Shakespeare famously wrote, “What is in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet says this as she muses over how she and Romeo can be together because she’s a Capulet, he’s a Montague, their families are arch enemies, and as far as she’s concerned all that stands between them is his name. “So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d, retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title.” Simple, really: Romeo must just give up his name (I had all my days explaining to my kids in English class that she actually meant his family name, not his first name) and then they can be together. Ah, to be a naive teenager again, when the solutions to all of life’s problems were so very simple.
Of course, people attach different meaning to names. For some, it’s merely a label, something that lets you know if people are talking to you. For others it’s a part or their identity, helping to define who they are. In several cultures a child’s name changes at a certain age, signifying the passage into adulthood, and on conversion to Islam, for example, it’s traditional to take a new name symbolising the end of the old life and the beginning of the new (this custom is also practised in certain Christian traditions, I think).
And then there are people with more than one name. There’s their official name, by which they are registered and by which their mom still addresses them, and there’s the name by which they are known to the public. I’m talking about stage names, pseudonyms, noms de plume and pen-names (yes, I know the last two are the same thing). Yes, I’m also jumping on the bandwagon and throwing in my ten cents on the topic that has the interwebs, twitterverse and blogosphere abuzz this week: Robert Galbraith who became an overnight sensation when it came out he is really JK Rowling (for some reason I desperately want to end this sentence with the words, “…in drag.”)
Honestly I don’t know why everyone’s so excited about the whole affair. It’s not as if she’s the first author who’s done it. Take Mark Twain and George Orwell, two of the most famous authors of their respective centuries. The other thing they have in common is that neither of them exist, being known by their mothers and (hopefully) wives as Samuel Clemens and Eric Blair. In fact, here’s a list of ten famous authors who used pseudonyms. The list is by no means extensive and I’m sure if we did some digging we’d come up with quite a list of authors who’ve had dual identities.
Of more interest than the fact that Rowling did this, is the question why. Some have speculated that she wanted to see if a non-Harry Potter novel by her could be successful without her name attached, which is a reasonable assumption – it’s not as if she needs the money of another best-seller. Fellow-blogger Becky makes the important observation that the timing of the “leak” is a tad suspicious, falling as it does smack bang in the middle of the Northern Hemisphere’s summer vacation when everyone’s wondering what to read next to pass the time. It has also been pointed out that she now published under an unambiguously male name because apparently books by men sell better than books by women (as if she needs the help). I suppose only Ms Rowling and her publisher’s marketing department will ever know the truth.
Let’s consider other common reasons why authors use pseudonyms: In the case of Mr Clemens and Mr Blair (and others) they were already quite well-known as journalists and probably didn’t want to put their reputations on the line with works of fiction that might fail (and both their signature works were more than a little contentious). It is also fairly common for an author who is well-established within a certain genre and wants to try something different to do so under a different name, lest he estranges some of his existing fans. It could be that the author’s name is simply too common, especially if there are other famous people/authors with the same name (Matthew Wright can tell you a lot about this.)
Or maybe it’s simply a case of getting stuck with a crappy name, or one that’s not entirely suitable for the industry (Caleb Wilde, a funeral director, once featured a bunch of photos of funeral homes with very…unfortunate names on his blog) or the market you’re targeting.
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