Ethics of a Pseudonym
August 28, 2008 10:55 AM   Subscribe

Up for serious discussion: What are the ethics of writing under a pseudonym?

I am an established, mid-career writer who would like to begin writing in a different genre. In the age of Google, I am concerned about not being able to break out of the 'box of pre-judgment' that I currently work in.

I've been thinking about it a lot and I'm interested in your thoughts on the subject.

Here are some of my own thoughts/questions:
Is the issue simply about choosing/writing under another name?
How far can one go in creating a persona for a pseudonym?
Could I create a fake webpage for my pseudonym?
Can I fake a resume based on my true level of expertise (meaning I wouldn't claim degrees that I don't have, for example)?
How about a composite photograph? Too far, right? Or not?
What about choosing a persona that is not my gender, age, or culture?
Would any of this be illegal? I mean, I am essentially lying, right?
Are people bound to find out anyway? My agent would have to know. Or what if I wanted to find a new agent or publisher? Does the publisher have to know that I'm not who I say I am?

Why are we even interested in what an author looks like?
Do we need to know that they have the life credentials to write about their subject--that is, do we need them to be mothers for us to appreciate their take on motherhood?

Know any stories/examples?
What do you think?
posted by Toto_tot to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Stanley Bing is a pseudonym that was kept secret for 10+ years.

As for your question about life credentials, I think they do matter in part. They are establishing your bonafides. That doesn't mean that I won't take something seriously without knowing your back story but it just means that you have a bigger hurdle to get over.
posted by mmascolino at 11:09 AM on August 28, 2008

This is not an ethical question. Writers use pseudonyms all the time, often for exactly that reason. Just explain to your agent and/or publisher (as applicable) what you want to do; they can help with the details more than we can.
posted by languagehat at 11:23 AM on August 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

Name changes to reboot careers or switch genres are a commonplace. With so many books being re-issued with "Jane Smith writing as B.D. Wyatt" on the cover, I think readers are pretty used to pseudonyms. Unless you're writing fiction labeled memoir or autobiography, or are claiming false credentials to boost the work, I find there to be no ethical issue.

I also don't see any point in trying to really keep it a secret, if there isn't some larger reason to avoid association with your real name. Lots of pseudonyms are open secrets from the start. They still work to sell a new book that might not have sold with the sales/genre expectations associated with your real name.

What 'hat said -- talk to your agent or publisher.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:38 AM on August 28, 2008

There are only a very few specific circumstances in which lying is illegal. Certainly this isn't one of them.
posted by the bricabrac man at 11:45 AM on August 28, 2008

Could I create a fake webpage for my pseudonym?
Can I fake a resume based on my true level of expertise (meaning I wouldn't claim degrees that I don't have, for example)?
How about a composite photograph? Too far, right? Or not?
What about choosing a persona that is not my gender, age, or culture?

Why would you need any of those things? Maybe it's my taste in fiction or my preference for cheap paperbacks, but of the 20 fiction books I have within easy reach, the only one with an author photo is Anne Frank's diary.

If you need an 'about the author' blurb do it like this: "Toto Tot lives in the south-western united states with her two cats, James and Joyce. When she isn't writing, she enjoys listening to country music and tending to her vegetable garden." In other words, gives you some personality but at the same time could be any of a million people, so you can make it true or false as your conscience dictates without being unmasked.
posted by Mike1024 at 12:51 PM on August 28, 2008

Stephen King posed as Richard Bachman for a while. He has a great write up of it in his preface to "The Bachman Books." You might want to get that out of the library, and read his account.
posted by Spyder's Game at 1:16 PM on August 28, 2008

As languagehat said, working under a different name is not an ethics question. In the broad world of Entertainment millions of people work under different names. Archie Leach changed his name to Cary Grant just to be more marketable. Male writers writing for a woman's magazine will usually use a female nom de plume. Radio DJ's change not just their name but their whole persona based on the station and format they're working with.

When people get married they often work under both names for a while. Or getting a regular name change is the same thing. I knwo a lot of people who work under two names because one is not easy to pronounce in the local language. This is no different.

Could I create a fake webpage for my pseudonym?
Can I fake a resume based on my true level of expertise (meaning I wouldn't claim degrees that I don't have, for example)?

What would be "Fake" about these? They would be you, the same as any post on MeFi from Toto_tot is you. Or is your question fake?
posted by Ookseer at 1:20 PM on August 28, 2008

You may want to read up on the reactions to the unmaskings of J.T. LeRoy and Anonymous, both of which were fairly negative in the press but didn't altogether sink either career.
posted by kittyprecious at 2:01 PM on August 28, 2008

How far can one go in creating a persona for a pseudonym?
What about choosing a persona that is not my gender, age, or culture?

I've heard of authors who write under a pen-name of a different gender. One in particular used/uses the feminized version of his name (George - Georgette, Robert - Roberta, etc.) for romance novels.

That said, it can go too far. Take a look at JT LeRoy.

I bought two of 'his' books, and enjoyed them a lot. But when I found out that JT LeRoy wasn't real, I was a bit crushed: I had bought into the back-story wholeheartedly. I really admired him for not letting his past (abused, former boy prostitute) defeat him. I really admired his therapist, too, for having helped JT with his writing. Then, *poof*, that was all gone and I felt duped.

