Pseudonyms can be born not out of a desire to fictionalize the self, but to appease non-fictional market realities. Ed McBain, otherwise known as Evan Hunter, wanted to publish an early novel under his own name, S.A. or Salvatore Lombino. His agent gently told him that was his choice, but an Italian last name on the cover would hurt sales.
By the time of his death in 2005, several pen names and a legal name change away from Salvatore Lombino, McBain had contributed hugely to the shape of the character-and-procedural-based police thriller, his 87th Precinct novels shaping a genre that has had a particularly profound impact on television. Whether his agent was wrong and McBain could have pulled off a similar career in popular fiction with his birth name, we can’t know, but looking at the bylines of the other genre mainstays of the 20th century, it does seem like McBain got and took the right advice.
Murder Ink: The Mystery Reader’s Companion, edited by Manhattan bookstore owner Dilys Winn in 1977, is a website archive of a book, a strange mixture of essays and imagery about the genre, containing everything from photos of pub signs and corpses to meditations on reading the slush pile, modes of collaboration between dual authors of detective series, and the proper way to make tea, which writers of English mysteries of a certain kind must be intimately familiar with. Murder Ink exceeds the status of an interesting curio due to the quality of the essays and the stacked bylines: Pete Hamill, P.D. James, H.R.F. Keating, Isaac Asimov, Colin Dexter, and even Jaws star Roy Scheider have pieces in here.
There are also quite a few pieces on pseudonyms, revealing further reasons to write as another. Like Ed McBain, Donald E. Westlake was one of those fiction machines who produced multiple books a year for years in days when the American appetite for fiction was enormous.
His agent gently told him that was his choice, but an Italian last name on the cover would hurt sales.
Westlake wrote great crime fiction, decent crime fiction, erotica, comic capers, a political family drama about an ex-president, and the greatest series of novels about a professional criminal yet printed. This many books required many names—in some cases, Westlake was obscuring his face to disassociate himself from purely cash-in works of soft porn. In others, he was combatting the stigma that an author as prolific as he was could be any good, putting out different books under different titles. In at least one case, with Timothy J. Culver’s Ex Officio, he was aiming for a bestseller outside of the crime genre, seeking a new mass audience.
In Murder Ink, Westlake writes a great roundtable between a few of his pseudonyms, and Culver offers his own self-definition of what a hack is:
I’m a hack, I’m making a living, I’m using whatever craft I’ve learned to turn out decently professional work that I’m not personally involved with. In my opinion, the best writers are always people who don’t care about anything except telling you what’s in their heads, without boring you. Passion, plus craft … The difference between a hack and a writer is that the hack puts down on paper things he doesn’t believe. Dick Stark (Author’s Note: Richard Stark is another Westlake pseudonym, author of that excellent series about master thief Parker) mentioned Mike Hammer. Now, Mickey Spillane wasn’t a hack, not then at least, and that’s because he really believed all that paranoid crap. But the thousand imitators didn’t believe it. You know, one time I was talking to a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and he had to leave the party early to go work on an article for one of the scholarly journals. I asked him what it was about, and he said it didn’t matter, just some piece of crap. “But I have to keep turning them out if I want tenure,” he said. “It’s pretty much publish or perish in this business.” “It’s about the same in mine,” I told him.
Fictionalizing the self, an option academic writers don’t have (except for those who supplement their sessional wages by writing term papers for international students), would make it easier to write the kind of impersonal hackwork that Westlake-Culver describes: but a truly impenetrable pseudonym also makes it possible to write more transparently, more freely, and more personally.
In others, he was combatting the stigma that an author as prolific as he was could be any good, putting out different books under different titles.
Most recently, of course, we’ve seen this in the books and persona of Elena Ferrante, whose exposure was a more insidious and nasty invasion of privacy than, say, the unmasking of Richard Bachman as Stephen King in the mid-’80s. King was Bachman so he could write more and to prove to himself that he could sell under a different name. Others choose a different name because it’s the only way they can make writing and publishing certain work—perhaps an entire career’s worth—possible.
I have a pseudonym of my own, which I’ve long intended to use for my crime and horror writing. So far, the name is still in the stable, because I’ve needed all the bylines I can get on short stories and have been unwilling to cede that Naben Ruthnum real estate to Nathan Ripley. But if and when I land a thriller with a publisher, it’ll have Nathan’s name on the cover. The longer I live with the various manuscripts that I work on, the more transparent it becomes to me that the differences between them aren’t strictly those of commercialism versus art. Whatever persona audiences and publishers have attached to my existing work, my race, and even my tweets carries an expectation of what my literary work will or should be like. Nathan Ripley is free of this. Whether I end up using Nathan Ripley’s name or not, it’s nice to be writing from a place of near-anonymous play.
Naben Ruthnum writes literary and crime fiction and lives in Toronto. He also writes criticism, and is a recent winner of the Journey Prize.