What’s in a name? Pseudonyms and why writers use them

Ah, my dear, we can but dream. Image: Pixabay

Ah, my dear, we can but dream.
Image: Pixabay

Have you always had the same name?

For many women reading this, the answer will be a resounding ‘no.’ The same goes for myself – no, I have not always had the entertaining monica ‘Lynn Love’ – cousin to Penelope Pitstop, third cousin twice removed to Pepper Potts, bastard offspring of Linda-black-sheep-of-the-family-no-one-talks-to-her-at-family-get-togethers-Lovelace.

My surname used to be Cuthbert. Lynn Cuthbert. Lynn Love may be a bit of a joke name, but Lynn Cuthbert is an accountant’s name – maybe a quantity surveyor. And before I have legions of quantity surveyors telling me I’m slurring the good work of civil engineering the length and breadth of these fine isles, may I say – first off, what on earth are you doing here on WordPress? Go find your tape measure and calculate something. And second off, there’s nothing wrong with a respectable profession like yours, it’s just not for me – and for heaven’s sake stop being so sensitive about it.

Now, if you’re a writerly cove, you may have dreamt for years of seeing your name on the cover of some beautifully bound, hand-tooled leather hardback. But was it your own name you saw, or a pen name?

There is a long, fine tradition of authors using nom de plumes. The wonderfully titled Samuel Langhorne Clemens most of you will have read as the master of wile and wit, Mark Twain, and most readers will know when they pick up a Richard Bachman novel, they’re really reading the work of Horror King of Kings, Stephen King.

But it seems women are the ones who have run fastest and loosest with the pseudonym.

Understandably for early novelists, when ladies were supposed to spend all day learning how to sing, play respectable musical instruments (perhaps a piano that would show of your finely boned wrists – nothing such as a tuba or a cello that would distend your delicate female body parts) embroidering anything that stayed still long enough for you to set your needle on it, fainting and practising how to die from something decorous, like consumption.

What you really, really weren’t supposed to do was be the daughters of a parson, live in close isolation with other creative, mildly unhinged siblings in the middle of a windswept moor, allowing your suppressed, base natures emerge through torrid tales of mad women chained in attics, obsessive love, domestic violence, ghosts, conflagrations and fallen women.

Is it any wonder Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte used the (rather odd) male pen names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell? If nothing else, they saved the blushes of their father Patrick.

Even today, when it is – you’d think – more acceptable for women to be authors, they still often use their initials rather than those all too-feminine first names. Think of P.D. James, J. K. Rowling, C.J. Lyons, J. D. Robb (Nora Roberts). This is often because they’re writing in a genre which is male dominated, such as thrillers. When J. K. Rowling was on the verge of publishing the first Harry Potter book, her publisher asked if she would mind becoming J. K. instead of Joanne, in case boys were put off reading the adventures of the wizard genius because they were written by a girl. I’m pretty sure the thriller writers would have a similar story to tell about adopting their gender neutral names.

Would I ditch my real name, the name of my other half of twenty five years, the name of my son, to guarantee higher sales?

Too bloody right I would.

Though, if I wrote some throbbing, muscular, brain-splattered, blood-drenched torture-porn action thriller, I don’t think sales would improve by being L.M. Love instead of Lynn.

So, how about a pen name?

Stud Bentley? Kurt Nontweasel? D. B. Turnblatt? Flash Portsabre?

Hmm. I’ll get back to you.

Any suggestions? Have you invented a pen name for yourself? Or are you determined to use your own? If you have already published – pen name or not – any regrets?

Speaking of names, I was wondering if George R. R. Martin’s was an invented reference to one of his literary heroes –pedlar of epic fantasy, orcs, hobbits and golums, oh my! – J. R. R. Tolkein. You know – the R. R. bit?

The answer? No.

GRRM’s full name is George Raymond Richard Martin – so not made up. But, I bet he enjoyed being able to stick those initials in there.

To Kill a Mockingbird: Books in the Blood # 11

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

* TINY SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t heard ANYTHING about Go Set a Watchman and don’t want to – read no further.

What books did you read at school? Books on the syllabus, books you were made to read.

