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Pseudonyms

JCO Pseudonyms

Rosamond SmithJoyce Carol Oates has published works under a number of pseudonyms including stories by "Rae Jolene Smith" and "Fernandes." Later, she would write psychological suspense novels featuring twins and doubles under the names "Rosamond Smith" and "Lauren Kelly."

Rosamond Smith novels

Lauren Kelly novels

Pseudonymous Selves

by Joyce Carol Oates


Originally published as "Success and the Pseudonymous Writer: Turning Over A New Self" in the New York Times Book Review, December 6, 1987. Reprinted in (Woman) Writer.

"It was a new birth. I was renewing myself. Everything was being given me one more time."

So Romain Gary said in his posthumously published The Life and Death of Emile Ajar, which appeared in France in 1981, the year after Gary's suicide. The book created a literary sensation in Paris since in it Gary acknowledged that he was the author of four popular novels published under the pseudonym "Emile Ajar." (The first "Ajar" novel, GrosCalin, had been a best-seller in 1974; the second, La Vie devant soi, was named winner of the Prix Goncourt for 1975, but, because one of the rules of the Goncourt is that a writer can win it only once, and Gary had already won, he was forced to decline the prize.) The publishing strategy for the "Ajar" books was artful: manuscripts were mailed to Paris from Rio de Janeiro, and a surrogate "Ajar," a cousin of Gary's, allowed himself to be interviewed and photographed. Explaining his motives in the posthumous memoir, Gary claimed he was tired of being "the famous Romain Gary"; he wanted to be someone else. By the age of fifty-nine he had written thirty-three books, had won numerous prizes, and was one of the most successful and admired of French writers. "I have always been someone else," he said. And: "I wanted to be a spectator at my own second life." And, quoting the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz: "There comes a day when a writer is held prisoner by 'la gueule qu'on lui a fait' ('the mug which the critics have given him")—an appearance which has nothing to do with his work or himself."

In 1984 the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters awarded one of its distinguished fiction prizes to a new and presumably young Chicano writer named Danny Santiago, for his first novel, Famous All Over Town. Subsequent to the award it was revealed, with some embarrassment, that the newly discovered Chicano writer was not Chicano at all: "Danny Santiago" turned out to be the pseudonym of seventy-three-year-old Daniel James, author of several previously published books, and better known as a playwright and screenwriter; and a former Communist Party member who had been blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950s. By his account, James wrote Famous All Over Town as a consequence of his experience doing volunteer social work in Mexican-American districts of Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s, and chose to publish it under a Hispanic pseudonym because he had lost confidence in his own writing ability. Yet it is plausible to assume that he chose "Santiago" over "James" because, while writing the novel—which is narrated by the fourteen-year-old Chicano boy—he felt closer to "Santiago" than to "James."

(Though Famous All Over Town alone should have been the issue, and not its author's identity, the awards committee confessed that they might have had second thoughts about giving the novel their prize, had they known its author was "Anglo" and not "Chicano.")

It may be that, after a certain age, our instinct for anonymity is as powerful as that for identity; or, more precisely, for an erasure of the primary self in that another (hitherto undiscovered?) self may be released. Romain Gary, writing as the unknown "Emile Ajar," is no longer writing as Gary, but as Gary-through-"Ajar"; the Danish noblewoman, Baroness Karen Blixen, choosing "Isak Dinesen" ("Isak": one who laughs) as a pseudonym, is writing as Blixen-through-"Isak Dinesen," thereby evoking an ancestral, magisterial, and certainly unfeminine self. Jonathan Swift, behind the mask of "Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq." in the deadpan satire of 17081709 known as the Bickerstaff Papers, is Swift-through"Bickerstaff"—and should one doubt the existence of "Bickerstaff," his thought-tormented likeness is reproduced in The Tatler in 1710. For a woman to write under a male or a male-sounding pseudonym—"Currer Bell," for instance, instead of Charlotte Bronte; "George Sand" instead of Amandine Aurore-Lucie Dupin, Baroness Dudevant—may be a decision based upon practical expediency in a male-dominated culture; but it may also stimulate the imagination in unanticipated ways. Daniel Defoe's "true histories" of such adventurers as "Robinson Crusoe," "Moll Flanders," and "Captain Singleton," recounted in their own words, ingeniously blurred the line between fiction and what the credulous reading public might call outright hoax, as did the ancient Gaelic epic by a Scottish poet named "Ossian" which was allegedly discovered and translated by one James Macpherson, a contemporary of Samuel Johnson's whom Johnson publicly accused of imposture in 1775, and, in the 1760s, the "medieval" Rowley sequence by Thomas Chatterton. (Romain Gary compared his "doubling" with "Ajar" in terms of Macpherson's with "Ossian.") When the now-famous Karen Blixen/"Isak Dinesen" published a parablelike novel called The Angelic Avengers in 1944 under the pseudonym "Pierre Andrezel," she arranged for her longtime secretary-companion Clara Svendsen to be named on the title page as the translator. Here we have Blixen-through-"Isak Dinesen"through-"Pierre Andrezel"-through-"Clara Svendsen, translator." Not even Vladimir Nabokov's catoptric imagination can take us further.

