When The Casual Vacancy’s release was first announced, it sparked a debate in our office. Whilst commercially it made total sense having the name J.K. Rowling emblazoned on the front, we thought it would have been a good experiment to release it under an assumed name and see how good the ‘blind’ reviews were and how successful the title away from the inevitable Potter-author hype.
Having sold 1,500 hardback copies and 7,000 eBook/audio and library copies in the first three months, with incredibly favourable reviews, Robert Galbraith’s ‘debut’ was a success. The freedom brought about by anonymity must have been utterly refreshing and was certainly sought by Rowling. I saw her at the Bath Literature Festival earlier this year and she spoke of the release from Harry Potter – knowing that she could never top the ‘Beatlemania’-type success of the seven book series gave her a sense of freedom.
But it was not to last. Last week the revelation of the authorship of The Cuckoo’s Calling, as revealed by an associate of one of her lawyers, has pulled J.K. back into the spotlight and now, I’m sure, the reviews will roll in with some form of bias and expectation, just as they did with The Casual Vacancy. Admittedly the reveal has got the cash tills ringing (sales are up 41,000% at time of writing) and while it is fantastic to get books back into the news spotlight, I can’t help feeling a sense of sadness for Rowling. In terms of her writing and critical response to it, it seems she will never shake off the epithet of ‘Potter-author’.
Authors assume pen names for a variety of different reasons – originally, J.K. Rowling disguised her gender by initialising her first name (and creating a second) so as not to alienate Harry Potter from boy readers. Below is a list of some authors who also decided to disguise their true identity:
George Orwell (real name Eric Blair)
Though he wrote periodical articles under his real name, when it came to his first book (Down and Out in Paris and London) Eric Blair decided to use a pen name. The decision was based on an adopted ideal of social respectability – to spare his parents any embarrassment that could have arisen from a book that outlined their only son leading the life of a penniless tramp. George Orwell was chosen because it was a ‘good round English name’.
Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (real names Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë)
All three of the Bronte sisters began literary life under the assumed names of Currer, Ellis and Acton – names that retained their Christian initials but veiled their gender. Charlotte later explained that though the sisters were under no allusion that their writing was particularly feminine in content, they felt that publicly connecting it to their true identity as female writers would draw a prejudiced critique. (They also wanted to hide the fact that they had used their neighbours as character inspiration!)
Lemony Snicket (real name Daniel Handler)
Handler had already invented Snicket long before he began A Series of Unfortunate Events. When writing his debut novel, The Basic Eight, he created Lemony Snicket as a way of conducting anonymous research into right-wing organisations. The similarity of the name to Jiminy Cricket (a overly moral, conscientious character) has been noted by Handler as a Freudian slip – and, given his writing style, a very tongue-in-cheek one at that! When it emerged in the writing of A Series of Unfortunate Events that the narrator was becoming a character themself, Handler brought Snicket back to fill the part.
Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)
In order to separate his fictional works from his academic writing, Dodgson decided upon the use of a nom de plume. ‘Lewis Carroll’ was chosen by the editor of The Train, Edmund Yates, as the most suitable pen name from a list submitted by Dodgson. Unsurprisingly, as a logician and mathematician, you are unlikely to come across a more coherent methodology of pseudonym choice. The Latinate version of ‘Charles Lutwidge’ is Carollus Ludovicus which, when translated back into English, becomes Carroll Lewis and, finally, reversed to make Lewis Carroll – simple!
George Eliot (real name Mary Anne Evans)
Probably the most famous female to male pseudonym, Evans used the distance created by authorship to disguise her gender and secure that her works were taken seriously. Women writers were not uncommon in Evans’ lifetime but they were stereotypically authors of light-hearted romantic fiction of little consequence. Another reason for Evans’ discretion was the potential consequence of her private life made public – her long-term relationship with the married George Lewes. Mary Anne was eventually forced to ‘out’ herself as the incredibly popular author in 1859 when an imposter, Joseph Liggins, tried to claim authorship of her work.
Richard Bachman (real name Stephen King)
In the early stages of King’s career, publishers believed that writers should only release one book a year to avoid annoying the public by over-saturating the market. King, however, wanted to continue producing novels and so adopted the pen name Richard Bachman as a way of doubling his annual publication output. The connection was eventually discovered by Steve Brown, a bookshop assistant, who noted the similarities in penmanship – as King himself said ‘you can change your name but you can’t really disguise your style’. When the discovery was released, King publically announced that Bachman had died of ‘cancer of the pseudonym’ and sales of Bachman’s novels increased dramatically.
James Tiptree Jr. (real name Alice Bradley Sheldon)
Sheldon was in many ways a pioneer – in the 1940s she held the rank of Major in the US Army Air Forces, worked for the CIA in the 50s and went on to complete a doctorate in Experimental Psychology at George Washington University in 1967. She also managed to break down the illusion of a difference between male and female authors when it came to science fiction by adopting the incredibly successful nom de plume James Tiptree Jr. Becoming a male author seemed like a good camouflage for Sheldon as she could slip through the genre unnoticed and avoid the stigma/accolade/burden that came from ‘being the first woman in some damned occupation’.
John le Carré (real name David John Moore Cornwell)
Le Carré was created when Cornwell began writing during his time in MI5 in the late 1950s. Inspired to write by a fellow officer who was publishing novels whilst on active duty, Lord Clanmorris (aka John Bingham), yet forbidden by his station in the Foreign Office to write under his given name, Cornwell was obligated to use a literary alias. And so John le Carré was born out of service rather than choice. The publication of the award-winning The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, le Carré’s third novel, cemented both Cornwell’s career as a writer and le Carré’s international reputation as the author.
Mary Westmacott (real name Agatha Christie)
Christie has said that the creation of Mary Westmacott was to accommodate a need in her ‘to do something that is not my proper job’, to write simply for fun. The romantic genre Westmacott targeted was completely removed from the ‘Queen of Crimes’ usual market and yet continued to showcase Christie’s understanding of human nature. Although her true identity was unveiled in 1949, Westmacott wrote two further novels under her assumed name, bringing her total publications to six.
The use of a pen name/nom de plume/pseudonym/alias is relied upon for many reasons in the literary world – to escape prejudice, to universalize the audience of their work, to experiment with different genres, to differentiate from a different author of the same name or to simply avoid publicity altogether. To mask oneself behind a character, one who is playing an author…well that’s inherently literary indeed.
Would you write under a pen name? If so, why and which name would you choose?