The last Books in the Blood (The Diary of Anne Frank) was one such book for me and for thousands of kids.

Now, a few of the books we were set to read for our O Levels (yes, I am well old enough to remember pre GCSEs) some of my fellow students found a little dry. There was not much rejoicing over Shakespeare, I’m afraid to say, although we studied a few of the more action-packed examples of the Bard’s work: who wouldn’t want to read about political assassination, ghosts, insanity, inter-family feuds and teenage suicide with a big dollop of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder thrown in for good measure? And all in blank verse iambic pentametre – perfect.

Yeah, Lady Macbeth, we know ‘Out damned spot.’ (Don’t you think she would’ve been a happier woman if she’d been able to employ her murderous machinations today? Bit of Swarfega to clean those hands and Vanish on any random blood splatterage would’ve put her mind at ease.)

Macbeth is certainly a better choice for young people than the Shakespeare ‘comedies’ – I can just imagine my peers’ snorts of derision at Malvolio’s yellow stockings in Twelfth Night, or any kind of girls dressed in men’s clothing gender confusion.

Catch them in the wrong mood and you’re hard pressed to get a teenager to laugh at something that‘s funny today,  let alone something that hasn’t really been funny in four hundred years.

Being the weirdy, booky, swotty nerd I was between smoking fags in the girl’s loo, I enjoyed most of our set books. I think the exam boards did a pretty good job of choosing works with plenty of violence and conflict (a must for developing minds, I’m sure you’d agree) that also had literary merit.

And they did something else clever too – they chose at least a handful of books that heavily featured children as the protagonist.

In an early draft of my YA book, I had a few chapters written from the viewpoint of the main character’s Mum, trying to show hard it was for her being a single parent, how much she worried about her teenage daughter when she vanished off on adventures for days on end.

Quite honestly, this is laughable, unpublishable and such a ‘middle-aged-parent’ approach, it’s rather an embarrassing thing to admit. The last thing a teenager wants to read is page after page about how tough it is to be a parent – they want to read how tough it is to be a teenager.

Understanding an adult’s world view is not what being a teenager is all about.

They’ll be plenty of occasions in the future when they’ll feel that slow, creeping realisation that maybe they didn’t know everything about everything when they were sixteen, that their Dad was right about that boy – he really was trouble – and that staying out until two o’clock in the morning downing Jägerbombs is probably not the best way to prepare for a Trigonometry resit.

Apart from dear Anne Frank, another – this time fictional – heroine  I got to know quite well during my O Levels was Scout from

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

It’s a book that’s a truly hot topic at the moment. It certainly is a phenomenon – how many other writers have become so deeply ingrained in culture after only publishing one novel? Actually there are a handful: J. D. Salinger did it with The Cather in the Rye: Emily Brontë with Wuthering Heights: Margaret Mitchell with Gone with the Wind. But most writers have to bang out a library full of best sellers before they reach these levels of fame.

Being on the curriculum helped spread the ubiquity of Mockingbird, with entire generations of children having to read the book. It was an ideal choice for inclusion ‒ aside from being well written, having a gripping plot and unforgettable characters, its themes of moral strength and racism are great jumping off points for class discussion, for exercising young minds.

This may not be the case in the future – at least in the UK – after changes were made to the exam syllabus, forcing teachers to choose more books from British writers such as Dickens. I wonder what the thinking is here, because there’s no greater way to put a child off 19th century literature than making them read Great Expectations when they’re fourteen and filled with hormones. A more inward-looking, regressive step I’ve never heard. Oh, well done Michael Gove.

And as for the sequel / prequel to MockingbirdGo Set a Watchman ‒ I haven’t read it yet and I’m not sure I ever will. Quite apart from the controversy over whether the book should have been released at all – hidden classic revealed to a grateful world or money making ploy by manipulative publishers? – having read some reviews, I don’t think I can face it.

Who wants to have their literary idol – the wonderful, moral powerhouse that is Atticus Finch – dismantled piece by white supremacist piece?

I’d rather stay in Mockingbird’s world, with my hero defiantly intact, thank you.