September 11, 2015
Dear Intrepid Readers,
You know, most of us decided to become writers because we were introverted and introspective and shied away from the competition, aggression and overall loudness of team sports or academic clubs. Past few weeks have really shook things up for us, huh? The community of independent press/publishing/writing has been a much louder place to inhabit recently. This is not to say that these loud discussions haven’t always been present in our communities, it’s simply that social media and the internet allow for a much faster transmission and dissemination of information. So instead of re-hashing the newest thing to happen in our literary community (there are discussions of the event on both The Rumpus and Sherman Alexie’s blog for Best American Poetry), let’s instead this week look at the reasons that writers might choose an alternate version of their own name, a pseudonym, or a heteronym when publishing (and what the difference between a pseudo/heteronymn is, because that’s pretty important, too.)
First of all, what is a pseudonym, how is it different from a heteronym, and why do some authors, artists, political figures, etc. choose to use these variant naming conventions? A pseudonym is a name that a person or group assumes for a particular purpose, which differs from his or her original or true name. A pseudonym may be used for personal reasons: an individual may prefer to be called or known by a name that differs from their legal name, but is not ready to take the steps to get their name legally changed. A heteronym is an alternate character, not simply an alternate name. The author creates an extra character, “the author,” that stands in for themselves.
I myself use a pseudonym (“Allie,” vs. the “Alicia” on my legal documents) in publishing my work. Heteronymns present authors the freedom to re-invent themselves and their work without the restrictions that their actual persona might present, allowing the narrative to expand or contract as the author sees fit—after all, isn’t the character “Lemony Snicket” as crucial to A Series of Unfortunate Events as the actual characters in the books?
In writing this letter from the editor, I crowdsourced (using social media, naturally) to get an idea of the circumstances under which a writer might choose to use a different name or construct a completely different person to take credit for the work. There are a few patterns which the use of a heteronym or a pseudonym follow:
- female authors use male pseudonyms (or initials, which create a gender-neutral impression) in order to have their work taken more seriously. Examples include the Brönte sisters, J.K. Rowling, George Eliot, and George Sand.
- authors choose a pseudonym to conceal their ethnicity, or “whitewash” their name. Examples include Ayn Rand, Dr. Seuss, and Washington Irving.
- authors use a pseudonym to write about taboo material or to differentiate between their public/private personas. Examples include Anne Rice as A. N. Roquelaure for the sexually explicit Sleeping Beauty series; Lewis Carroll, to differentiate from the established mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson; Sylvia Plath publishing The Bell Jar as Victoria Lucas to protect her mother’s feelings, or authors such as Voltaire, Sapphire, and Iceberg Slim (public/private persona.)
- authors who already have name recognition sometimes use a pseudonym to gauge whether their work is being received well because of its quality, or because of their reputation. Examples include J.K. Rowling (already a pseudonym) publishing as Robert, Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman, and Joe Hill, who wanted to launch his writing career without being associated with his father, Stephen King.
Historically, authors have opted to use pseudonyms to attempt to bring an imbalance of power into balance. Marginalized authors often assume pen names that sound more like the names of those in positions of power, privilege and positionality. The choice to assume a pen name that implies a different gender/race/ethnicity is an attempt by the author to “pass” in a world which would ordinarily exclude them and dismiss their work. How difficult decision must it be to turn your back on your name in order to give your work a fighting chance?
Now let’s move on to the concept of appropriation—the assumption of an experience which is not yours. Letting the work speak for itself leaves an editor open to the problem of selecting work which does not include a diversity of authors. Many editors have personal preferences and years of schooling conditioning us to regard the cis-gendered, straight, white, male voice as the “default” and all other voices as a diversion. As editors, writers, educators, and mentors, we can’t get lazy about our unconscious conditioning and must be vigilant in our attempts to correct for it. To seek work from a diverse pool of authors is not to discount the cis-gendered, straight, white, male voice—it is to acknowledge that this voice has long been the dominant voice in all literary conversations. To assume that by inviting female-identified authors, LGBTQ authors, authors of color, and authors from the liminal spaces into the conversation means that white men don’t ever get to talk again is short-sighted. It simply means, “You’ve already had your turn, let some other people talk, and later, it will be your turn again.”
To appropriate an identity from those who have had to work very hard to receive a far smaller piece of the pie is not only disrespectful of the other culture, but it trivializes their experience by reducing it to a “submission strategy.” This is writing for the wrong reasons, in my opinion. If publication and notoriety is your end goal, you’re not a writer—you’re tapping out words to see your own name in lights. A pseudonym or heteronym is something an author can choose to use as a tool to give their work a fighting chance or to allow them a different kind of freedom as an artist—it is not something an author should use to give them an additional advantage if their own cultural identity has been the one in the position of privilege. It’s like using steroids when you’re already a major-league ball player. But it’s a free country, and artists are afforded the opportunity to write and publish as they wish. That said—if you choose to double-dip at the well of publication, you shouldn’t be surprised if writers who have to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously are offended at the decision to play at being a writer of color who has the convenience of becoming a white man again. And in a world of transparency in publishing, it goes far to disclose up front that you are choosing to use a pseudonym, instead of waiting to disclose after acceptance.
Hey! You know what has a few authors using pseudonyms and heteronyms, too? The next issue of NonBinary Review! Download our app for iPhone or iPad and enjoy each issue of NonBinary Review, completely free. Follow us on Facebook (Zoetic Press, Lithomobilus), and use our daily links to read new blogs, book reviews and Alphanumeric features! We’re also on Twitter (@ZoeticPress and @Lithomobilus), and you can even see some of our authors reading their work on our YouTube channel. If you’re interested in hearing more from us, sign up for our monthly newsletter. We’re serious about your privacy, and promise not to flood your inbox. Want to be a guest writer for Rhizomatic Ideas, or to profile one of our contributors? Send us a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can use whatever name or persona you want, but name yourself responsibly! Have a book you’d like to tell the world about, or know a writer that everyone should know? Send us your reviews and author interviews!
Until next week,
**In the interest of full disclosure: Alicia Marini