Sunday, May 04, 2008

Pseudonyms: What's in a name?

"Must a name mean something?" Alice asked doubtfully.
"Of course it must," Humpty Dumpty said, with a short laugh. "My name means the shape I am and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape." - Lewis Carroll

Throughout history, countless authors have used pseudonyms for some reason or other. We often come across examples of female authors who wrote under a male or androgynous nom de plume (be it temporarily or during the whole of their career) for fear of being ostracized or even taken seriously by the publishing elite in the nineteenth-century which happened to be male dominated—or in some cases, simply because they wanted to have more freedom to write about topics which women were not expected to write or even know about. In fact, “Robert Southey, then the Poet Laureate of England, explained to young Charlotte Bronte: "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be."

Here are some notable names that fall in this category:

Mary Ann Evans – George Eliot
Charlotte Brontë – published Jane Eyre in 1847 as Currer Bell (garnering overnight success and much speculation about the author’s gender. The mystery, in itself, fueled this success as fames author Joyce Carol Oates writes: “The intelligence, vigor, and passion of the work argued for its having been written by a man, commentators noted; at the same time, its sensitivity, and, of course, its point of view in the heroine Jane, argued for its having been written by a woman.”)
Emily Brontë – Ellis Bell (for Wuthering Heights)
Ann Brontë – Acton Bell (for Agnes Grey)
Amandine Aurore-Lucie Dupin, Baroness Dudevant George Sand (a young version of whom is pictured right. Sand used this pseudonym, coupled with her public appearances in men’s clothing and much gossiped about speculations about her romantic liaisons, as that with composer Chopin, poet de Musset and novelist Sandeau—and also unsubstantiated rumors about an intimate lesbian affair with French actress Marie Dorval—perhaps to openly display her personal views and beliefs about feminism. This cost her to lose many privileges she would have enjoyed as a Baroness, and her behavior was criticized by many, including Charles Baudelaire)

Joyce Carol Oates offers a list of British women writers who used male pseudonyms:

"Harriet Parr ("Holme Lee"), Mary Molesworth ("Ennis Graham"), Mary Dunne ("George Egerton"), Violet Page ("Vernon Lee"), Margaret Barber ("Michael Fairless"), Olive Schreiner ("Ralph Iron"), Gillian Freeman ("Eliot George"). Others have used names of dubious gender: Storm Jameson, Radclyffe Hall, I. Compton-Burnett, V. Sackville-West, A. S. Byatt. The American Hilda Doolittle followed the advice of her friend Ezra Pound and published her poetry under the neuter, if rather diminutive, "H.D."; Janet Flanner became "Genet"; Florence Margaret Smith became "Stevie Smith"; Lula Mae Smith became "Carson McCullers"; Janet Taylor Caldwell published as "Taylor Caldwell" (and as the yet more virile "Max Reiner")."

In a similar version of her article published in the NY Times, Oates states about George Eliot: “George Eliot's feminist sympathies were strong yet ambivalent; she freely conceded the prejudices of the era, asking, in 1855, that a writer friend not reveal the fact that she was the author of an essay in the Westminster Review: ''The article appears to have produced a strong impression, and that impression would be a little counteracted if the author were known to be a woman.''”

Pseudonyms are also used today, or in the not so distant past of the 20th century as first-time or career-long author names. Examples are Lula Carson Smith (Carson McCullers), Ann Rule (Andy Stack), Baroness Karen Blixen (who used Isak Dinesen for Out of Africa and Pierre Andrezel for The Angelic Avengers), and famed SF author Alice Bradley Sheldon who is known as James Tiptree Jr. There are also female authors who use female pseudonyms (I know lots of those, including myself :-D).