And there is the mysterious relationship between the Oxford clergyman and mathematics lecturer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and the author of the Alice books, "Lewis Carroll." "Lewis Carroll" was created to accommodate Dodgson's extraordinary storytelling imagination and as a means by which a series of remarkable photographs was taken—photographs of theatrically posed little girls, sometimes nude, more often costumed and caught in moments of dramatic intensity, suggestively "erotic" yet more disturbing, perhaps, to contemporary eyes than they were to Victorian. Without the scrim of "Lewis Carroll" and the inspired brilliance of "Carroll's" art, to what end the genius of Dodgson?

Though the imagination delights in freedom and play, and it is arguable that, in its earliest manifestations, in childhood, art is play, the professionalism that overtakes writers like Romain Gary often has very little that is playful about it. The more successful the writer, the more secure his "international reputation," the greater the temptation to consider oneself in the third person; which is not so very different from the posthumous. Each work of fiction or poetry, unique to its creator, requiring, certainly, a unique expenditure of effort, is nonetheless judged as part of the oeuvre—"oeuvre": that soul-numbing word!—or, if not judged, assumed to possess a tactical position in it, an inevitable part of the design. Radical departures from what has come to seem one's métier may be met with disapproval, disappointment—to quote Nietzsche, "When we must change our minds about someone, we charge the inconvenience he causes us heavily to his account." (Isak Dinesen's most fervent admirers were angry with her, for instance, for her deviation as "Pierre Andrezel," though one might have thought the pseudonym-atop-the-pseudonym might have protected her.) Who, having created an identity in the world's eyes, an indestructible persona, has not subsequently wished to escape from it!—for such is the perversity, the instinct for freedom and newness, in the human psyche.

When not for such interior motives, or for political reasons, or for reasons of scandal, or as the brimming-over of sheer energy (Georges Simenon, for instance, author as Simenon of hundreds of mystery novels, also publishes under "Christian Brulls," "Jean Du Perry," and "Georges Sim"), pseudonymous works are often playful; experimental; "entertainments," as Graham Greene rather disarmingly called certain of his novels. Or, like Dinesen's elegantly artificial narratives, they may reflect a transpersonal, even transcendental consciousness, not to be linked with or explained by the merely personal. When Walter Whitman, aged thirty-five, renamed himself "Walt Whitman," the gesture had the effect of cutting his life in two. (The first edition of Leaves of Grass, issued on 4 July 1855, contained no author's name on the title page: "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,/ Disorderly fleshy and sensual" was not announced until page twenty-nine.) Young David Henry Thoreau became "Henry David Thoreau" as if to declare not only self-dependence but self-genesis. Marie Henri Beyle into "Stendhal"; Marian Evans into "George Eliot"; Sidonie Gabrielle Colette into "Colette Willy" and finally "Colette"; Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski into "Joseph Conrad"; Andrei Codrescu into "Tristan Tzara"; Giorgos Stylianous Seferiades into "George Seferis"; Reyes Basoalto into "Pablo Neruda"; Hector Hugh Munro into "Saki" each suggests an interior and not merely an outward transformation, a conspicuous redefining of the self. Though Eric Blair, prior to the publication of Down and Out in Paris and London, allowed his publisher to choose his pseudonym from several names Blair provided, "George Orwell" shortly became the name by which he was known, even by friends: thus, George Orwell the man, "Eric Blair" an early and outgrown identity. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a young humorist and newspaperman, baptized his writing self with the riverboat leadsman's exuberant cry "Mark Twain": by that gesture assuring an irrevocable split in his life, if not in his conception of himself, suggested by the title of Justin Kaplan's excellent biography Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain. More practicably, Ford Madox Hueffer became "Ford Madox Ford" (and, upon occasion, "Daniel Chaucer" and "Fenil Haig") at a time when the Germanic ring of "Hueffer" sounded discordantly in English ears.