Shortly before I learned about the hoax, I was thinking of buying Harold's End. But I decided not to... My feeling at the time was pretty much "Fuck you, lady."
posted by CKmtl at 2:13 PM on August 28, 2008

It's my understanding that all you need to do is tell your agent or publisher what name you want it published under. It's not a big deal at all.
posted by Nattie at 2:49 PM on August 28, 2008

Iain Banks writes science fiction under the name Iain M. Banks. The inclusion of his middle initial was made at the suggestion of his publishers, who were doubtful about publishing a novel of his in the SciFi genre. The name distinction is quite useful, as it tells readers what they are in for ...
posted by Susurration at 3:36 PM on August 28, 2008

In New York state, you can use any name you like, as long as you're not trying to evade justice.

You don't have to go through a formal name change procedure.

So, at least in NY, it's legally okay. I don't know about California.

However, if you commit fraud that's completely different than simply changing your name. So if you're really worried, maybe talk to a lawyer.

I think it's fairly obvious where you are simply renaming yourself (resume with different name) and when you are blatantly obscuring the truth (fake photo, drastically different bio, etc). Which is wrong.
posted by sondrialiac at 3:37 PM on August 28, 2008

For what it is worth, my writing agent is recommending a pseudonym when I finish start my children's novel. My other writing (in a completely different genre) has very strong adult and controversial themes. The concern is less my creditability (as I have some accolades in my regular genre) but rather parental or child reaction should they come across my more 'adult' material.
posted by typewriter at 9:34 PM on August 28, 2008

See also Penelope Trunk, a writer who has assumed several noms-de-plume in her ... brazen ... career. There's nothing wrong with a pseudonym in and of itself. It would only be ethically problematic were you to, say, use it to libel someone without risk to your reputation, or conversely to logroll.
posted by dhartung at 12:41 AM on August 29, 2008

Choose to write under another name. Your publisher--your new publisher--will have to know your real name, as that's what they're going to write on all of your contracts and that's who they're making the checks out to. That said, many authors, both established and not, keep their various pseudonyms completely secret, and your publisher will be able to support and help you with this. In the end, your agent will have to know, your publisher will have to know, and though your editor doesn't have to know, you'll probably want to tell them, as well.

Assuming that you're writing fiction, no one's going to ask for your resume or your credentials. You can write about whatever you want, and if you're writing a good story and writing it well, no one's going to care if you're a mother, if you've ever actually been a hit man, or if you're a seventy-eight year old agoraphobic man with no teeth and warts all over your body. It's also just fine to submit under your real name and then tell the publisher that you want to publish under a pseudonym.

Go ahead and set up a new website for the pseudonym. Though some authors ultimately choose to have links between pseudonyms, it seems that you--at this point, at least--don't want to do that, so don't. Just set it up. You can create all the personae you want--make a blog and talk about your (fake) children and your (fake) wife, if you want, or just have a basic informational page with updates, excerpts, and contact information. If you go with the fake-life option, I'd suggest keeping it fairly close to your real life. While most readers don't care that you're not telling them your real name, if you're telling them that you've fled from a war-torn country, lost two children to terrorist attacks, and now you're writing the story of your heart from a hospital bed, they're going to be mightily pissed when they find out that it's not the case. (Basically, faking an ethnic background, any sort of traumatic past, or medical conditions are not recommended, but you can probably get away with anything else.)

I'd argue that a composite photograph is going too far. Lots of authors don't have photographs at all, and it seems to be introducing a level of deception that you don't want to deal with.

Above all, I would suggest keeping this fairly simple and close to reality. Rename yourself, sure. Rename your family, give yourself three kids instead of two, say that you used to work for McDonalds instead of Burger King. You may hit a point when, having become wildly successful in both genres, you want to say 'I also write science fiction as Xxxx Xxxxx!' or whatever, and you don't want to back yourself into a corner where you're unable to do that because the two lives are so different. Most people have pretty normal, everyday lives, and it's unlikely that anyone will just happen to compare the real you to the pseudonymous you and say 'oh! They both live in Cleveland and have two children and like bacon cheeseburgers and onion rings--clearly they're the same person!'. You probably don't have to obscure as much as you think you do.
posted by meghanmiller at 9:36 AM on August 29, 2008

Do we need to know that they have the life credentials to write about their subject--that is, do we need them to be mothers for us to appreciate their take on motherhood?

I've slept on this point, and ultimately I think the answer is a qualified no.

As a teenager, I loved Mary Stewart's Merlin series. I really identified with her depiction of Merlin; the way she wrote about a bastard was believable and resonated with me. Obviously, she didn't grow up as a fatherless boy.

The problem arises, as I see it, when the pseudonym is used as an important/integral part of your hook, marketing, and hype.

Say you write a good novel about a woman battling breast cancer, and you create this alternate pseudonym persona of a woman who has had 5 recurrences and ended up having double mastectomies. That would seem like a cheap move to me... you'd be faking a condition, tugging at the heartstrings of boatloads of cancer survivors, to boost sales and media attention. The same novel that could have been thought of as deeply insightful would be tarnished by that ploy.
posted by CKmtl at 10:09 AM on August 29, 2008

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