Sunday 15 March 2015

What's in a Name?

In Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, John Proctor struggles with his conscience when asked to sign a false testimony denouncing his neighbour as a witch. With his own life at stake, he caves in to save himself. At the last minute changes his mind and refuses to sign to save his own life. When his inquisitor wants to know why, Proctor cries out, 'Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!... How may I live without my name?'

Yet many of us freely choose to adopt a new name, one that can come to play a very important role in our lives. There are many possible reasons why an author might choose to write under a pseudonym. Anonymity gives a sense of liberation. In my real life, I would never become obsessed with ways to commit vicious crimes (honestly!) Behind the mask of a pen name, I am free to go where I choose in my dark imaginings. It isn't me, it's my author self conducting research. Writers of fiction are sometimes likened to children because we pretend and make up stories. For some of us, doing so under a pseudonym enhances the game.

There is nothing new in this. Yet recently the notion of a pseudonym has come under attack. When JK Rowling chose to publish The Cuckoo's Calling in 2013 under the name Robert Galbraith, many people expressed outrage. Perhaps it was disingenuous of her publisher to allow the author's real identity to 'leak' when the book initially caused little interest. Once fans learned the identity of the author, sales rocketed. But so what? JK Rowling has fans. She became a 'celebrity' through writing books that engaged a generation of young readers, many of whom might not otherwise have discovered the joys of reading fiction, not by having cosmetic surgery, sleeping with a footballer, and behaving outrageously on television. Only a few authors have achieved the status of cult celebrity through their writing. It is understandable such an author would be tempted to break free of her name. With such large sums at stake, perhaps failure was inevitable. 

Celebrity is exploited in a different way, when writers publish under someone else's name. This seems uncontroversial - as long as the ghost writer is acknowledged. There was an outcry when a major publisher produced young vlogger Zoella's Girl Online, without crediting her ghost writer on the cover. Katie Price, on the other hand, is upfront about admitting 'Of course I didn't write it,' when interviewed about her books, and her ghost writer achieved recognition for writing the books. James Patterson, writing a book a month and earning five times as much as JK Rowling, is open about his books being a 'collaborative process' with a ghost writer. Like Katie Price, he openly acknowledges his writing partners.

So while authors can have a field day making up events and creating characters in fiction, any deception in claiming authorship is unacceptable to readers.