Saturday, December 12, 2009
What's in a name?
Does it really matter what an author's name is? If you were to read the most lyrical, touching poem ever written, the kind that clenches your heart and lingers in your mind, and then discover it was penned by someone named Heironimus Finkleschmidt, does that change your perception of the work itself?
If you've already found value and meaning in the words, perhaps not. But let's say you're at the bookstore looking for something new to read. Let's further assume that you're a woman scanning the spines of the romance section. Which book would you pull out to skim: Blazing Hearts by Warburton Nischwitz... or Hearts on Fire by Constance de Clare? What if you're a physicist perusing scholarly texts - which would you likely read: a thesis on string theory by Bambi Snowflower, or one by Steven A. Rogers? Now be honest.
The picture above is of George Eliot, author of the novels Silar Marner and Middlemarch. Her real name was Mary Ann Evans. What's wrong with the name 'Mary Ann Evans' you say? Nothing really. A bit plain, perhaps, but easy to pronounce and short. Evans, er... Eliot wrote under a pen name (or nom de plume) for both professional and personal reasons. For one, she felt she would be taken more seriously in the publishing world as a male author. For another, she was openly living with a married man, George Henry Lewes.
Authors use pen names for a myriad of reasons:
1) They like their anonymity - What if you've written from personal experience about drug abuse, marital infidelity or mental illness and you happen to be functioning just fine and want to keep the job and friends you have? Also, writers, by nature, are often reclusive souls who need their peace and quiet in order to be productive.
2) They write in multiple genres - Norah Roberts (romance author) writes as J.D. Robb (erotic thrillers). This makes each of their works easily classifiable.
3) They write in a genre predominantly read and written by members of the opposite gender - I know this is sexist, but it's true. We don't expect women to write fast-paced, brutal battle scenes or crime fiction about serial killers, nor do we expect men to write tender Regency romance centered on a young heroine, especially if it's written in first person. Yes, intellectually we know there are exceptions, but the expectation is that we'll identify more strongly with members of our own sex - something strongly ingrained in us. I may have cut my literary teeth on Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers, but most of my female classmates were probably reading Danielle Steele at the same time.
4) They are actually 'they' - Sometimes a collective of authors publish a series under a single name. The currently popular Young Adult Fantasy series about bands of cats, Warriors, by the authors (Kate Gary, Cheryth Baldry and Victoria Holmes) known singularly as Erin Hunter is one.
4) Their real name is too long, too odd, too ethnic... or maybe they just don't like it - Um, to this day I do not answer to my real first name. It's just not me. It never was. And while, as a youngster, I frequently cursed my parents for giving me such an unusual name, I embrace it now, except that the first name will always be an initial, because I don't want people calling me... oh, never mind. But if I had been born Mary Ann Evans, I probably would've chosen a pen name with a little more originality and memorability, too.
So does it matter to you what an author's name is? Does it matter what gender or ethnicity they are? Would we remember William Shakespeare with the same admiration if he had been named Gomer Pickens? Would he have been discovered at all?