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!

2 Replies to “A writer by any other name…”

  1. Anne, I love your site, and have been devouring the archives for months! Longtime listener, first time caller, yadda yadda….

    I know this is an older (2006) post, so maybe your stance on “Anglicization” of names has evolved since then. But if not, I’d urge caution — from a position of authority on this topic — in making such blanket statements of disapproval as “The practice of automatic Anglicization is less common than it used to be, of course, but people still do it, alas.”

    While I look and sound like a cultural white person, I have a Hispanic father and a last name that’s common in the Spanish-speaking word. With the acute accent properly located above the second “o” (viz. ó) my name is pronounced like cologne. But even when it is, the number of white/black/Asian/etc. people who pronounce it properly is MAYBE one full percent. And when it’s spelled or pronounced incorrectly, without the accent, it’s usually rendered in such a way that my last name becomes the same as that cancer-prone organ near the asshole. (This is especially fun in restaurants, btw.)

    I’m proud of my family name and my heritage, and have never for a second thought of changing my name in any official way. I love to visit Puerto Rico and see as many Colón listings in the phone book as you’d see Joneses in Scottsdale. But when I decided to become a writer, and especially when I started doing stand-up comedy here in Seattle, where my name has to be announced by a (usually white) MC at open mics every night, then my decision to adopt an easily pronounced stage and pen name was an absolute no-brainer. And networking with others, as well as marketing myself, has proven to be immensely easier with that adopted name than those same activities are at my corporate day job, where I still use my given name.

    So yeah, I could keep on fighting the good fight in my creative career, too: educating ethnically uncultured non-Latinos about the proper pronunciation of my name, teaching people how ALT-162 is the ASCII code for the ‘o’ with an acute accent — hoping the various databases doesn’t barf in response — and so on and so forth. I could, and I do, in my non-writer life.

    But as a writer (and comic), I choose not to endure those obstacles. I enjoyed the creative process of choosing a pen/stage name, and further enjoy the simple liberation I feel with its attendant lack of constant struggle. So to your sniffs of disapproval at the whole practice, with the implication that I hamstring my creative ambitions out of some sort of societal obligation, I would offer the wise counsel of Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”

    Thanks for hearing me out.

    Sincerely and respectfully,
    C. Colón

    1. Thanks for weighing in, CC — but I don’t quite see why, given your argument, that you took issue with that single sentence. Or, I suspect more accurately, with simply the word alas in what is not to my eye a blanket statement at all, but a mid-argument expression of opinion. I’m sorry if that individual sentence taken out of context made you uncomfortable, but aren’t the points you’re making in your response (that it is the writer’s choice whether to change, that non-Anglo names often get pronounced) points I go on to make immediately after that sentence with reference to MY OWN NAME?

      So what was your point in telling me I shouldn’t have brought it up the issue at all — the compound implication of the Wittgenstein quote, the suggestion that I wrote about it without thinking, and the expressed hope that I would have evolved in the last four years, yes? — rather than simply sharing your personal reasons for choosing to replace an ethnic name that people mispronounced with an Anglicized name, rather than a stage name that reflected your cultural heritage? What precisely did I say in the post to justify your telling a blogger you claim to admire that she shouldn’t have blogged at all on a topic that happened obliquely to touch a nerve for you?

      Since you posted this admonition in response to a post in which I stated explicitly that I consider the nom de plume issue entirely the writer’s choice, the answers to those questions are far from self-evident — especially since the point of the post was to address the fears of writers who consider changing their names REQUIRED. As I said IN THE POST, if you do not wish to keep correcting people about your name, that is certainly your choice, although it would look lovely with the accent on a book jacket (and I would think any talented comic could make quite good use of that particular mispronunciation in an MC’s mouth).

      However, the fewer of us with ethnic names who put in the effort to correct people, the easier it is for those who do not take the trouble to learn to pronounce non-Anglo names never to learn how to pronounce them. That is unquestionably true — and I did not have to be an artist with a frequently-mispronounced name (although mine often is) to recognize that. Equally self-evident is the fact that as long as non-ethnic names dominate the shelves, it’s easier for the mainstream to dismiss those with ethnic names as outliers. (Ditto with comics, by the way.)

      Third, and also beyond refutation, depending upon the subject matter, using one’s real ethnic name — or a pen name that accurately reflects one’s ethnicity — might be a selling point for a book. Plenty of readers will pick a book off the shelves if they perceive the apparent ethnicity of the author to add credibility to the story being told. And if you’ll take a stroll through a well-stocked U.S. bookstore, I think you’ll find plenty of books by authors with accents in their names. Usually, book-lovers will take the trouble to learn to pronounce the names of authors they admire correctly.

      Again, I suspect a closer reading of the post in question, or of any of my subsequent posts on this topic, might have cleared up any misconceptions you may have gleaned about what I was suggesting. Incidentally, it’s not always the best argumentative tactic to hide behind quotes from other people — especially when the person at whom you are quoting them happens to have taught Wittgenstein, and thus knows the context from which that quote was torn. Especially in an argument like this, which turns on just a couple of words in the post. Since what are known amongst bloggers as trolls frequently just search for keywords and phrases so that they may pick fights in the comments, it’s considered better web etiquette to speak entirely for oneself.

      But if you legitimately disagreed with me after a full and careful reading of the post, I welcome your going ahead and saying so; I merely wish that you had responded to my entire argument, rather than condemning me based solely upon a carefully-selected sentence. As you must be aware if you are a regular reader of this blog, I encourage people to take issue with what I say. Yet while I certainly support your right to express your opinion, I do expect that you would do it as politely as the other readers of this blog.

      What I find disrespectful is being told to shut up. That’s not opening a conversation; it’s initiating a power game, and not a very interesting one at that. If you consider yourself an authority, I would encourage you to start your own blog on the subject.

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