Seeing your name in print – or online – is always a risky business. For some writers, it is the shop window that they feel they have always deserved, while others treat it as a remedy for lifelong shyness. But there has always been another ruse; an exit strategy, if you like, called pseudonymy. Picking another name is an opportunity to rewrite history: a second genesis to which some authors ascribe all their subsequent successes. Could it work for anyone?
In literature, we are all the name-changing offspring of Mary Ann – later Marian – Evans, who in 1857, and with no bestsellers to her name, morphed into George Eliot. The name-change worked, thrusting a new author upon the reading public and sending out the wrong message about her gender. That same author, let it not be forgotten, made the shrewd marketing move of writing the now infamous essay ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ in 1856. Eliot was not, of course, referring to Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, the manly-named Brontë sisters whose works – handily disguised so as not to depress sales – appeared earlier in the nineteenth century and who are the other main claimants to the title of Most Influential Pseudonym. For them, too, borrowing a man’s name was a means of avoiding the dangerous suspicion that a woman had discovered an alternative to housework.
Eliot’s success has coaxed many authors out of hiding, or further into it with the useful addition of a pen-name, but she was far from the first. Scholars reckon that the author Daniel only wrote part of the Old Testament Book of that name. He shares the credits with some tribal unknowns, as well as King Nebuchadnezzar, with whom it was probably unwise to quibble over copyright details. Similar doubts have been expressed over the identity of ‘Jude’, whose Epistle is the penultimate book in the New Testament.
My literary agent friend, Monica Y, doesn’t know why people bother with pen-names any more. ‘Everything’s online these days and the covers are off,’ she says sniffily, ‘so why go to all that trouble? It’s not like we’re going to go: “You can’t call yourself Richard Bachman! You’re Stephen King!”’
Go Ask Alice, a frank look at a girl’s troubled teenage years, was published in 1971 and is still only ‘generally thought’ to have been written by a therapist and Mormon youth counsellor called Beatrice Sparks. In those days, the author’s professional responsibilities were clearly at odds with her desire to tell the tale of one particular, albeit fictitious, girl.
Almost 20 years ago, the Australian journalist and novelist Nikki Gemmell had an idea for a novel that ‘with a forensic, unsparing eye’ would be an examination of marriage. Inevitably, she got clogged in the writing, until she came upon a quote from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. ‘For most of history,’ wrote Woolf, ‘Anonymous was a woman.’ Gemmell was inspired. ‘I’d write with brutal candour about a woman’s secret life — and brilliantly, no one would be hurt in the process. ’
Suddenly – click – ‘Writing became fun again, exhilarating… This could be anyone’s story. It felt audacious and authentic and absolutely right.’
That, at any rate, was the idea, until, just before publication, her identity was revealed, and ‘Stress rushed into my world in a greedy, ruthless way.’ The market crashed her anonymity, though the novel was still an international bestseller. Gemmell writes under her own name now, although she has earned some other names. In France, for example, she is known as ‘a female Jack Kerouac’.
In 2015, the Guardian ran an article by John Dugdale suggesting that pen-names, of any sort, were on the way out. It turned out that the article was celebrating – or at any rate marking – the second anniversary of the entry into print of The Cuckoo’s Calling by one Robert Galbraith, otherwise known as J. K. Rowling. It took three months for the true author’s name to come out, and she obviously enjoyed the experience, which it would be hard to begrudge her, describing it as ‘wonderful to publish without hype or expectation.’
What other reasons are there to take on a new name? You don’t have to agree with Søren Kierkegaard that ‘Once you label me you negate me.’ It might be simpler than that. You might write technical manuals or other nonfiction works that you don’t want to be confused with your professional life. Or your darkly erotic novel might clash with your daytime job as a schoolteacher, in which case you would be pretty stupid not to have picked an alternative moniker. If you have written a graphic sex book, would you give yourself a name that sounds like an offshoot of T. S. Eliot? Of course not: unless you retitled yourself E. L. James as did Erika Leonard. Maybe it’s the academic-sounding solemnity of the author’s name that feels like even more of a come-on, but her Fifty Shades series has so far sold over 125 million copies worldwide.
Then again, your circumstances might be similar to those of Sean Thomas, who describes his former self as ‘a struggling author of light fiction’ until his agent suggested he pay a visit to Göbekli Tepe, also known as the Garden of Eden of Kurdistan. He went, was knocked out by the place, and came back with the idea for the Dan Brown-tipping The Genesis Secret, which was published in 2009.
He knew he had a winner on his hands. (There were five in the series.) But to accompany the shift in tone, he had to rename himself, and so was born…Tom Knox. ‘It had to be a butch monosyllable, like Dan or Greg,’ he says. ‘And the surname had to be midway, alphabetically, so that people browsing in bookshops didn’t feel left out at either end.’
The advantage for such re-christened authors is that they can start again. Gone are the hang-ups of their former life. They can be who they want to be, not that Sean/Tom has a clearly defined idea of his penumbra. ‘He’s just a taller, butcher, better-looking version of me,’ says Thomas. ‘Which isn’t very difficult to imagine.’
When Ruth Rendell wanted to get inside the heads of the psychopaths and rapists who habitually populated her novels, she gave herself a new name: Barbara Vine. Iain Banks merely added the letter M to house his adventures in science fiction, starting with Consider Phlebas (1987). But some authors decide that – with thanks again to George Eliot – a new gender is required.
Sean Thomas hit that market too, writing as S. J. Tremayne, the gender-neutral author behind The Ice Twins. So has Steve Watson, whose tactical realignment to S. J. Watson must have contributed in some way to the success of Before I Go To Sleep when it was published in 2011. (The film of the book came out in 2014.) Following and, to some extent, inspired by Watson were J. P. Delaney (real name Tony Strong) author of The Girl Before and A. J. Finn (aka Daniel Mallory), author of The Woman in the Window.
Was it easier, back in the days, when John Cornwell changed his name to – well, what else? – John le Carré?
Sometimes, having a familiar name comes as a gift from the Marketing department. Paradise Lost – about the destruction of Smyrna in 1922 – was written not by John Milton (b.1608) but by the popular historian Giles Milton (b.1966). He got lucky. How, I ask Monica Y, can I compete?
‘Easy,’ she says. ‘Change your name to something memorable.’
‘What, and Games isn’t memorable?’ I say, trying not to sound shrill.
‘If you can’t change your name,’ she says, ‘change the way you say it.’
I look blank.
‘Alex… Gamz!’ she shrieks. ‘Spelt G-a-m-e-s. There: perfect.’
‘How about George C. Eliot?’
‘How about the Brontë Sisters?’
‘Why don’t you finish the book, and think of a name later?’
She has a point. But those two words on the spine are sometimes the hardest in the whole book.