The common scaffold
Emma Darwin's Twelve Tools [not rules] of Writing

By any other name

I would say, with all the smugness of someone making a hard-to-top bid in Pop-Psychology Whist, that I have a particularly complicated relationship with my name, except that... I don't know anyone who doesn't. At a workshop run by Diane Samuels, she started by asking each of us to say one of our names, and something about it. And I promise you, no-one had nothing to say, from the ones who hated and feared the grandmother whose name they bear, to the ones who changed their name when they emigrated from Australia because... And yet a surprising number of aspiring writers say that they want to publish under a pseudonym, and it's not always because they're writing a roman-a-clé about high-level corruption in their local council. Often it springs, as far as I can see, from not wanting their grandmother to read the GBH scene, or their husband not wanting his mates to think he's the bloke in the sex scenes. (Which was was the ostensible reason for the stories in In Bed With... being written under our "porn star" names: we would feel less inhibited. The real reason was to get the media to start a guessing game, and the media duly obliged with several weeks of the Name Game...)

Unless you really musn't be recognised, or you have a deep-laid plan to switch to your "real" writing after learning your trade in category fiction, say, I confess that I don't really understand the desire to hide behind a pseudonym. But it is true that in putting our name on a book, and getting that book on a bookshop table, we are in some way claiming space for what we've said: what we've written is worth listening to; we are worth listening to. And we're saying that it's the best we're capable of: we can do no more. That's a very big and loud claim, and writers are often inward, private people: maybe it's easier to make that great claim, if you pretend to be someone else.

A well-known writer of women's fiction - let's call her Phillida Ashmole - said recently that she still finds it odd to be referred to in reviews and interviews purely by her surname: "What Ashmole seems to intend is that..."It's the common practice of literary criticism, of course, and to some extent journalism, but women, especially, aren't used to that label for their identity. Phillida says that it makes her feel as if the review is talking about someone else entirely - that the book was written by someone else - and I know just what she means. Indeed, Phillida also has a married surname which she uses in non-writing contexts, so that's three identies that's she's running.

Publishers need to establish a writer's name as something recognisable, so maybe we shouldn't be surprised when that simple word-image seems separate from the complicated plait of our writing and other selves. A junior diplomat in Bonn in the late 1950s was going to have to publish under a pseudonym while he was still employed by HMG, and he chose one which had a highly recognisable shape: John LeCarré. I do know that David Cornwell is called David, not John, by everyone, but I'd love to know how much he feels that John is a different entity. Ruth Rendell says that she doesn't write in a different voice as Barbara Vine: the distinction is purely about the tin, to make sure that the two different kinds of books she writes can be found by the different readers who will enjoy them. Whereas Doris Lessing, once she admitted that she had written Diary of a Good Neighbour by Jane Somers, said that she did feel that there were things and ways she could write as Jane Somers, that didn't fit into Doris Lessing's work.

Undoubtedly some aspiring writers have such terror of being judged that it seems safer to disown the work. And I know that the name-as-brand is something which many writers react to with visceral distaste, because it seems to narrow the boundaries of their creative self. But the word "brand" of course, is much older than the last 300 years of consumer society. Imagine a branding-iron with your name on it (backwards, of course) and imagine it thumping onto a newly-printed book with a hiss of smoke... and there's your name. This book is yours, and it's yours as your child is yours: it's made of your creative DNA, wherever it goes and whoever it goes to. Why wouldn't you claim it?

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