place – they want to retain their privacy. Now, there may be some very solid reasons for this; do you want, for instance, the signature you scrawl at book signings to be identical to the one that graces your checks? (I know a LOT of authors who develop a book signing-specific signature for this reason.) Do you want your readers to be able to look you up on the internet? In the local telephone directory? To be able to show up on your doorstep to argue with you about an ending they disliked?

Hands up, everyone who saw or read MISERY. (Speaking of writers with a history of writing under a number of different names.)

I have to say, having grown up around writers famous enough to have fans actually showing up on their doorsteps from time to time, I did have to think seriously about whether I wanted to publish under my real name. Both Philip K. Dick and Henry Miller, for instance, were well-established enough by the time I appeared on this terrestrial scene to attract the occasional stalker; I could tell you stories about science fiction conference incidents that would turn your hair gray overnight.

And, truth be told, I do have nonfiction published under several different names, so it would not be confused with my academic work. Most of the time, the objections to an academic’s publishing fiction under her real name comes from the academy side, not the publishing side, driven by the fear of being denied tenure, rather than confusing potential readers. Rumor has it, for instance, that there’s a quite prominent sociologist at a local university that shall remain nameless who writes steamy novels about her coworkers under an absurdly obvious pseudonym. But I digress.

However, once I decided to write a memoir, I made the decision: if I’m going to be honest about everything else in my life, why not own up to my real name? (Yes, believe it or not, Anne Mini is in fact the name on my birth certificate. My parents thought about my publishing career, too: according to family legend, they asked the maternity nurse to type out the name possibilities for me before they committed, so they could see what each would look like in print – and thus on a dust jacket.)

I’ve met a LOT of aspiring writers who fear the invasion of their privacy, but let’s be realistic about this for a moment: how many of your favorite authors would you recognize if you walked by them on the street? Most jacket photos are seriously outdated – sometimes for reasons of vanity, sometimes for reasons of economy, sometimes to make the author more fan-repellent – and let’s face it, few fiction writers are famous enough to be interviewed much on television. The chances of your being spotted just because you travel under your pen name are minimal. And if your name is a common one, changing it will not protect you.

Many writers change their names to make them either less common, less ethnic, or more memorable — the writer’s choice, mind you, rarely the agent or publisher’s. I happen to have been born with a very memorable name (a good indicator: how easy it was for kids to make fun of it in elementary school; I’ll spare you what they came up with for me), but if your name is, say, John Smith, you might want to punch it up a trifle. Ditto if you happen to have been christened Ernest Hemingway or Alice Walker – you really do want a name that readers will identify solely with you.

The ethnicity question is less straightforward. On general principle, I tend to frown upon writers (or actors, or directors, or politicians) Anglicizing their names, because collectively, it conveys the false impression that authors with non-northern European monikers are less worth reading. If you doubt the cumulative effect, think about the movie stars of yesteryear: to judge by their stage names, almost all of them hopped directly from the British Isles to Hollywood. And practically none of them, according to the names spelled out in lights, were Jewish, a fact that must have come as something of a surprise to their mothers.

The practice of automatic Anglicization is less common than it used to be, of course, but people still do it, alas. The usual argument is that more mainstream names are less likely to be mispronounced, and speaking as someone with Greek middle names, I guess I can understand that. Although my second middle name, Apostolides, is on every diploma I have ever received, and I always provided a phonetic transcription of it, every graduation of my life has been exactly the same: the degree-conferrer looks down at my diploma, pales visibly, looks up at me helplessly – and then announces me as only Anne Mini. Polysyllabic names are not for the faint of heart. And naturally, there is a good argument to be made in favor of your potential readers being able to walk into a bookstore and ask for your work by name, rather than stammering, “Do you have a book by Anne Apos…um…Apos…you know, that Greek lady?”

Does all of this seem incidental to the issue of whether or not it makes sense to use different pen names for different types of book? Actually, it isn’t: for those who say it doesn’t matter, the concerns above are the primary reasons for a writer to use an alternate name. Unless you sell a significant number of books in one genre, they argue, it’s not likely to confuse anyone who has ever done a computer search before to find you listed as an author in another genre.

If it excites comment at all amongst booksellers, they say, it will be of the “Margaret Atwood writes mysteries, too? No kidding?” variety, not the “Oh, my God, there’s a Margaret Atwood listed under fiction, and one under cookbooks! Am I going INSANE?!?” type.

Tomorrow, I’ll deal a bit more with the other, and rather more common, view on the subject. In the meantime, write widely, dear readers – and keep up the good work!

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