a pen by any other name 8 Comments

a pen by any other name

Submissions to Voiceworks have the option of being published under a pseudonym. A few months ago I was submitting a story that I thought could probably offend certain acquaintances of mine should they read it and figured it would be safest to use a nom de plume. Discussing possible names with my family members (as it was over Christmas) the most astute of them suggested that if I wasn’t able to publish the story under my own name I shouldn’t try to have it published at all. Fortunately it wasn’t selected and in hindsight I realise it wasn’t a very good story anyway. Funny how the powers that be at Voiceworks could divine the inwards shame I felt about it.

I don’t know if there’s any legitimate reason why submissions to Voiceworks should be under a different name. In my case, I thought there might be some sort of conflict of interest or moral dilemma involved and a pseudonym would protect everyone. Should I be writing things that people need to be protected from? Probably not. Or if I had written something outstanding, would the success have negated any ill or immoral feelings I had about it? Should we be worried about the moral implications of writing something, or should we plough on with our literary pursuits regardless of consequences, in a Helen Garner way?

Gone are the days of the Bronte sisters or George Eliot where we have to change our names just because we’re ladies – I haven’t noticed a crippling insistence on nineteenth century values at any Ed Comm meetings – besides, names aren’t included on submissions, so they are all treated with the same anonymity. But despite the crazy values we uphold at Voiceworks, I remember reading that JK Rowling was encouraged by publishers to make her sex more ambiguous so young boys wouldn’t be put off reading her books by her name. Which is frankly a bit weird when you think of the success of Diana Wynne Jones. Anyway the K wasn’t even part of her name, she stole it from her grandmother to go from Joanne Rowling to how we know her today.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens opted for the pen name Mark Twain, a cosmetic choice which seemed to work out well for him. Apparently Charles Dodgson wrote under the name of Lewis Carrol because he didn’t want to confuse people from his status as mathematician. Of our time, there’s the highly secretive Lemony Snicket, who is as much a character in the Series of Unfortunate Events as the Baudelaire children he writes about. To me, it seems like an involved marketing ploy, adding another layer of intrigue to the already immensely mysterious story (which I never finished reading, despite my love for the wordplay within). I totally dug it when I was in my early teens anyway.

Most of us probably assume a different sort of pen name with our various internet accounts. Though as years tick on, it’s necessary to move on from first email or blog addresses (mine was totally bookworm37@hotmail.com in the Lemony Snicket days) to select addresses that suggest a high level of employability. Frankly, not being one with an interesting name, I do feel as if selecting a pseudonym gives a bit more intrigue or mystique to a work. I confess to being someone who judges a book by its author and when reading literary journals I scan the contents for names that appeal to me. If all readers are like me then the John Smiths of the world are doomed. But hey John, just pick a different name! It may help you get a job, to simply get published or not to confuse people with your other professions. And if you have to expose some massive secret in a piece of your writing, you can let it all hang out if you publish under the name of Jervillian Swyke or Quince Ponsonby.

  • http://www.nikitavanderbyl.com Nikita

    Jervillian Swyke is an awesome name. Awesome post too Susie. I think many folks today like the past a lot, so they try and live it a little bit here and there. Sometimes in their antiquated pen names. I’m no exception.
    The thing with names, and maybe this is because I was a control freak in another life, is that I can never find the right one. I like my name fine, but non of the characters I want to write have good names at all. Everyone else’s sound better.
    Perhaps there’s a retro name generator somewhere out there on the nets…

  • Amber

    Really interesting article, Susie!
    We have a few pen-name authors in Verandah 25. I think in one of the cases, it’s all about stage appearances. But definitely a topic worth writing about!

  • http://www.toothsoup.com phill

    I’ve also heard the reason given that the person who was using the pen name didn’t want to take their father’s name, due to family strife. :/

  • Kat Muscat

    Oddly enough, I can confirm the J.K Rowling thing virtually secondhand. My charming (and sexy in a Tina Fey kinda way) Print Cultures teacher worked at… was it Bloomsbury who first published Mr Potter? Well regardless, she was there when that shit was going down.

    Pseudonyms in the context of Voiceworks have always struck me as counterproductive. Assuming you’re an ernest young writer, napsack of words slung over your shoulder, it seems unnecessarily confusing to introduce yourself one way, and submit with another name.
    Plus, what happens in five/ten years time when you’re trying to impress someone in a bar, and they don’t believe the printed name is you? But hey, it seems to’ve worked for oodles of Melbourne based poets.

  • http://bookworm-megs.blogspot.com Megan

    I agree about protecting your family. I’ve written a few things that don’t show my family in a brilliant light, but I still want them out there! Just not attached to me or them…

  • http://vehementoolbox.blogspot.com susie

    I rather liked the idea of taking my mum’s maiden name as a pen name: Susan Sherratt. Quite liked the alliteration of it all. But I rather agree with Kat! Getting published is about making a name for yourself. And maybe your work should speak for itself?

    Somebody also rather hilariously suggested Sue D’nim.

    • http://www.toothsoup.com phill

      I much prefer my mother’s maiden name: Phillip Van De Ven as opposed to Phillip English. I cannot think of a worse name to write under than English. It’s like a sailor called David Seas, or a carpenter named Ash Wood. :/

      • R-Knee

        Or a dog trainer named Kat Trainer.

        That’d just be confusing.

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