The Author and the Pseudonym

 

Does it really matter if an author writes under a pseudonym? Does the writer really have an obligation to the public over their true identity?

I’m asking this because Italian author Elena Ferrante has recently been exposed by journalist Claudio Gatti and it has caused a huge uproar; in a nutshell Gatti has been accused of cheap journalism.

From my understanding of the situation, Ferrante writes honestly about the lives of women and has chosen to publish under a pseudonym to remove the temptation of the public to accuse her books as being semi-autobiographical (I’ve never read her books so I am relying on hearsay).

I think there’s a reason why authors write under another name and ultimately, we should respect this. Lots of people write for the glory of seeing their name immortalised in print and the subsequent aftermath of a successful novel (who will play the protagonist when HBO makes the inevitable offer to turn it into a TV series? how will I conduct myself in interviews?), so seeing someone choose to eschew all of this must mean they have other motivations besides fame driving their literary ambitions.

J.K. Rowling wrote under the name Robert Galbraith so her novels could be judged by its own merits, rather than the fact that it was written by J.K. Rowling. Mary Shelley wrote anonymously for fear that her works wouldn’t be taken seriously if it became known to the public that the author of the Gothic Horror story Frankenstein was written by a woman (she was right). Stephen King published several stories under Richard Bachman to prove he could duplicate his success and prevent over-saturation of the ‘Stephen King’ brand.

People generally publish under a name that isn’t theirs so the material cannot be linked back to them and because the purpose of the author is simply to entertain their readers, the actual name that it’s written under would not affect the quality or the reading experience in general. We may start novels with pre-conceived ideas about it based on the reputation of the author but we typically judge a story by its quality. Even if an author has a history of producing high quality books, that in itself can only take you so far; eventually the writer has to produce stories of quality.

It would be a different issue if they were trying to pass of book they claimed to be their biography but was completely made up. Or they had changed their identity to try and boost authenticity in their story, for example, pretending they’re transgender to give their story about a transgender greater credibility. You’d have to be pretty low to try and pass of other people’s experiences as your own and deserve to be caught out for it.

Would you ever publish under a pseudonym? I think if my books took too many inspirations from the people and events in my life, I’d also write under a pseudonym to allow myself the literary license to pursue artistic freedom.

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