Moreover, some female authors also use androgynous names…such as Louisa May Alcott (A.M. Barnard), Antonia Susan Duffy (A.S. Duffy), Phyllis Dorothy James (P.D. James), the almighty Nora Roberts (who also writes as J.D. Robb), Marie Henri Beyle (Stendahl), and the richest author in the world—J.K. Rowling. Incidentally, in an article/blog on “Her Circle Ezine”, the author writes about Rowling that: “Having no middle name, her first Harry Potter book was published under the name Joanne Rowling. But before publishing her first book in the U.S., her publisher Bloomsbury was concerned that the target audience (young boys) might not buy books by a female author. The company recommended Rowling use two initials instead of her first name. Rowling chose K. for Kathleen, the name of her paternal grandmother.”

Poets also use pseudonyms. But according to Paula R. Feldman, to claim that all Romantic Era women poets, for example, used pseudonyms, would be a myth. She in fact tells us that between 1770 and 1835: “women rarely published books of verse anonymously. With surprisingly few exceptions, women who published poetry books proudly placed their real names on the title page from the very outset of their careers. Such was the case with Lucy Aikin, Mathilda Betham, Felicia Hemans, Mary Howitt, Mary Leadbeater, Mary Russell Mitford, Hannah More, Amelia Opie, Sydney Owenson, Mary Robinson, Anna Seward, Charlotte Smith, Agnes Strickland, Ann Yearsley, and many others. When a woman did bring out a book of poetry anonymously, it was often her first book, and her name appeared quickly on the title pages of subsequent editions and later volumes. This first book was a trial balloon, so to speak, a testing of the waters.”

Jane Austen never used a pseudonym, which is often attributed to be the reason for her evading popularity—and living a rather obscure, dull existence—during her lifetime. In these modern times, we desperately try and convince ourselves that it wasn’t so, as books like Janeology or Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict or movies such as The Jane Austen Book Club may attempt to suggest. We are fascinated by this woman who spent all her life away from the glamor and ritz of London. To reflect our enduring obsession, all Austen’s books have been repeatedly dramatized and her life the constant subject of debate and speculation. Authors such as Amanda Grange, Linda Berdoll and Helen Halstead (and the list goes on) have written a variety of sequels to/alternate versions of her books, exploited Austen’s most renowned characters to craft or extend their lives beyond the confines of her books, wanting so much to emblazon in our psyches their own take on the futures of Emma’s Mr. Knightley, the iconic Darcy, his opinionated Lizzie and the rest of the Bennett family, etc, etc. (sometimes to modest or negative reviews)…I can go on and on but this would be the subject of another blog, which I’ll probably write some other time. Fact remains: Jane Austen was by no means a glamorous, celebrated figure in her time.

But it is not only women who have historically used, and still use, pseudonyms. The Pseudonyms and Nicknames Dictionary (you can order one here for $19.50), edited by Jennifer Mossman, contains a list of 80,000 author aliases from 1897 to 1976 printed snugly in 627 pages containing three-columns of information each! Hundreds of these entries refer to well-known or lesser known women writers. But there are also other examples—of men who use another male or even female alias. Oates offers the rare example of such latter phenomenon in her mention of William Sharp, a Scottish poet and friend to William Butler Yeats, who wrote as “Fiona Macleod”. As far as other male authors using male pseudonyms, you may have heard of Stephen King (who has also written as Richard Bachman), George Orwell, Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll (who was in reality Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), and Pablo Neruda (whose real name is Reyes Basoalto). Furthermore, Carolyn Keene, author of the Nancy Drew books, is not Carolyn Keene at all, but a pseudonym representing a slew of writers which included also male authors—who all had a hand at writing some or all of the books. Apparently, according to Wikipedia (“Pen Name”) even Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly has dabbled in fiction and wrote a thriller under a pseudonym – although the only one I found to prove this claim has his real name pasted on it and the reviews mark it as a crappy read. I can't say because I haven't read it and not likely to. So dear reader, you’re forewarned!

Going back to the ladies: Another woman who uses a pseudonym and I mentioned this above (although by no means famous yet) – yours truly, of course! Well, Angela happens to be my middle name and Guillaume is a different spelling of my maiden name. Many of my author friends use pseudonyms. I think it gives one a certain anonymity which enables one to be more bold, to say things, paint pictures and propose theories in books that one wouldn’t ordinarily in real life. Which begs the million dollar question—WHY do authors use pseudonyms?

