Pseud’s Corner

John Sutherland

  • Duffy by Dan Kavanagh
    Cape, 181 pp, £4.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 224 01822 1
  • Moscow Gold by John Salisbury
    Futura, 320 pp, £1.10, March 1980, ISBN 0 7088 1702 5
  • The Middle Ground by Margaret Drabble
    Weidenfeld, 248 pp, £5.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 297 77808 0
  • The Boy Who Followed Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
    Heinemann, 292 pp, £6.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 434 33520 7

Every publication is required, by law I believe, to carry the printer’s name. No such rigorous obligation attaches to statements of authorship. It is a licence that fiction, in particular, has richly exploited. Ever since its rise the novel has flirted with authorial anonymity and pseudonymity. Great unknowns, pen names and spoof attributions figure centrally in the genre’s history, from Scott, to George Eliot, to Kilgore Trout.

According to the massive, nine-volume Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous English Literature there are, largely speaking, only three reasons for masked authorship, all prudential: ‘Generally the motive is some form of timidity, such as (a) fear of consequence, (b) diffidence, (c) shame.’ Two of the novels under review here, and modern fiction practice as a whole, contradict or complicate this generalisation. One can identify at least a dozen recent motives, other than inhibition, for pseudonymy among novelists, some not as easily abbreviated as the Dictionary’s. Was it fear, diffidence or shame, for instance, that made Eric Blair rechristen himself at the start of his career? As Christopher Hollis tells us: ‘The reasons he gave for changing his name are oddly unconvincing. He complained that Blair was a Scots name and that he disliked Scotland because of its association with the deer forests about which his rich schoolfellows used to boast at his private school ... But he did not dislike Scotland sufficiently to stop him going to live there at the end of his life.’ Thirty years after his death (the Scottish climate helped kill him), one is free to conjecture, and it seems likely that Orwell needed some symbolic manumission in order to emancipate his writing self. One notes, in support of this, the prominence in the novels of heroes like Gordon Comstock who break with their stultifying families. And it is interesting, in the light of the works reviewed here, that Patricia Highsmith also seems to have been one of those who felt the need to rename herself before going on to make a name for herself as a novelist.

With George Eliot – the most famous nom de plume in English fiction – it was not just a case of breaking with family but of entering a man’s domain on equal terms. So, too, with the slightly more ambiguously gendered Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. As in surgery, literary sex change is an ugly operation and female chauvinists must rejoice to see a complete turn of the wheel in those areas of fiction where the practice is still necessary. When the Texan six-footer Tom Huff wished to make it big with a ‘bodice-ripper’ (currently the best-selling genre in America), he was obliged to change his name to the outrageously feminine Jennifer Wilde. Love’s Tender Fury made him/her a millionaire, but also something of a laughing-stock in the book trade. Given the present economics of fiction and the dominance of the woman reader, the tide of trans-sexual pseudonymy is now running strongly from male to female. (But to succeed in the small and still male-dominated enclave of SF, the talented woman who writes as James Tiptree Jr was obliged to keep her femininity a close secret.)

In the 20th century, genre, or ‘category’, fiction has often enforced pseudonymy for the commercial reason that the author’s name must chime harmoniously with the product. Thus, in the modern Western (a genre in which, hilariously, British authors lead the world), Terry Harknett writes under the buckskin-evoking pseudonyms of George G. Gilman, Charles R. Pike, Thomas H. Stone. Like his compatriots ‘John G. MeLaglen’ and J.T. Edson, Harknett has ‘appreciation societies’ devoted to his pseudonymous personae. (‘J.T.’, incidentally, the biggest seller of them all, claims his name is genuine. It’s a happy accident.)

Multiple pseudonymy as a device of popular fiction equips the energetic author with a useful facility for writing more than the market would bear from any one name. In ‘straight’ fiction one can cite Anthony Burgess as someone who has borrowed this downmarket technique. In the famously productive year of his death sentence – having been misinformed that he had a terminal illness, and wishing to provide for his family – Burgess was driven to the expedient of writing as ‘Joseph Kell’ (by association with the Book of Kells, I have always assumed). Reprieved, Burgess as Burgess mischievously reviewed a production of Burgess as Kell. Doubtless if the annals of pseudonymy were opened up one would find many such frolics.

As well as permitting him/her to saturate the market, pseudonymy has the other practical benefit of allowing the versatile writer to pinpoint on separate targets without confusion of brand names. Thus, as was recently divulged, Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy and Philippa Carr are all best-selling partitions of the same author, each catering to different preferences in the general area of women’s historical romance. In the opposite way, genre fiction can employ pseudonymy to combine under one authorial label a team of hacks. Famous examples are the Sexton Blake factory and the Ellery Queen partnership.

Pseudonymy, all this is to say, creates freedoms from the cramp of single author, single style, single personality conventions. When one thinks about it abstractly, the surprise is that ‘respectable’ novelists haven’t used its facilities more, if only to divest themselves of oppressive respectability. Some instances of slumming can, of course, be furnished: C. Day Lewis was free to write detective fiction under the pseudonym of Nicholas Blake and so not soil the reputation of the serious poet.

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[*] Two of her earlier novels, The Cry of the Owl and The Glass Cell, have just been reissued by Penguin.