The Godfather: Peter Corris on pseudonyms
Back when my series characters Ray Crawley, Luke Dunlop and Richard Browning were losing favour with readers and publishers, a few people suggested I should have published the books under pseudonyms. It was well-meaning advice but it wouldn’t have worked.
Pseudonyms were popular with big-producing writers like Edgar Wallace and John Creasey at a time when there was much less attention given to the careers of writers. It was possible to sustain the fiction that different authors were at work writing about different characters and subjects. Women writers have employed pseudonyms, as the Brontë sisters and Mary Ann, or Marian, Evans (George Eliot) initially did, to conceal their sex. Ethel (Henry Handel) Richardson did the same. This was a necessary strategy at a time when publishers were apt to view female writers as overly romantic and ‘soft’.
Crime writers have used pseudonyms for a variety of reasons. Alan Yates, for example, wrote as Carter Brown simply for the better sound of the name. Gore Vidal produced several crime novels under the name Edgar Box to mark a separation between his popular and literary work. Cecil Day-Lewis, the Poet Laureate, wrote detective stories as Nicholas Blake for the same reason. Kenneth Millar wrote under a couple of names before settling on Ross Macdonald. His reason was to avoid confusion with the work of his wife, who was published as Margaret Millar.
The writer to have most successfully achieved long-term anonymity through the use of a pseudonym was Rodney William Whitaker, an American academic who published bestselling novels like The Eiger Sanction (1972) and The Loo Sanction (1973) as Trevanion. Whitaker published academic works under his own name and books in other genres under different pseudonyms.
Nowadays writers are obliged to appear on television, attend launches of their books, readings and writing festivals. Crime readers quickly became well aware that Jack Harvey is Ian Rankin and Barbara Vine is Ruth Rendell.
In 1980 Stephen King published the first of a series of novels as Richard Bachman (The Roadwork and so on). Allegedly, he wanted to see if he could achieve the same success under a different name. The books sold only moderately well but, after the deception was revealed and they were reissued as ‘Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman’, sales rose spectacularly. The pseudonym had been counterproductive.
British writer Doris Lessing had an even more negative experience. To demonstrate the difficulties faced by unknown writers, she submitted two novels she judged to be up to her usual standard under the name Jane Somerset to the market. They were rejected by several publishers. When released pseudonymously (by her usual publishers, aware of the experiment), they attracted no positive reviews and minimal sales.
In Australia, Helen Darville notoriously contrived to conceal her real identity by skilful use of hair dye and peasant blouses, but it would scarcely work for a male. The only options would be drag or facial hair, with neither likely to be convincing.
Thomas Keneally’s identity as William Coyle (Act of Grace 1988) was soon exposed. A writer may get away with it for a while as journalist Joe Klein, writing as Anonymous, did with the bestseller Primary Colors in 1996, but for the most part we are condemned to being who and what we are.