This content has been archived. It may no longer be relevant
PG doesn’t usually include two items from the same source on the same day, but he’ll make an exception for this one.
From The Wall Street Journal:
Every day brings news of another “cancellation”—a celebrity’s tweet incites an online mob, an article written in 1987 gets a corporate executive fired. The latest trend is self-cancellation, in which the offending party, rather than enduring the coming onslaught, self-flagellates and hopes for absolution.
Consider the case of Alexandra Duncan and her would-be novel “Ember Days.” The book was all set to be published by Greenwillow, an imprint of HarperCollins, when the author withdrew it. The problem? Parts of the book were written from the point of view of a black American, a person of Gullah heritage, from the Georgia and South Carolina Low Country—and Ms. Duncan is white.
The book’s prepublication description led some of the novelist’s online acquaintances to question the propriety of a white woman writing from the perspective of a black American, and so she decided to cancel the book.
“My own limited worldview as a white person,” Ms. Duncan wrote in a statement, “led me to think I could responsibly depict a character from this [Gullah] culture. Clearly, the fact that I did not see the signs of the problem with my book’s premise . . . is evidence that I was not the right person to try to tell this story. I am deeply ashamed to have made a mistake of this magnitude.”
. . . .
Evidently being criticized, in the world of literary wokeness, is the same as being canceled, so PW felt obliged to kill the article. “We regret the damage the publication of this story has caused this individual,” PW proclaimed, “as well as any other instances of violence enacted upon Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)
PG has never been consulted by the management of HarperCollins (although he does recall conversations with an attorney or two working there), but he wonders if anyone thought of a pen name.
Additionally, Ms. Duncan would not appear to be on the wrong end of the political spectrum for a New York publisher. She appears to be a contributor to Our Stories, Our Voices: 21 YA Authors Get Real About Injustice, Empowerment, and Growing Up Female in America.
Perhaps the takeaway from this episode is that, in mid-2020, only authors of Gullah descent can write fiction that includes Gullah characters. Authors with a tendency to display paler shades of skin in public must only write about characters who are white.
As PG’s mind wandered about this issue, he asked himself whether authors of indubitable whitishness are permitted to write novels deriving from the Star Trek universe which include Worf, Tuvak, Guinan, Uhura or Geordi.
Must we begin the process of segregating black and white characters and authors to avoid giving offense to anyone?
For safety’s sake, perhaps we should have black publishers and white publishers as well. After all, the New York publishing world is between 97% and 98% white. What right do all those white publishers have exploiting black authors with advances and royalty rates equivalent to slave wages?
Back to pen names, people of all sorts have been using them for centuries to conceal their true identities.
Ever heard of Charles Dodgson? Or Samuel Clemens? Maybe Eric Blair? What about some more contemporary names like Madeline Wickham, Jim Grant, or David Cornwell? Award yourself a cookie for every one of those you recognized. They are, of course, the alter egos of world-famous novelists. They are the Clark Kents and Diana Princes of the literary world. In case you didn’t get them all, they are: Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, George Orwell, Sophie Kinsella, and John Le Carré.
Authors have been using pen names since there were, well, authors. They’ve done it for many and various reasons, but it’s most often a pragmatic decision. Let’s talk about a few approaches to this.
Probably the least likely reason to use a pen name is the Reginald Dwight tactic. Or the Maurice Mickelwhite. Or the Chaim Witz. Elton John, Michael Caine, and Gene Simmons just sound a bit sexier, don’t they? Unlike other art forms such as music and thespianism — proper showbiz, in other words — there’s less disadvantage to a slightly nerdy name for an author. Lee Child is a little more striking than Jim Grant, but I doubt that was Lee’s reasoning. In fact, if you’re using a pen name to sound more rock ’n’ roll, then you’re probably in the wrong business.
. . . .
Gender swapping does, however, cut both ways. The rise of domestic noir — or, God help us, grip-lit — has seen women like Paula Hawkins, Gillian Flynn, and Ruth Ware come to dominate this particular field. Given that something like 70 percent of crime fiction is read by women, it’s hardly surprising that there is a thriving market for thrillers by women for women. But, like women had to do for the last couple of centuries, men are sneaking in with crafty pseudonyms: the gender-neutral S. J. Watson, for example, or my good friend Martyn Waites, who writes commercial thrillers as Tania Carver. Literary cross-dressing has been with us for hundreds of years and doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon.
. . . .
A much more common reason, and possibly one of the oldest, is good old sexism. The history of literature is well populated with women who either used men’s names or fudged it with some androgynous initials. Even some female authors that are household names today were first published under masculine pseudonyms: the Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, were first published as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Others continue to be recognized by their pen names, like Middlemarch author George Eliot, known to her friends as Mary Ann Evans. These women chose male pseudonyms because it was felt they could not otherwise be taken seriously by readers.
Speaking of Stephen King, the grandmaster of horror is part of a venerable tradition of big-league authors adopting pen names just because they wrote too damn much. King published a string of novels as Richard Bachman because his publisher felt readers couldn’t handle more than one a year.
. . . .
When I first had the idea for Here and Gone back in 2014, I knew this was something different. While I didn’t set out to create something more overtly commercial than my previous work, there was no denying that it sat closer to the likes of Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay on the crime spectrum.
. . . .
Given the shift in subgenre and setting, a pen name became an increasingly obvious route to take. After much discussion, my agent and publishers agreed. In my mind, Haylen Beck is an entirely distinct entity from Stuart Neville.
Link to the rest at A Brief History of Pen Names, Powells