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Is the pen name mightier than the sword, or just a modern writer's flimsy foil?

By Tawny Tipples*
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2010; C01

Last week, the literary world was introduced to an unknown writer named Jay Morris, who announced that he will debut the first in a series of detective thrillers next year. In that same announcement, Jay Morris noted that he is actually the acclaimed novelist and screenwriter Richard Price, who wrote "Clockers," "Freedomland" and "Lush Life."

Price was unable to comment on the utter blandness of his pseudonym, or why he chose to reveal his identity before he even cloaked it.

"This, God save me, should be fun," he said in a statement.

Fun for the author, yes. But to a reader, this kind of bestseller boondoggle may come off as vain and childish, and contrary to the literary heritage of the truly deceptive pen name. Price's announcement was akin to a magician pulling a rabbit out of a see-through hat.

"The transparent pseudonym is very modern," says Carmela Ciuraru, a Brooklyn-based author and editor whose book "Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms" comes out next year. "It's getting to have it both ways: exploiting the popularity and safety of your own established brand while using the protective cloak of a pen name. . . . It's an easy way to show off how versatile they are as a performer. . . . If a critic bashes them for taking on a different genre or prose style, they've always got their own wildly successful, established name to fall back on."

Vampire maven Anne Rice wrote erotica as A.N. Roquelaure in the '80s to avoid confusing readers and scandalizing her father. The ruse didn't last long, and Rice didn't try to keep it a secret.

"It can be very liberating to step away from your body of work, but very quickly I embraced all of it under name of Anne Rice," she says from her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Using an open pseudonym "strikes me as a sophisticated way to brand and introduce a particular type of work. The name is almost part of the title of the book, a part of the brand, signaling that the author's writing in a slightly different style and voice."

Stephen King, who wrote seven books as Richard Bachman, kept up the charade for years before being officially outed in 1985 by Stephen P. Brown, a District writer and sci-fi expert who pulled Bachman's copyright records from the Library of Congress (they were under King's name and his agent's name). For prolific genre writers like King, a pen name is a way to produce more than one book a year without saturating the market. It's also a gimmick to limber the mind.

"I do believe that there are tricks all of us use to change our perspectives and our perceptions," King says in his introduction to the Bachman book "The Regulators." "I love what I do too much to want to go stale if I can help it. Bachman has been one way in which I have tried to refresh my craft, and to keep from being too comfy and well-padded."

The reasons for hiding behind fake names are as varied as the writers who do it. Satirists such as François-Marie Arouet and Eric Arthur Blair (better known as Voltaire and George Orwell) used pseudonyms as a shield from critics and irritable sectors of society. Charlotte Brontë sidestepped the soft misogyny of the male-dominated publishing industry by first submitting the novel "Jane Eyre" under the pen name Currer Bell, though critics and readers were astounded at the feminine empathy of the novel's alleged gentleman author, according to Joyce Carol Oates in her essay "Pseudonymous Selves." James Joyce, embarrassed to be publishing his early short stories in the Irish Homestead, became Stephen Dedalus (a moniker he'd later resurrect as a character in his novels). Sylvia Plath was frightened that "The Bell Jar" would offend her mother, so she first published it under the pen name Victoria Lucas.

Swaggering sci-fi writer James Tiptree Jr. was actually McLean resident Alice B. Sheldon, a psychologist who adopted the pseudonym in the '60s and '70s to maintain both her confidence and the separation between her public and private lives (the fake name was born out of a shopping trip to a Giant in Northern Virginia, where she saw a jar of Tiptree marmalade). When her identity was revealed in 1976, Sheldon tumbled into depression, unable to draw upon the power of her invented persona.

In the '80s and '90s, pen names began to serve less sociopolitical needs. Now a pseudonym provides an artistic reboot, or serves as an experiment, or permits a writer to reach the wallets of a new audience.

"Like the experience of first authorship, writing under a pseudonym gives one the sense of discovering oneself by way of redefining oneself, even if it is only for the space of a single book," writes Oates, who has authored mystery novels as Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly. "Each suggests an interior and not merely an outward transformation, a conspicuous redefining of self."

Doris Lessing wrote two books in the 1980s as Jane Somers to see if critics would pay any attention to an unknown author with a familiar and celebrated style (her own publisher turned down the books, media coverage was minimal and sales were dismal).

Nora Roberts makes no secret about writing thrillers as J.D. Robb, but it's likely that some readers of the genre don't realize the connection. Her Robb yarns sometimes outsell her own novels in mass-market paperback, where crime fiction thrives at $5.99 to $7.99 a copy. Last year Roberts sold 502,000 copies of her hardcover book "Black Hills," while Robb released two books in paperback that sold a combined 1.3 million copies.

"It's a new market and a new price point, a way to reach a different age/income/educational level, and therefore a chance to sell more units," says Fordham University marketing professor Albert N. Greco, an expert in the publishing industry. "It works very well for her."

Authors also use pen names that italicize the genre in which they're writing. Are you more likely to read a pulpy mystery by a writer named Robb or a writer named Nora? What would look better in swirling, golden script on the steamy jacket cover of a romance novel: Leigh Greenwood? Or Leigh Greenwood's actual name, Harold Lowry?

Editors thought no one would buy a romance novel written by a man, says the cowboy-hat-wearing Lowry, who lives in Charlotte and published his first romance in 1986.

"But," he asserts, "I wanted a name that could be androgynous. I didn't want to be a Catherine or Phyllis."

*Tawny Tipples is Style reporter Dan Zak's pen name, under which he's written a low-selling series of novels about a blind bailiff with a seeing-eye dog who can smell guilt.

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