by K.C. Maguire
In the September issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Ronald Goldfarb contributed an interesting article (at pp 67-68) about whether, and when, it’s appropriate to use pseudonyms for different kinds of writing: non-fiction, memoir, fiction based on true stories, pure fiction etc. This is a timely piece in light of criticisms that have been launched at authors like J.K. Rowling as they have tried to escape from their existing author-identities to change genres or to attempt to appeal to different audiences, or if they simply want their writing to be judged on its own merits without all the baggage their name entails.
An attorney, author, and literary agent who himself writes under a pseudonym when he writes fiction (R.L. Sommer), Goldfarb shares some interesting thoughts on the ethics of using false names when writing for commercial publication. I was particularly interested in a quote he shared from the New York Times Ethics column which stated that:
“If the goal of using a pseudonym is to stop the reader from prejudging fictional material based on who the author is (or what the author might represent), there is no problem. That’s an attempt to remove baggage. But if the pseudonym’s goal is to actively push the reader into thinking something fallacious about the writer or the material – solely for commercial or critical benefit – the act is mildly immoral. That’s adding baggage on purpose.”
Goldfarb summarizes the ethics formula as follows: “it’s OK to use a pseudonym if it stops readers from unintentionally altering their reading experience, but if it alters a readers’ reading experience, don’t.”
The devil, of course, is in the details. How does a writer know when the use of a pseuondym will alter a reader’s reading experience? For example, if J K Rowling had written her detective stories under her own name, rather than under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, would this have altered the reading experience or not? And isn’t it completely subjective whether and when a reading experience is affected by the identity of the author?
This is not to criticize Goldfarb or the New York Times ethics column. This question is notoriously difficult to answer. Writers like Goldfarb and indeed R J Palacio who wrote the best-selling Middle Grade novel “Wonder” are involved in the writing industry in their day jobs, and didn’t want their associations with the industry to impact on the acceptance or rejection of their fictional work by agents and editors who knew them personally by their real names. I actually write under a pseudonym myself (big confession time!) when I write fiction because I write academic texts under my real name and I want to keep the identities separate.
I’ve always been fascinated as to when the use of a pseudonym is regarded as acceptable versus as some kind of fraud on the reading public. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the issue …