Carmela Ciuraru’s book, Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, is out today and we highly recommend picking up a copy. In it, she reveals the back story on anonymous authors both famous and infamous, while explaining why and how they chose their assumed names. We decided a conversation about gender outlaws, secrecy, and the act of naming was in order, so we called her up and asked her about the fine line between fact and fiction.
In the introduction, you mention some prominent writers who have adopted pen names. Why do writers chose to use a pseudonym?
The motivations are so varied. Often people want to come up with different categories, but one of the points my book is making is that even if the choice of a pseudonym is straightforward I would argue that it’s much deeper than that. For example, George Eliot was trying to escape her life as Mary Anne (Marian) Evans. She wanted a new name and a new identity. Or there is the example of Patricia Highsmith –- she didn’t want to offend her 84-year-old grandmother.
When V.S. Naipaul recently asserted that he knew when he was reading a novel by a female author, I kept thinking about the case of Alice Sheldon writing as James Tiptree, Jr., which you describe in the book.
This comes up all the time still. “I can always tell if a woman’s writing.” I think George Elliot wrote “male” novels, and so did James Tiptree, Jr. When I read [Tiptree's] letters to people, the voice is very “male” for lack of a better way to put it. There’s a sort of swagger to her writing. She’s flirtatious and confident. If I showed you those letters you would agree. She wasn’t a woman when she was writing those letters — she became someone else.
In the digital age we’re living in, is it still possible to use a pseudonym without being discovered?
Obviously there are writers using pseudonyms today, but for the most part no, it’s not possible. In the 19th century writers weren’t having their photographs taken, they weren’t writing e-mails. The guy who wrote the Gay Girl in Damascus blog (Tom MacMaster) had his IP addresses traced back to him. So I think it’s very hard today. On the one hand it’s impossible to keep up a pseudonym because everything is done via email, but on the other hand there’s more pseudonyms than ever before because of people online. However, they do tend to get found out. The people featured in my book weren’t looking for publicity, they were simply trying to do their work. But now on the Internet [pseudonyms are] more an expression of our narcissistic culture than they are for producing serious work. It was a much different enterprise before.
If you were to use a pseudonym, what name would you choose?
When I was in college I would write poems and stories and would write Carmela Smith. It’s kind of aspirational in a way, and was a joke. Now I joke that my pen name would be Carmela von Plume. Alice Sheldon found her name on a jar of marmalade. You can actually come up with a really great name from products at the grocery store.
Watch the entertaining book trailer for Nom de Plume below.