Pseudonyms in a Time of Social Media: It Ain’t the Old Days

[cross-posted at my personal website and Inside the Writers' Studio]

In 1987, Joyce Carol Oates was revealed to be Rosamond Smith, the author of Lives of the Twins, a mystery novel slated for publication the same year as You Must Remember This, a “real” Oates novel.

Oates was disappointed to have been discovered–”I wanted to escape from my own identity,” she was quoted as saying–and publishers weren’t happy, either. They generally have a one-book-per-author-per-year preference, and, it turns out, they had no idea Oates’ book was submitted under a pseudonym. Still, Smith’s Lives of the Twins (Simon & Schuster) and Oates’ You Must Remember This (Dutton) both published in 1987.

Carmela Ciuraru (“not a pseudonym,” she clarifies in her bio), in a 2011 Salon excerpt of her book Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms (HarperCollins), writes, “At its most basic level, a pseudonym is a prank.” But a prank is deliberate trickery, an act that by design creates a butt of the joke, a fool. However, the majority of writers who adopt pen names aren’t interested in tricking readers; rather, they want to protect, change, or free themselves.

Zoe Winters – pen name – is a paranormal romance author. Kitty Thomas, same woman, different pen name, writes erotica. Winters/Thomas recently revealed her two names to her readers. Asked why she did that, Winters/Thomas says, “”The bigger question isn’t why I came out of the pen name closet, but why I kept it secret in the first place. There were two main reasons: 1. My family is VERY religious and I didn’t want to start drama for them. (They supported me coming out of the pen name closet because trying to keep it under wraps was too much unnecessary stress). 2. I didn’t want to alienate the Zoe readers because my Zoe fiction is a lot more mainstream.”

Ciuraru explains that “the motives that lead writers to assume an alias are infinitely complex.” One possible motive is to write honestly without revealing anything personal about the self, and another, according to Ciuraru, is to have the freedom to create a “guilty pleasure” – both of which seemed to motivate Winters/Thomas. And Oates, in her 1987 New York Times essay Success and and the Pseudonymous Writer: Turning Over a New Self, writes, “There is the possibility, however quixotic, of making a fresh start – in [Romain] Gary’s words, ‘renewing’ oneself – and not being held to severe account for it.”

I’d been publishing literary fiction under my real name for several years when I hit a fiction wall and wanted to do something different, but I didn’t feel like I could do it successfully unless I found a way to start fresh. I also didn’t want to compromise whatever brand I might have created for myself. Additionally, what I wanted to write about had a lot to do with my personal life, something I prefer to keep private. What better way to address all of those concerns at once than to write under a new name?

What I discovered after creating a pseudonym, however, is that in these days of authors being encouraged (or wanting) to use social media as a promotional tool and/or as a way to engage with readers, having a pseudonym is more than putting the-name-you-always-wished-your-parents-had-given-you on a book cover and title page. It means creating a whole new identity.

Many authors I know have (at least) 1. a website; 2. a blog; 3. a Twitter page; and 4. a Facebook page.

An author with more than one identity will very likely have two websites, two blogs, two Twitter pages, and two Facebook pages.

Winters/Thomas manages websites, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, newsletters, “and there was something else but it just jumped out of my head,” she says.

The initial creation of the alter-ego is exhilarating. Who do I want to be? What will I name myself? Will I be male or female? It’s easy, at first. A comment on a blog here, a comment in a forum there, each comment made by the “new” you on a new website you never spent time on before. (Not because you didn’t deign to go there, but because before adopting this New Self, you were busy being Online You in an entirely different world as your Original Self. But now that you’ve become New Self, whose writing will appeal to a different kind of audience, you find yourself wanting – and needing – to spend time in the world inhabited by the people you would have chosen for your peer group if you had always been this Other Self instead of your Original Self.)

It’s like switching cliques in high school – except, you could never actually get away with that shit in high school.

Too, a full switch is one thing – time is simply shifted from one place to another. But managing a Self and a Pseudo-Self (or, if you’re Winters/Thomas – who’s about to introduce yet another pseudonym – three Pseudo-Selves) is a delicate balancing act.

“It does take time,” Winters/Thomas says, “but once you get them going, it doesn’t have to take an unnecessarily large amount of time. Though I do tend to Facebook a lot more as Zoe. Twitter is about an even split between my names. And I tend to blog more under whichever pen name I’m currently writing as. I do several releases for one name then switch to the other when I get burnt out.”

There’s more to burnout that getting tired of one (or another) personality. It can be exhausting to spend too much time as a mere facet of a larger, more complex personality. In order to not reveal yourself, you find yourself trying not to be “you” when being the Pseudo. You start to wonder whether you’ve revealed something others will recognize as *you*, whether you should talk about this topic or that topic that you – as You – feel strongly about, but that Pseudo-You should be less concerned with because her/his focus is something else entirely.

As fun as it is to be someone else for a time, the Real Self wants to break through, and the Pseudo-Self becomes threatened.

Winters/Thomas finally revealed herself because, she says, it was “too much stress and pressure trying to keep it a secret.”

“I was getting a LOT of crossover fans between Zoe and Kitty and eventually people were going to figure it out, anyway,” she says. “Kitty writes dark literary erotica and I didn’t want people to feel I was ‘ashamed’ of that. I’m not. I’m quite proud of my Kitty work. I didn’t want people out there who have sexual hang-ups or weirdness about discussing or writing about kinky sex to project that onto me.”

Back when Oates was Smith, King was Bachman, and Evans was Eliot, adopting a pseudonym was comparatively simple. And maybe it still is for writers who have a successful publicity machine or a book that catches and spreads on its own. But for those writers – for we writers – living in the internet age and who either want or need to engage as a way to generate a wider reader base, it’s just a little bit more complicated.

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One Response to Pseudonyms in a Time of Social Media: It Ain’t the Old Days

  1. I couldn’t resist commenting. Well written!

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