Author Helen Taylor explores the concept of the pseudonym and forces herself to confront her own preconceptions around what it is to be a ‘woman writer’
Pseudonym, pen name or nom de plume – however functional or flashy, practical or poetic, they have but one purpose. Disguise.
Welcome to the Literary Masked Ball. Welcome invitees, gatecrashers, troublemakers and wallflowers. If I may say so, your costumes are magnificent. Feel free to mingle with our distinguished guests but, please, respect their anonymity. Who knows what carnival of scandal, intrigue or licentiousness lies behind their masks, or who is cross-dressing, dressing up, dressing down, or perspiring with apprehension in the face of the fireworks.
As much as I like the idea of covering scandal, intrigue and licentiousness, I’m sure the reasons for choosing a pen name are generally more prosaic. They certainly were in my case. My pen name was a cover for my natural introversion, a mask for my anxiety, a front to hide imposter syndrome. While I was writing my first novel, I flirted with a variety of monikers, changing them almost as often as I changed the title of my book. Here was my chance to reinvent myself: Me, but a more extrovert me; a less academic, less geeky, more literary me; a more confident, less socially inept me, the soon-to-be-successful-novelist me (it helps to think positively) and with a name to match.
Or at least that’s what I argued. Because when the hypothetical became real and I signed with Unbound, I forced myself to scrutinise my arguments. And with the ballroom chandelier glittering mercilessly over my pseudo-masquerade, I couldn’t fail to notice my complex and rather shameful rationale.
It started out innocently enough. Taking a pen name was, I convinced myself, the right thing to do for the good of my novel. After years of wilful ignorance of the publishing industry while I worked, hunched over my manuscript, ruining my eyesight and my posture, I had some pretty startling realities to face now that I had finished. For the first time, I had to consider things like dwindling sales figures, (lack of) marketing budgets, and (dismal) author earnings. The pressure on publishers to maximise the commercial potential of their books was obvious. I was under no illusions that any of it would be easy. But The Backstreets of Purgatory was my debut novel and I was prepared do whatever I needed to give it the best chance of success.
A name change seemed like a decent starting point. Let’s be honest, as surnames go, Taylor isn’t exactly striking. It’s a solid worker’s name. More likely to be making the costumes than wearing them to your swanky ball. I confess to gazing with envy upon names like Oliphant, Gaskell and du Maurier. There’s nothing actually wrong with Taylor, it’s just a bit ordinary, a bit commonplace, and in the bookshop shelf wars won’t even get me in the coveted first half of the alphabet. Why not choose something more flamboyant, more memorable, more bookshelf ready? All without having to reveal too much of myself.
I have to confess, though, that even more than this fear of revealing too much of myself was the terror that my novel may be mistaken for something it was not, simply because it was written by a woman. The cutting (but bitingly funny) critique of women’s writing in the anonymously written 1856 essay Silly Novels by Lady Novelists may have been written more than a century and a half ago but its premise has given me a few sleepless nights. What if my novel was mistaken for being frivolous? What if my work was assumed to be one of ‘feeble sentimentality’, ‘feminine silliness’ or ‘mental mediocrity’? My concerns were not without foundation. Even these days, men’s writing receives more serious attention than women’s.
The last VIDA count and Stella count showed that, in the majority of the publications studied, despite there being more books written by women, men were still favoured by reviewers, receiving more reviews and generally more in depth responses to their work. By the time I’d added in the anecdotal reports of women writers getting more agent and publisher interest when they changed their names to male or gender neutral names and the whole thorny issue of marketing departments pushing flowery chick lit covers on anything written by a woman, I was starting to panic.
What’s more, worse than the risk of being taken for a ‘Silly Lady Novelist’, I ran the risk of being taken for a ‘Silly Lady Novelist of a Certain Age’. Thanks to a set of spritely genes inherited from my mum, I’m often mistaken for being younger than I am. Unfortunately, however strong my inclination to play along with the misconception, my first name acts as a moral gatekeeper preventing me from lying (excessively). Fact: Helen is not the name of a young woman. In the last 25 years, the number of Helens born and registered each year in Scotland has seldom scraped above 30.
So here’s what I was thinking. The Backstreets of Purgatory didn’t deserve to be penalised for the accident of birth of its creator. After all, it’s a novel full of drugs and alcohol and violence and swearing. I wanted, and still want, it to be widely read, by men and by women, and to attract readers of both sexes. There was only one thing I could do: Disguise my gender with initials or a gender-neutral pen name.
Early on, a writing friend and colleague berated me for even contemplating the idea of disguising my gender with a pen name. It was hardly a boost to my feminist credentials, she said. I argued back. It was about getting my book to the widest possible audience. It was about marketing. I cited the Booktrust data that show while women read across genres and across genders, men were far less likely to do the same. And if I could get men to read my book it could only be good for women’s writing, right? Anyway, I was a writer full stop. My gender was irrelevant. I couldn’t be persuaded that a pen name was a bad idea.