Like the experience of first authorship, writing under a pseudonym gives one the sense of discovering oneself by way of redefining oneself, even if it is only for the space of a single book. There is the possibility, however quixotic, of making a fresh start—in Romain Gary's words, "renewing" oneself—and not being held to severe account for it. Trollope, that indefatigable master craftsman of the English novel, chose to publish one book under a pseudonym; it aroused no particular attention, sales were poor, and Trollope quietly returned to "Trollope." Though Doris Lessing's publicly acknowledged motives for publishing two novels in the early 1980s, The Diary of a Good Neighbor and If the Old Could . . . as "Jane Somers" ("the pseudonym of a well-known British journalist," as the dust jacket noted), were to test the integrity of the publishing industries of England and the United States, which she believed would have honored the "Somers" novels with major reviews had they been issued under the name "Lessing," it is probable that, like Romain Gary, she too hoped to make a fresh start; to return to realism of a scaled-down, human dimension in the style of her short fiction and not that of her more vatic utterances; to be rediscovered, perhaps, as a writer of talent, and accorded the kind of excited attention "Emile Ajar" received in the French press. Had the "Somers" novels been as radically different from Lessing's realistic fiction as her science-fiction sequence has been, or as The Golden Notebook seemed in the context of British fiction of the 1960s, the venture would have taken an entirely different course. As it is, Doris Lessing's curious experiment, though idealistic in outline, failed to prove anything of significance for at least two reasons: each season, there are first novels that do receive a good deal of attention, presumably because they deserve it; and novels by many previously published writers are often reviewed with less interest and respect than the unknown "Jane Somers" received.

When, for instance, Gore Vidal published several mystery-thrillers in the 1950s under the name "Edgar Box," the novels were praised as successes of their genre by the very publications that were, at the time, ignoring Vidal's serious fiction. (By Vidal's account, the American literary establishment was so offended by his third novel, The City and the Pillar, for its "perverted"—i.e., homosexual—subject matter, that his next five books were boycotted by major reviewing publications. In order to support himself he wrote the "Box" novels, each in eight days. And though they were well received when issued under the name "Edgar Box" they were conspicuously less well received when reissued under "Gore Vidal" some years later.) Norman Mailer's Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, following the prodigious critical and commercial success of his first novel The Naked and The Dead, would surely have fared better under pseudonyms since, given the nature of the intemperate feelings the author seems to have aroused in reviewers at that time, they could scarcely have done worse.

John Updike has not, to my knowledge, published under a pseudonym—"Updike" is a name bankable in ways too sweet to relinquish—but he has created in the person of comically beleaguered Henry Bech an alter ego who clearly speaks for Updike, masking his hurt in ironic tones.

It was his fault; he had wanted to be noticed, to be praised. He had wanted to be a man in the world, a "writer." For his punishment they had made from the sticks and mud of his words a coarse large doll to question and torment, which would not have mattered except that he was trapped inside the doll, shared a name and a bank account with it. He was, for all his brave talk . . . too alone.

("Bech Swings?" from Bech: A Book)

Why punish a writer for writing?—a reviewer recently asked, beginning a review of a book of mine. The tantalizing question hovered in the air, unanswered.

The advantages of publishing under a male or a male-sounding pseudonym, for a woman writer, have always been self-evident. As 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." Consequently the Bronte sisters chose androgynous pseudonyms: "Currer Bell" (Charlotte Bronte), "Ellis Bell" (Emily Bronte), "Acton Bell" (Anne Bronte) for Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey, respectively. When Jane Eyre appeared in 1847 it was an immediate success—"Currer Bell" became famous overnight—and much speculation raged concerning the probable sex of the author. 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. Harriet Martineau shrewdly saw that the author must be a woman because of the way Grace Poole, mad Bertha's caretaker, is depicted sewing rings onto curtains. When it was revealed that "Currer Bell" was in fact a woman, the tone of criticism changed and became more pejorative. Now, the (female) author was charged with "coarseness" and an "unseemly knowledge of passion." As Elaine Showalter suggests in A Literature of Their Own: British Women Writers from Bronte to Lessing, the fantasy of male personae, as well as the depiction of male protagonists, was a part of the Bronte sisters' lives long before they considered sending their work out to publishers. In the Angrian chronicles the Brontes had a dozen male alter egos; Charlotte used several male aliases as a child, among them "Captain Thunder," "Charles Townsend," and "Captain Tree." Charlotte's "maleness" was very likely identified with the active, creative side of her personality, her "femaleness" with the more passive.

