Behind the Pseudonym


J. K. Rowling as Robert Galbraith

That J. K. Rowling would embark on the next phase of her writing career under a pseudonym was almost a foregone conclusion. In July last year, the best-selling living novelist was unveiled as the author behind debut crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, published under the name of Robert Galbraith. And for a figure as deeply entrenched in our consciousness as Rowling, her desire to return to the blank slate of an unknown identity is particularly understandable. Her use of a pseudonym is no uncommon practice – most major writers have at some point hidden behind the guise of a pen name – but speaking at the Harrogate Crime Writing festival earlier this year, Rowling was clearly undeterred by being unmasked. The author stepped onto the stage in a full suit and tie, signifying the deeper significance of her Galbraith alias – and the surprising power held by pseudonyms for writers alike.

‘What’s in a name?’ – as many writers would concur, apparently rather a lot. A name can be our motivation behind our purchase of a book; it can be, aside from the title, one of the few indications of what to expect from the book itself; but most importantly, it can go so far as to influence the credibility and success of the work it lies at the foot of. It is for this reason that the pseudonym has, for some, become a staple factor in the world of writing, and been used to such varying purpose.


The Brontes

One such purpose has been to respond to the gender bias presented by writing under certain names. The Brontes are a famous example. Their subversive works such as Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wuthering Heights were published under the male pen names Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell, respectively. Charlotte later revealed herself and sisters Anne and Emily to be the ‘real’ authors: ‘we did not like to declare ourselves women because – without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called “feminine” – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.’ The same attiutude was shared by George Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans, but her essay ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ perhaps compounded such prejudices; as one of the nineteenth century’s most intelligent writers, she reverted to a male alias in order to be read seriously. Two centuries later and the problem somewhat persists, with J. K. Rowling herself encouraged to publish under her initials and keep her gender ambiguous.

There are also the authors responding to the particular obstacles of the publishing world. In the 1970s, Stephen King intermittently used the pseudonym Richard Bachman in order to maximise on capital: according to publishers at the time, authors relasing more than one novel a year would over-saturate the market and lead to unprofitable sales. The move also signalled to King whether his success came down to skill or luck, a similar experiment of which was conducted by Doris Lessing. Concerned that publishers were failing to recognise the talents of upcoming writers, Lessing, at the height of her literary career, submitted The Diary of a Good Neighbour under the name Jane Somers. The manuscript was initially rejected, validating Lessing’s theory. When it was finally published, the pseudonym proved a liberating mechanism for the author – the novel was read on its own terms, not bracketed within the usual labels that Lessing fought so hard to defy.

Stephen King, who wrote as Richard Bachman

Stephen King, who wrote as Richard Bachman

Much as we might like to think otherwise, it’s invariable that our perception of a novel or a poem will be in part influenced by our knowledge of who wrote it. Our preoccupation with so-called ‘authorial identity’ may be a particularly modern one – indeed, it was habitual in the 15th and 16th century for literature to be published anonymously – but the figure of the author can never fully evade a reader’s imagination, whether his name is inscribed on the front cover or not. Reading is a naturally inquisitive activity: we turn the pages and naturally ask ourselves, beyond the realms of the narrative voice, who is speaking to us? where does this story come from? what is X trying to tell us? Whether actively or subconsciously, this process of analysis inevitably takes place; the more we know about the figure behind the text, the more preconceived our response to these questions is likely to be. As such, even the subtle impression of a name – its gender, its origin, its inherent ‘personality’ – is likely to limit our perspective.

Clearly, names can inhibit the imagination of a reader, but they can have even greater impact on the imagination of a writer. The idea that one might feel too restrained by their own identity to write as themselves seems paradoxical: to tell a story is a self-revelatory, entirely subjective activity, to which the apparent difficulty of asserting one’s authorship seems contrary. But this paradox is nevertheless a real one, and opens up fundamental questions about the nature of writing itself. Indeed, beyond the obvious financial and social benefits, it seems that power of the pseudonym runs even deeper.


Sylvia Plath, who wrote as Victoria Lucas

Stephen King notes that ‘there are tricks all of us use to change our perspective and perceptions’, and for many authors, using a pseudonym is the greatest antidote to these difficulties. It is particularly significant that several prolific writers have remarked on the sense of feeling unshackled by adopting an alias. The pseudonym provides a psychological and creative comfort: a new identity brings a new state of mind, a lease of artistic regeneration and creates a distance between the author and his ‘story’. It is notable, for instance, that Sylvia Plath’s deeply confessional, heavily autobiographical novel The Bell Jar was written under the name of Victoria Lucas. For some authors, externalising the self creates a barrier, but projecting it onto a forged identity helps to break through it – the ultimate goal of writing.

As Virginia Woolf noted, ‘Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem’. Using a pseudonym manages to confront some of the unprecedented struggles of a writer: the hindrance of authorial identity, the search for true expression and the greater challenges of creativity. Of course, the exact question of ‘why?’ remains as much a mystery as the person behind the name – but perhaps my alter ego will be able to answer that.

One response to “Behind the Pseudonym

  1. Another fine essay.

    Shakespeare would never have imagined he would have a similar problem hundreds of years after his death. He tells the world who is using his own name and, yet, conspiracists (and scholars) insist he was someone else!

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