Friday, March 07, 2008

On pseudonymity and anonymity.

Historically, it has not been uncommon for writers to publish under noms de plume. At times, pseudonyms have offered protection from political persecution and--in the cases of women like Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, George Sand, and George Eliot--have lent legitimacy to to those whose work would otherwise have been dismissed on account of gender, et cetera.

The use of pseudonyms has not been, as one reading Margaret Cannon's review of Inger Ash Wolfe's The Calling might begin to think, pure gimmickry. (Related: I'll be delving into my advance-reading copy of The Calling as soon as I finish Stet--even though by that time the bookstore-employee perk of the "advance" will be a little superfluous.)

The Star's Vit Wagner gets this and, I think, ultimately strikes closer to the truth of pseudonymity:

Sometimes, as in the case of Charles Dodgson writing as Lewis Carroll, the desire to evade publicity was genuine. And then there were the many cases rooted in satire and mischief. When Henry Fielding wrote Shamela, his parody of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, it amounted to one anonymous writer sending up another.

Today, genuine and lasting pseudonymity is rare. Most know that Ruth Rendell is also Barbara Vine, that Anne Rice is sometimes Anne Rampling and A.N. Roquelaure or that Booker Prize winner John Banville has written crime novels as Benjamin Black.

Wolfe, by contrast, professes the purest, most guileless motivations, at least based on an email interview with the author (see sidebar). Who can say? Anonymity author Mullan offers some insights based on the available evidence and his own expertise.

"It sounds like a combination of two fairly traditional things," Mullan says. "When a literary author writes crime fiction, they often use a nom de plume as a mark that they are in a different role. But this is usually advertised, not disguised.
[My emphasis.]

"To advertise the disguise is a publicity thing, surely. There are a lot of crime novels published. But this crime novel will, at least initially, get a degree of attention that others won't. If it's actually successful, critically or popularly, then the speculation about its authorship might begin to snowball."

"Actually trying to remain permanently concealed is very rarely the motive. In the majority of cases, writers either expect or hope that people will try to guess because that, in a way, is a sign of their success or ├ęclat."


Pseudonymity is freeing. Well-established authors are, to a certain degree, released from the expectations of their usual audience. Back in January, Maclean's speculated that Inger Ash Wolfe was actually Jane Urquhart (Urquhart, according to Wagner's article, has since denied this.) From Urquhart, readers have come to expect a certain style, a particular interweaving of past and present, time and space (see Away, Changing Heaven, The Stonecutters, and--arguably her best--The Underpainter.) How would those who fell in love with this kind of writing receive an attempt at genre fiction? (Funnily enough, and maybe Michael would agree with me on this, the Urquhart leitmotivs could arguably constitute a a sub-genre of their own!) How could Urquhart ensure that a new, radically different text be judged on its own merits? By separating the text from the Urquhart brand, of course. Pseudonymity can re-invest first-time author status in the established author and can give him or her the latitude to explore outside the comfort zone.

Pseudonymity--and anonymity, for that matter--also allows one the latitude to speak or write without the fear of reprisal, and so in that way, too, pseudonymity is a good thing.

Yet that same freedom, as I recently discovered, can also be a violent, dangerous thing, if people use it to evade consequences. (Think of this in the context of anonymous hate-speech and Holocaust denial.) Trite as it may sound, freedom really does come with responsibility.

When it comes right down to it, though, I think that while pseudonymity and anonymity are appealing artistically, it ultimately takes more cojones to let your own name stand by what you write. That's what I've tried to do here for the past five-and-a-half years.

So, yes, while I do still feel strangely, a-little-guiltily authoritarian for implementing comment moderation here, I feel I'm at least being fair. I attach my name to what I write here; it's only right that would-be commenters should have to do so, too--even if that name be a pseudonym.

4 comments:

Erik said...

Can you imagine what I would say if I used a pseudonym?

Natalie said...

I honestly don't know. I can't picture you as the pseudonymous-posting type--you've always struck me as one who has ample courage to stand by your convictions.

Michael Collins said...

I definitely think there is an Urquhart-ian genre which has developed in the last 15-20 years, probably spurred on by her 'brand' as described above, which has the rare ability to straddle both commercial and critical success. I mean, Away was on the Globe's best-seller list for something ridiculous like 3 full years. How often have I picked up a novel, intrigued by the back-cover description, and begun to read it, only to find it a derivative work of sub-Urquhart prose. What shall we call it? Canadian temporal impressionism?

I think Charlotte Bronte had a similar effect; her works are excellent (I know you know I know this; what a fun yet awkward phrase), but now we have all the Harlequin schlock. What are those romance novels but the spiritual and stylistic great-grand-daughters of Jane Eyre? It's a genre whose potency is much diluted by time, whose literary worth has fallen victim to its own success.

My second novel (you have the startings of my 3rd actually. I am a little ashamed to admit that, as this information likely indicates a compulsive problem) was an attempt to take the genre of pulp Fantasy (Robert Jordan et al) and reverse engineer it into something that I'd consider having not worth for cultural studies, but actual literary worth as well.

I've always had a fascination with pseudonyms, possibly because I feel my actual name is already over-burdened by Michael Collins the Irish Revolutionary and Michael Collins the astronaut and the multiple Michael Collinses who have been published novelists in the last few decades.

I actually would love to cultivate a stable of pseudonyms, never letting anyone know they were all me. It's a delightful thought.

I've seriously considered a reverse-Victorian gender flip. I love anagrams, and Camille Nichols is a very nice anagram of Michael Collins. It's intriguing to me what the ramifications of this are; but why not have a bit of literary transvestism? Thoughts?

Kerri said...

The only pseudonym I'd ever use is my Star Wars name!! Kerpt Mcsar. :P