Alert to the dangers of publishing under a woman's name, Marian Evans, with the counsel and support of her common-law husband, George Henry Lewes, made the decision to use the pseudonym "George Eliot" for Scenes of Clerical Life, her first book, which appeared in 1856. It was a considerable success, like the more ambitious Adam Bede two years later, and the author's secret was generally intact until the publication of The Mill on the Floss, in 1860, when exposure of "Eliot's" identity as Marian Evans adversely affected the novel's fortunes. George Eliot's feminist sympathies were strong yet ambivalent; she freely conceded the prejudices of the era, asking, in 18S5, that a writer-friend not reveal the fact that she was the author of an essay in the Westminster: "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."

An impressive number of British women writers have used male pseudonyms, among them 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").

Conversely, the mid-nineteenth-century American writer Sara Payson Willis Parton, novelist and first woman newspaper columnist in the United States, chose the pseudonym "Fanny Fern": a name that, for all its satirical intent, has had a detrimental effect upon this gifted, and largely unknown, writer's reputation.

Among the plethora of entries in the Pseudonyms and Nicknames Dictionary—627 densely printed triple-columned pages that take us from "A. A." (Anthony Armstrong Willis, Canadian author, 1897-1976) to "Z. Y. X." (Arthur Alkin Sykes, British author, 1861-?)—are hundreds of women writers, most of them unknown today, who elected to write under male or androgynous pseudonyms. Some mix male and female names, as do a number of male writers, but William Butler Yeats's Scottish poet-friend William Sharp, who published as "Fiona Macleod," is a rare example of a man who disguised his writing self as a woman. (And underwent what seems to have been a schizoid breakdown of a kind, of which "Fiona Macleod" must have been more consequence than cause.) Yeats's celebrated use of his wife Georgie Hyde-Lees as a medium to whom spirit-"communicators" dictated answers to his questions for A Vision might be seen as an ingenious variation on the female-pseudonym/ persona phenomenon. Without Mrs. Yeats, the poet insisted, no "vision" would have been possible.

Of course, motives for writing under a pseudonym are likely to be as varied and idiosyncratic as there are pseudonymous writers, though some decisions, in the contexts of their authors' lives, are clearly more explicable than others. When, in 1963, the year of her suicide, thirty-year-old Sylvia Plath published her first, transparently autobiographical, novel, The Bell Jar, it was under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas": Plath feared, and with justification, that her harsh satirical portrait of her protagonist's mother would deeply wound her own mother. (Which of course it did.) It seems likely that W. S. Snodgrass, whose Heart's Needle was one of the early and conspicuously successful examples of "confessional" poetry, chose to write under the pseudonym S. S. Gardens, for some time in the late 1960s, for much the same reason.

