April 22, 2013

Pseudo Pseudonyms

Many authors choose to publish under a pseudonym. Reasons for choosing a pseudonym vary depending on era, genre, etc.—and sometimes just personal preference. Some writers want to keep their writing distanced from the view of their loved ones, others want to keep their readers distanced from their personal lives, and others still have their choice forced by instances of gender bias.

In the modern world, there are many completely understandable reasons for publishing under a pseudonym.
  • Privacy: while historically writers may have wanted to keep the stray reader from knowing their true identities, privacy has become an even greater concern given all of our technology and even the prevalence of social media. 
    • Employers now run online searches about a prospective employee's background.  Believing that someone is pursuing a writing career can mean the difference between offering them the job and tossing that resume in the rejects pile (despite the fact that many published authors do not earn sufficient income from their writing alone and would be completely committed to their "day job").
    • If one writes in an "iffy" genre, this distinction may become even more critical. An author of erotica or romance may be discounted because of prejudices associated with those genres; an obviously religious author may not be hired because the employer personally doesn't want "proselytizing" happening around the water cooler, or harbors prejudice against that religion—and while legally that may be considered prosecutable, it could not be definitively pinpointed as the reason for which someone wasn't hired. Many similar examples exist of how writing could affect one's ability to be hired in a non-writing field, or outside one's established genre.
    • The distance from those nearest to the author which caused our predecessors to choose pseudonyms is still relevant, whether to avoid discouragement from those who consider publishing to be a pipe dream, or to remain autonomous from those who have their own beliefs on which genres are "worthwhile" writing and which aren't, or even to prevent hurt feelings and misunderstandings among those around the author.
    • Similarly, the distance from readers (when an author amasses fans) is imperative. Authors may not want every single reader to have access to cell phone numbers, chat accounts, or simply personal Facebook profiles (as opposed to promotional ones). Pseudonyms do allow a sense of privacy, even if that sense is ultimately a figment of our imagination in today's world.
  • The interesting flip side of the issue of privacy is distinction.  Because so many individuals now have social media sites which will show up in a search result for their name, and so many names are very common—even in combination with each other—a pseudonym can mean greater visibility, which could ultimately translate into more sales.
  • The gender issues are still a factor as well, as certain genres or sub-genres skew toward one gender or the other. Nora Roberts published many books as J.D. Robb for a reason. Male authors breaking into the romance genre may choose to publish under women's names, and authors of literary fiction may still choose to publish using either initials or a male name because of the lingering bias associated with women writers (apparently we only write young adult, chick lit, bodice-ripping romances, or erotica).  
    • Some authors publish in separate genres with distinct pseudonyms.
  • Pseudonyms can also have really cool associations and hidden meanings, which may be a lure.

While I find all of these reasons for choosing a pseudonym to be completely understandable (though the gender bias in the publishing industry is unfortunate to say the least), what I do not understand is the multitude of authors publicly claiming their pseudonyms, sometimes even before (or very soon after) they're published.  Isn't that somewhat against the point? 

I've known writers to choose a pseudonym, create a visible virtual presence such as a Facebook fan page, and then proceed to repeatedly and publicly invite their 600+ friends to like their pseudonym's page and thereby support their writing.  Believe me, if 600 people know your "secret" identity, it's not a secret. For that matter, if twenty people know your secret identity, it's unlikely to remain secret, especially once you are published. 

Much as we would like to jump for joy and scream it from the rafters when we finally receive a book deal (or publish independently), sending an update to your high school newsletter claiming your pseudonym or posting it on Facebook (even if you think you are doing so to a limited number of people) completely undermines many of the reasons and much of the effect of a pseudonym. The one exception may be the value of having a unique name under which to publish.

Of course, pseudonyms are fairly easily discoverable nowadays, if for some reason someone wanted to do so. Between tracing IP addresses, the intricacies of setting up a DBA (doing business as) account, and the curiosity of investigative reporters or bloggers, etc., once you have reached a certain level of success, your true identity becoming public knowledge is practically inevitable. 

Still, the many reasons why a writer may initially choose to use a pseudonym continue to clash, in my mind at least, with the speed with which these pseudonyms are now claimed. Is this another side effect of our growing expectation of instant gratification? An acquiescence to the transparency of our internet-filled lives? A lack of foresight? I'm completely uncertain.

Of course, many authors choose to publish under their own names, completely unconcerned by the aforementioned reasons. I am obviously not questioning this choice. What I don't understand is why an individual who did choose a pseudonym will then, almost instantly, turn around and associate it publicly and unabashedly with his/her true identity.


What say you? Are authors too quick to link their pseudonyms to their personal identities? Does this undermine the value and/or the point of writing under a
pseudonym to begin with?

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