Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Nom de Plume

Off the top of your head, without using Google or your smartphone, or the dude next to you on the
subway, can you name any of James Bond’s aliases from the films?  There are 23 movies that star the character, and in each one he usually starts off by “going undercover” with an assumed name.  It hardly matters, because he’s fairly quickly captured by the bad guy and identified as James Bond, usually with varying degrees of admiration, but always with some sense of name recognition.  It’s almost as if Auric Goldfinger were shopping at Albertsons and stopped to take the super-spy taste challenge.

“Go ahead, see which super-spy you preferred.”

“’Ello, Goldfinger.”

“No.  Mister Bond!  I don’t believe it!  I expected you to die.”

Even if you could rattle off ten quick cover identities (NERD!), the point is that name recognition of Bond, James Bond is so great, that it encompasses the entire film genre itself.  The opening sequence of Vin Diesel’s XXX went so far as to feature a Bond-like character and quickly kill him off just to show that this was not going to be a Bond-esque spy-film—even though it was.

The same goes for writers.  There are some big, bigger, and biggest names out in the world of writing.  Some of them, like Robert Jordan, are actually nom de plumes, a pen name for the author’s given name—James Oliver Rigney, Jr.  Mr. Jordan, ne Rigney, also wrote some historical fiction under the pseudonym Reagen O'Neal, a western as Jackson O'Reilly and dance critiques as Chang Lung.

No, I'm not making that last one up.

Jordan is the perfect example, pre-internet, of how and why an author might want to use one or more pen names to separate very different kinds of work.  Or, alternately, a writer with multiple personality disorder.  Your call.  Generally, this was his attempt to lend credibility to each piece on its own, and not have it associated with the nature of the other pieces.  In short, someone reading Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series wouldn’t discount his criticism of dance because he was a fantasy writer.  I'm still not making that up.

There are similar reasons that writers would like to distance their two (or more) writing products.  J.D. Robb is the erotic futuristic suspense genre writer who is also Nora Roberts, mild-mannered romance writer.  Stephen King published additional novels under the Richard Bachman pen name, because publishers didn’t think that readers would buy more than one novel from the same author per year. 

Yeah, try telling that to fans of George R.R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss!

That awesome moment . . .
There are also some, sadly, sexist and bigoted reasons for authors to select a pen name.  Female authors writing genre fiction have suffered this most recently.  Andre Norton legally changed her name from Alice Mary Norton after writing for some time under that pen name.  And if I say Carolyn Janice Cherry, not many readers will know who I mean.  However, C.J. Cherryh (which is still pronounced “Cherry”) is widely known to science fiction fans everywhere.

There are myriad reasons, some good, some not so much, to write under a pseudonym.  The coolest reason, of course, is to have a “secret identity” that everyone talks about at parties and  around a baccarat table where the author silently, smugly, anonymously sips a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.  

For most writers, while this is appealing, it isn’t practical.  It can create confusion in readers who would like to know more about their author and find more books to buy.  Interviews can become tricky, unless strictly controlled, and book readings/signings are something of a strange dance of: Is she or isn’t she?  In the internet age, if someone wants to know an author’s “real name” they are likely going to be able to find out.  No matter the layers of protection in place, these things have a way of find their way into the light.

Just as Robert Galbraith did—a.k.k. J.K. Rowling.

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