A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Thank you Shakespeare. Now we can extrapolate out and conclude that whether or not to use a pseudonym isn’t an issue writers need worry about. Rose or Xantherea or Jane would garner the same accolades for her work. Or John.
Yet, to continue with the Shakespeare, to be or not to be your own name is indeed an issue that has exercised many writers. The advisability of a pseudonym is up for debate, but Jane Austen did it (I am not sure I could be described as ‘A Lady’). The Brontë sisters were creative and Charlotte, Emily and Anne went as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. George Eliot is hardly remembered by anything other than her ‘pen name.’ Does Mary Anne Evans ring a bell?
When I started this blog I was planning to write about the liberating effects of using a pseudonym but have inadvertently wandered off into the larger problem of gender, which alas is not confined to the nineteenth century. New examples surface regularly, from Joanne Rowling being advised to publish under her initials, to more recent dispiriting responses of agents to the same manuscript depending on whether a male or female name was attached.
This is too big a problem for me to even look at squarely, so I will do a u-turn back to my initial impetus for sitting down to write about pseudonyms. And that was a fun and flippant discussion amongst friends about possible pen names. Suggestions flew: funny, eye-catching, serious, honouring a lineage, or simply using the right part of the alphabet so the surname puts your book on a shelf at eye height in the bookshop.
We could all see there are positives to sailing under a different flag. Unshackled, uninhibited runs at difficult and embarrassing material, without having to worry about family and friends thinking, ‘my goodness gracious me, she thought that!’ Or (and is this better or worse?), ‘heavens to Betsy, she’s obviously writing autobiographically and must have done that!’ And yes, we were thinking about sex here in our discussion.
Then there are also the secrets. A writer could presumably cover their theft of other’s life stories by using a pseudonym.
These are all freedoms when actually writing. Elena Ferrante is a compelling case for the other end of the equation – the post-publication part of being a writer.
There is such a fixation on celebrity around writers now. Is this helpful? As Ferrante (whoever Ferrante is) said in a Paris Review interview, ‘I’m still very interested in testifying against the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media. This demand for self-promotion diminishes the actual work of art, whatever that art may be, and it has become universal. The media simply can’t discuss a work of literature without pointing to some writer-hero.’
Oh dear. My recent fun discussion about pseudonyms has become more and more unstuck the deeper I go.
I’ll leave it to others to decide whether I am using a pseudonym or not.
Image: Scrabbling for Privacy. Thanks to Owen Moore.