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It's All In The Name

Stella Newing looks back on the history of the literary pseudonym and what it can tell us about publishing trends

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There is a long-established tradition of authors using fake names in order to publish their work. But with the reasons behind novelists using a disguise changing along with the trends in fiction, what does the need for a nom de plume reveal about the demands of the literary market?

When the Bronte sisters and Mary Ann Evans deployed male names to get their writ-ing noticed by publishers, it was a necessity in order to avoid it being branded by the dismissive stereotypes of frivolous female fic-tion. The Brontës first published a volume of poetry under the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. It was not until sometime after the publication ofJane Eyreand The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,which caused much speculation about who ‘these Bell brothers’ were, that their publishers met with the Brontës and realised that they were, in fact, women. Mary Ann Evans used the pseudonym of George Eliot to produce classics of the English language such as Middlemarch. Mean-while, across the pond, one of 19th century France’s most prolific writers was working under the name George Sand. Sand was really Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, a controver-sial early feminist.

It is all too easy to scoff at the kneejerk sexism of publishers of the 1800s, safe in the knowledge that these writers were over-looked and underappreciated as women. However, there is reason to suggest that the prejudices associated with a female name might not be a thing of the past. Recent years have seen writers adopt male pen names, the most famous example being J. K. Rowling. After the international success of Harry Potter made her a billionaire and a household name, Rowling wrote her next novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling as Robert Galbraith. The true identity of Galbraith, a man with a military background, was accidentally outed, with Rowling claiming that she had hoped to write three novels under the name.

Rowling’s first novel after Harry Potter ,A Casual Vacancy, was not quite the literary sensation that the public was used to; reviews were somewhat lacklustre. The reasoning be-hind taking on a false name for her next work is obvious – Rowling wanted to shed the associations of Harry Potterand prove her talent, saying “it was a way of disconnecting myself from all the baggage that comes along with me”. However, one m u s t wonder why she felt that a male name was more appropriate. When it was revealed that Galbraith was actually Rowling, sales for The Cuckoo’s Calling rose by five hundred thousand percent, somewhat undoing her inten-tions and reiterating the staggering effect a name can carry when marketing a product. Arguably, this was not the first time that Rowling had to take on a masculine alias. When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stonehit the shelves in 1997, Joanne Rowling had been asked by her publishers to use her initials rather than her full name, anticipat-ing that the target readership of young boys might be deterred from reading a book writ-ten by a woman. She used the ‘K’ in memory of her grandmother Kathleen, and so the most recognisable literary name of the 21st century was born. Though the world became aware that she was a woman within months of the first novel’s publication, the gender-neutral initials have stuck.

In 2015, Jezebel published the findings of author Catherine Nichols, who found that submitting the manuscript for her novel under a male pseudonym brought her eight times more responses than she received when using her own name. After receiving little interest from agents, she sent the submission around under a different email address, using a male name and had five responses within 24 hours. She was forced to conclude: “My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me- Catherine.” Nichols' article came at a time when women of the literary world were crying out for better representation and more notice. She wondered, “with my name, maybe my novel was taken for ‘Wom-en’s Fiction’ – a dislikeable name for a respectable genre – but not what I was writing.” Thus, it would appear that the same biases that the Brontes and Evans faced were being still enforced by publishers and agents, however unconsciously, where female names denote lighter, less worthy work.

Since Nichol’s article was published, I think there is room to suggest that a fair amount has changed. The breakout success of young writers such as Sally Rooney with her novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People,indicate an interest in the female voice and the female experiences. I recently attended an event called ‘How To Get Published’, where one agent suggested that it was currently a disadvantage to be a young white straight male trying to become a writer because people now want to read previously under-represented stories. There has been a spate of male authors using deliberately gender-neutral pen names, such as Riley Sager (real name Todd Ritter) who wrote the Gone Girl-esque Final Girls. His website does not use any gendered pro-nouns. Tony Strong wrote The Girl Before as JP Delaney and the S of SJ Watson, author of Before I Go to Sleep, stands for Steve.

So what is it that links the use of these female pen names? All novels are stories of thrill and intrigue, and all are written, at least in part, from the point of view of a woman. SJ Watson claimed that withholding his gender was a way “to reassure myself that the voice worked”, and other writers have said much the same. How much validity is there in this suggestion that a reader will feel more comfortable in the belief that the author is of the same gender as their protagonist? Does the name even add weight and authority to the writing? If that is the case, that a perception of the author’s gender might skew a reader’s opinion of the same text, then perhaps the 21st century reader isn’t as discerning as we might think. It also needs to be considered that, as well as having female protagonists, the books mentioned above are all similar in genre, being of the thriller variety.

Once again, there would seem to be remnants of genre snobbery, whereby publishers and agents have rigid views of what they want their writer to look like. Crime novels are another type of fiction that seem to attract the use of pseudonyms, with established literary writers such as Julian Barnes using a false identity to publish crime fiction. Authors of romance and erotica have also historically disguised their real names, perhaps to separate their working life from their personal. Ultimately, pseudonyms are an extremely popular way of maximising a writer’s potential, whether that be to write in more than one genre without creating preconceptions or scepticism about a book, to combat biases of publishers and readers alike, or simply to take part in the excitement of having a literary persona.

It is a fairly unique ability – in what other profession would you be able to take on an alias in order to create new working opportunities? Actors take stage names, but only because actor’s unions usually dictate that there cannot be two people registered with the same name. But what is the future of the writer’s pseudonym? In the age of Twitter, the prospective of upkeeping multiple social media profiles seems unlikely, and the guise of the false identity has the potential to be rumbled far qucker than before.

But perhaps that’s not the point; are readers are content to know little about their literary icons? We live in a society where the celebrity becomes public property, their every biographical detail scrutinised and speculated upon. The pseudonym might seem to be a handy escape from that, but perhaps isn’t realistic. This month, Pointless host, Richard Os-man, became the subject of the most lucrative bidding war for a debut novel in publishing history. The Thursday Murder Club, which will be released next year won him a seven-figure book deal, after he had written it in se-cret for the past 18 months. Osman had kept quiet about the book because he didn’t want it to be seen as a “celebrity novel”. He makes a valid point. Recent years have seen the phenomenon of the celebrity tome, books that are heavily ghost written or edited, polished off with a famous name. One of the more famous cases is that of YouTuber Zoella, aka Zoe Sugg, who released her novel Girl Online at the height of her fame and success in 2014. Rumours that the book was not actually Sugg’s own work began to circulate, until Penguin Random House were forced to confirm that it had been aided by a variety of ghost writers.

Though not strictly an example of pseudonyms, the celebrity novel does, nonetheless, shed light on the question of just how impor-tant a name is in literature. Katie Price’s novel Crystal, written by Rebecca Farnworth, out-sold all of the Man Booker shortlisted books in the year of its publication. Would it have achieved the same success with Farnworth’s name on the front cover? Almost certainly not.

Pseudonyms are fascinating in the way that they can completely alter the marketing potential and general reception of a novel. Are they ethical, moral, or fair? Does anyone actually mind? They mask a history of intrigue, trickery, and disguise in literature, and to trace their usage may well be to under-stand the change in the demands of readers and publishers. Literary aliases are a tradition that we are unlikely to lose, even in the age of social media. As writers face more and more of a challenge to get published in a saturated market, pseudonyms offer an answer and a way to beat the bias.

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