I’m currently reading the best-selling Neapolitan book series written by the elusive and mysterious writer Elena Ferrante—the pseudonymous Italian novelist whose true identity is not publicly known, yet was recently named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. The further I delve into Ferrante’s world, the more I want to know about its creator and yet I, along with millions of her readers, are left to wonder—a fact which I find to be simultaneously enormously frustrating and intriguing.
I keep asking myself why I care. Why does it matter who authored these words? As Ferrante herself said in this rare interview with Vanity Fair, ” My books increasingly demonstrate their independence, so I see no reason to change my position…..for those who love literature, the books are enough.”
I think my itching curiosity stems from the familiar intimacy of Ferrante’s writing. One of the reasons the Neapolitan series is so remarkable is because of the ruthless and brutally authentic way it depicts the challenging “terra incognita” of female friendship. Ferrante’s writing is emotionally honest and so true-to-life that it could only be at least partially autobiographical (as confirmed in that same Vanity Fair interview). As fellow novelist Lauren Groff said, “It’s odd, though, to imagine that a photo or biography could tell us more about Ferrante than her astonishing books.”
Is this why an author’s identity feels important to some readers…because we want to put a face to our protagonist’s voice? Or are we simply intrigued by those who are willing to toll-away and pour themselves into their work, yet insistently shirk away from the seductive pull of praise, acclaim and fame.
Of course Ferrante is by no means the first author to publish their works using a pen name. She is, however, one of the few to do so with such success—both in terms of book sales and continued anonymity. In celebration of this literary-feat, I present a shortlist of several other favorite writers who, despite their best efforts, have been “outed” for publishing their works as someone else.
(Click the hyperlink attached to each name to access NVCL’s collected works from each pseudonymous author)
Thanks to the Harry Potter franchise J.K. Rowling has become a household name, however her first book aimed at an adult audience, Casual Vacancy, wasn’t well-received by readers and critics alike. In an effort to test her skills and release some of the pressure associated with being one of the world’s most famous authors, Rowling submitted The Cuckoos Calling, book one of the Cormorant Strike mystery series, to publishers using the pen name Robert Galbraith. The book was accepted, however it wasn’t long before Rowling was outed as the real author and the book became an international best-seller.
Richard Bachman a.k.a. Steven King
Back in the 70’s, Stephen King’s publishers were worried that he was producing too much content too quickly and that it would eventually affect his reputation and subsequent book sales. Rather than slow down, the prolific author decided to begin publishing under the pseudonym Richard Bachman as a test to see if his success was earned by merit, or blind luck. It wasn’t long however before readers began to notice similarities in both authors writing style and King had to fess up.
Isak Dinensen a.k.a. Karen Blixen
For some authors, pseudonyms provide an opportunity is way to escape their famous reputations and write freely, historically however many women resorted to assuming a man’s name in order to have their work taken seriously. Danish writer Karen Blixen – the author of the classic memoir Out of Africa used a number of pen names throughout her career. Blixen’s most well-known male pseudonym was Isak Dinesen. Other examples of female authors who chose male pen names include the Bronte sisters and Louisa May Alcott.
Referred to as “the worst-kept secret in Canadian publishing “, award-winning short story writer and novelist Craig Davidson began using the pen name Nick Cutter a few years ago as a tool to be able publish horror novels without delineating reader’s attentions from Davidson’s more “serious prose. Apparently it worked. According to this Globe and Mail article, Davidson’s Giller-nominated Cataract City lasted one week on The Globe and Mail’s bestseller list in November, 2013, however Cutter’s The Troop, enjoyed 11 weeks on the list, spanning the spring and summer of last year. As stated by J.R. McCovney, “although it grinds against entrenched notions of literature as a cradle of authenticity – a home for the lyrical, the personal, the truth – the notion that one human can contain different writers has long been a way to facilitate creativity or tackle the challenges of publication.”
So my question is, have you ever thought about publishing your writing using a pen name? And if so, why? What would it be?
Happy sleuthing everyone!