For me, it’s just an alter ego. I’ve been considering writing in different genres because I find they’re all a part of me—I’m a writer of romance (historical, contemporary, and novels with a paranormal element), a poet, and I also feel close to both mainstream and literary fiction. How do I reconcile all this with my marketing strategy? How can I “split” my persona in so many parts and get away with it? I cannot, therefore, I am aware that I will probably have to consider the use of different aliases and present the different sides of me in diverse ways, although I am aware I cannot just scatter myself to the four winds. Jayne Ann Krentz has done this “split” successfully, or Amanda Quick or Jayne Castle – all pseudonyms for the same author who loves to write contemporary, historical and futuristic romance novels, respectively. I find myself partial to her Amanda Quick style and narrative the best. I can tell the difference between the three…it’s almost like a different person is penning the words…I can almost touch the shift in personality and style to reflect the nature of the genre, I'm sure. Some authors do this when writing different genres, albeit they opt to keep the same name or alias in all cases. In any case Krentz writes only romances though - so there is a certain cohesiveness to her fragmented author self. Catherine Coulter, on the other hand, has decided to start writing mystery using the same name as that she uses for her romance novels. Does this work for her? Not sure - perhaps - but I haven't researched enough where she's concerned. I don't know the numbers.

Each author has their own reasons for using an alias. According to Butler and Delany who wrote a blog article in which Alice B. Sheldon (who wrote as James Tiptree, Jr. and is pictured left) is discussed, their idea is that: “By choosing a masculine nom de plume, having her stories accepted under that name and winning awards with them, Sheldon helped demonstrate that the division between male and female SF writing was illusory.” (Many SF women authors have chosen to utilize a male pseudonym, in fact, possibly for this reason. This very point was brought up in the very cute romantic comedy The Jane Austen Book Club). I suspect the same is the case with a bunch of women writers who have written "male oriented" westerns—indeed, would a male reader have picked up such a book if he saw a woman’s name on the cover? On the other side of the coin, would a romance reader pick a book that’s been written by a man?

So should an author have a pseudonym? Can readers really discriminate if they come across women (or even male) authors writing their favorite genres? The answers to these questions would be purely speculative and subjective. Many may say they don’t discriminate, and find anyone who does this to be missing out on a lot of good reads that are out there. Some think that the fact that authors have used pseudonyms to hide their gender throughout the times has brought forth an ethical issue: the consideration that this act itself has enabled the perpetuation of sexist stereotypes in literary history. Really though, in the past, did female authors have a choice? Perhaps they did, perhaps not. Today, it may be that they have more of one—and the use of an alias is to be considered more of a choice made freely--although I have spoken to some who claim they use an alias to protect their family's reputation in their routine life, considering the controversial/erotic nature of their work. They don't want to be judged by others and don't want their families to bear the brunt of such judgment. But many authors use pseudonyms even when their work is not controversial at all! So here we come back to the element of anonymity which is rather attractive for myriad reasons, it appears.

The above are by no means intended to be blanket statements. Human psychology is a tricky thing indeed. At the end of the day, for the publishers, a pseudonym is of no consequence unless they feel it affects the bottom line—that is, how many sales can be made in what time.

I’m stopping this before I run the risk of making it a dissertation! In conclusion, the U.S. Copyright Office has posted some information about pseudonyms which can be found here. If you’d like to find out some useful information about the legal considerations of using a pseudonym (copyright, trademark, contractual, etc.), I have come across this site and am sharing with you.

Oh…in case you’re interested, here’s a list of Pseudonyms of Horror and Fantasy Writers for your reading pleasure!

So tell me - what about you? Why do you have a pseudonym or why would you want one?

*(Top picture courtesy of

~ Angela Guillaume ~
"Breathtaking Sensual Romance"
Yahoo Group:
"Mile High to Heaven"--"Mr. & Mrs. Foster"--coming soon at WCPT