Karen Blixen, forty-eight years old when her first book, Seven Gothic Tales, was completed, chose to publish it under a pseudonym in the hope of avoiding the excessive attention, some of it malicious, she did in fact receive when the Danish press finally tracked her down. Ezra Pound, that most ambitious of poets and poet-theorists, published occasional music and art criticism under the names "William Atheling" and "Alfred Venison"; twenty-two-year-old James Joyce, later to consign to Leopold Bloom the banal nom de plume "Henry Flower," published early versions of three Dubliners stories in the Irish Homestead under the distinctly un-Irish pseudonym "Stephen Dedalus"—Joyce's reason for disguise being that he was ashamed of publishing "in the pigs' paper." While living in Berlin, as a Russian émigré, Vladimir Nabokov published several novels in his native Russian between 1925 and 1940 under the pseudonym "Vladimir Sirin" or "V. Sirin" (funnily misprinted in the Pseudonyms and Nicknames Dictionary as "V. Siren," a superb Nabokovian pun). "Sirin" is only the best-known of Nabokov's Russian pseudonyms; he had others, among them "Vaseli Shiskov" and "Vivian Calmbrood" (precursor of the author "Vivian Darkbloom" of Lolita?), and in Nabokov's fiction generally there is a virtuoso's delight in the willful shifting of identities: the masquerade of Lolita's deadpan foreword, for instance, in which "Humbert Humbert" is revealed as the pseudonymous creation of one "John Ray, Jr., Ph.D." (John Ray was a seventeenth-century English naturalist and taxonomist); the mad but inspired commentary of "Charles Kinbote" on the long poem "Pale Fire" by "John Francis Shade"; the eerie monologue of "Hugh Person" ("You Person") of Transparent Things. Jonathan Swift commonly employed not pseudonyms precisely but personae, by way of which his satire acquired its particular dramatic resonance. The doggedly sincere narrator of "A Modest Proposal," like "Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq." of the Bickerstaff Papers, and "M.B.," the Dublin linen drapier of The Drapier's Letters, is himself a brilliant literary creation. Swift illuminated religious and political polemics with the imagination of genius but his writing, with the exception of Gulliver's Travels, was usually for specific and limited purposes; the narrating self is an aspect of the satire, and not a mask or voice of the author himself. Charles Lamb's much-imitated "Ella" essays, published as the observations of an Italian clerk named Elia, whom Lamb had known slightly, allowed him enough aesthetic distance from his subject, and from himself, to transform the merely personal and whimsical into art of a kind enormously admired in its day though rather dated in our own.

By far the great majority of writers who use pseudonyms, of course, are genre writers; there are eleven hundred listings for writers of mystery-detective fiction alone. (The record would seem to belong to a contemporary British science fiction writer named Robert Lionel Fanthorpe, who publishes under twenty-eight pseudonyms, all male.) Multiple-name writers tend to publish their quality work under their own names but may have a descending order of quality among their pseudonyms: Erle Stanley Gardner, for instance, has written under seven pseudonyms in addition to his own name, with "A. A. Fair" at the top of his list: John Creasey has published under thirteen pseudonyms, in addition to his own name, with "J. J. Marric" at the top of his. Evan Hunter, whose baptismal name is Salvatore A. Lombino, also publishes under the names Hunt Collins, Richard Marsten, and, most prominently, Ed McBain. Isaac Asimov, a rival of Simenon's in terms of sheer writerly abundance, has also published under the name "Paul French." "Ellery Queen" and "Ellery Queen, Jr." ( joint pseudonyms of Daniel Nathan and Manfred Lepofsky) have published dozens of books, and Stephen King, our most prodigiously successful writer of horror stories, has recently sired a sort of sorcerer's apprentice in "Richard Bachman"—a pseudonym so little a secret that King's name is listed with "Bachman" in advertisements. No less prolific are science fiction writers Robert Heinlein, who published under four pseudonyms in addition to his own, and Barry Malzberg, who has also published under the name "K. M. O'Donnell." Highly regarded as masters of their mystery-genre are "John Le Carre" (David Cornwall) and "P. D. James" (Phyllis James White). Perhaps because most genre fiction is gamesmanship of a writerly sort, the author's intention being to outmaneuver the reader—to plunge forward into "plot" while at the same time impeding "plot" at every plausible turn— such writers employ pseudonyms as a matter of course. However serious, if not frankly obsessive, the underlying motives for writing of death as a component in a puzzle, the act can be passed off casually: it is only "entertainment" after all.

There endures an old aristocratic tradition, in any case, of not taking authorship seriously; or not allowing oneself to be charged with thinking so: as if the natural impulse is to shrink from seeming to suggest we might have something to say of interest or value to others. For all its strategies, art is an offensive maneuver from this perspective; it moves into another's private space, demands his attention if not his respect and admiration. To bring it off is so daring, so arrogant, so fraught with peril, the most ingenious defenses are required. It is appropriate that Nabokov, our most knottily "defensive" writer, anxious to hide his sentimental nature behind a shell of glittering artifice and hauteur, wrote an early novel, as "V. Sirin," titled The Defense.

In the end, it is probable that the cultivation of a pseudonym is not so very different from the cultivation in vivo of the narrative voice that sustains any work of words, making it unique and inimitable. Choosing a pseudonym as the work's formal author simply takes the mysterious process a step or two further, erasing the author's social identity and supplanting it with the pseudonymous identity. For who among us, identified with such confidence by others, has not felt uneasy, if not an impostor, knowing that, whatever they know of us, we do not somehow share in that knowledge? Fame's carapace does not allow for easy breathing.