It was time to make myself a mask. As extravagant and ostentatious as I liked and then with knobs on. However, despite my complaints about my surname, ostentation isn’t really my style. I wanted something that I could wear with ease. So I stuck, very imaginatively, with Taylor and concentrated on the first part. Quite early on, though, while fantasising about book covers, for reasons obscure even to myself, I decided that H.M. was not aesthetically pleasing.
Thereafter the main contender was my middle name, Murray. After surviving the obvious primary school Murray Mint jokes and the childhood embarrassment of having a boy’s name for a middle name, I eventually grew to be proud of it, especially because it had come to me from my Scottish grandmother. But when I tried it on for size, echoes of Charlotte Brontë’s ‘conscientious scruples’ made it pinch a little at the edges. In her biographical note that prefaced the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights, she explains why the Brontë sisters chose to veil their identities under those of Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell, not wanting to reveal themselves as women but averse also to assuming ‘positively masculine’ names. Murray might be a surname but there is no doubt it can also be ‘positively masculine’. While I might have been up for a bit of harmless wool pulling, outright deception was pushing my limits.
After that, my attempts at finding something that fitted were half-hearted at best. There’s only one nickname that I have ever answered to as an adult and that was bestowed on me after misheard Eminem lyrics. And while Slim might work if you’re a Blues pianist from Memphis… well, I’m sure I don’t need to enumerate the multiple ways that Slim Taylor could backfire.
This was probably the moment I should have re-evaluated my motivations and discarded my plan. But I wasn’t ready. After all, how often in these last few years have I felt it necessary to stress what I’m not doing? I’m not writing chick lit, I’m not writing beach reads, I’m not writing frothy romance. Barely hidden in this list of nots is the idea that women’s writing is somehow… well… a bit silly. The irony is of course that I’d never apply this preconception to the female writers I know or those whose works I read all the time. There isn’t space to even begin to list the women writers whose modern masterpieces are my staples.
It is disturbing how easily I’d unconsciously bought in to the whole mind set of ‘women’s writing’ as something homogeneous and lightweight, and of ‘men’s writing’ being diametrically opposed. In trying to free myself of marketing stereotypes or others’ preconceptions and prejudices, I’d stepped back two centuries in my own thinking – right into the separate spheres and double standards of the Victorian drawing room.
Whatever mask I was wearing throughout this episode apparently had no holes for my eyes. I couldn’t see beyond my fixed ideas. From childhood, I’d practised a loose kind of feminism based mainly on showing off my academic ability. You know the sort of thing — show me a man and I’ll show you someone I can beat in an exam. It strikes me that this kind of confrontational competitiveness is not that far removed from the militant intellectualism of George Eliot in her essay. Because, of course, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists is one of hers. Reading it, I sense a desperation to prove that she is not one of the poor writers that she cruelly lampoons,although it is curious that she attached neither her real name nor her pseudonym to it.
At this point I’d like to report that, shamed by my own prejudice and a rethink of my principles, my stirring feminist renaissance led to the decision to put my own name to my work. But, of course, it didn’t quite happen like that. Putting the pen name aside was, at first, a purely practical measure. For a start, guarding a secret identity in this day and age is next to impossible. Elena Ferrante’s cruel and unnecessary outing last year persuaded me of that. Secondly, Unbound’s books are initially supported by crowdfunding, and as, at least to begin with, the basis of my crowd was likely to be friends and family, and as the Unbound pledging system proved complicated enough for many of them, I didn’t want to confuse things further by disguising which book was mine.
But the more I became involved in promoting my novel, the more I realised how misguided I’d been. At book readings — with the exception of proud, or possibly mortified, parents — the reception my work received was because of the words on the page, not because of who had put them there. Bit by bit a terrible realisation dawned on me. The driving force behind my desire for a pseudonym had played right into the stereotypes I should have been fighting against. And I didn’t have George Eliot’s excuse of being curbed by the rigid stays of the 19th century. For that I am rightly ashamed.
It may have been a pretty slow and painful process but at last I’ve seen sense. I can finally say that I’m proud to put my real name to my work. I want to celebrate being a woman writer, show how much I value my potential women readers, celebrate how well read they are and their open-mindedness. Instead of worrying about what the figures don’t show, I want to celebrate what the Booktrust survey data does show, celebrate the direction that VIDA count data is moving, and the variety, the breadth, the quality of women’s writing. And if the lads want to join the party, well, that’s great too.
Let’s reread George Eliot’s essay as a plea for good writing whoever writes it. An appeal against cliché, over-sentimentality and contrived storylines. An entreaty against small-mindedness, religious bigotry or prejudice of any kind. After all, we could easily write an essay entitled Foolish Tales by Gentleman Writers. On second thoughts, there’s no need. It has already been done in novel form. Cervantes’ Don Quixote is not just a satire of the orthodoxies of the time but a wicked spoof of the literary conventions of medieval chivalric romances.
I’ll see you at the ball. I won’t be wearing a mask.
The Backstreets of Purgatory will be published by Unbound later this year. You can pre-order a copy here.
The photo is by gajman and is used with kind permission. It shows a shop window display of Venetian masks in various colours and styles.
[This post was edited slightly in March 2020 to remove a disablist word]