March 16, 2004

On Pen Names

[3-18-04 UPDATE: The grandiloquent Crabwalk was mistakenly referred to in this post as "Crabtree." This was, of course, unpardonable. I only note that, at the time I had posted this entry, I had just come back from lunch, where I had walked past Lotta's Fountain, a majestic landmark that almost nobody notices. I wasn't really cognizant of the walking. It was wandering, really. I was also reading Eric Kraft, and Kraft kept referring to sea life in unusual situations, with quirky characters and delightful comic situations to boot. I had also been thinking about eucalyptus trees -- no tree in particular. But put two and two together, and you begin to see the many factors that allowed me to screw up this post. I leave "Crabtree" in this post for the record, but this preface should make it abundantly clear that it was Crabwalk, and nothing but the Crabwalk. The sin remains unchanged, and I permit Josh Benton to flog me at some future unspecified date. Preferably with an audience to laugh and point.]

The Post's book coverage continues to impress me. And not just because of Jonathan Yardley's retro recommendations, or the fact that they've grown wise to the lit blogging community covering books. This review of The Bronte Myth, for example, is written by "Dana Stevens," the cheeky pseudonym of Liz Penn (and I suspect that "Penn," by way of its sound, is a pen name, rather than a real one). But it's also a cheeky reference to the subjects of the bio. The Bronte sisters, as we all know, took the Bell name because, as women, they felt they wouldn't be taken seriously as novelists.

But according to Crabtree, it looks like Dana Stevens is someone just having fun, for the same reasons that Donald Westlake's Richard Stark persona allowed him to write additional novels in a gritter style. Sometimes, the circumstances are not so insouciant, as was the case for screenwriters who submitted their scripts through other people during the dark days of McCarthyism (a situation captured well in Martin Ritt's excellent film, The Front).

I just don't understand why anyone would be offended by it. An author has his or her own reasons for maintaining a pseudonym and, if it harms no one, then what is there to get upset about? Part of the fun is respecting an author's right to pen something in whatever style or name he chooses. Ultimately though, regardless of an author's name or alias, it's the work that matters most of all.

(via JC)

Posted by DrMabuse at March 16, 2004 11:01 AM

[EDITORIAL NOTE FROM DR. MABUSE: Ms. Penn asked for a revision. So, on behalf of her burgeoning fan base, I have promptly swooned and heeded to her request. Her comment appears below -- thankfully, without a "Greedo Shoots First" revision.]

remember that scene in 'spartacus' when the romans are trying to identify spartacus, the rebel leader, among a whole crowd of escaped slaves, so they can capture and kill him? in answer to the centurions' questioning, one by one each and every member of the crowd stands up and says, "i'm spartacus." "i'm spartacus!" "no, i'm spartacus!" in
addition to being a great scene about loyalty and solidarity, it's a great scene about names. are spartacus' followers lying when they claim to be him (since, in some sense, they're embodied, represented by him, part of the same cause)? at the moment that the "real" spartacus (kirk douglas) stands up and chimes in, "i'm spartacus," is he lying or telling the truth? if he were to deny that he was spartacus, he would of course be revealed and delivered to the enemy. what does it mean to
hide behind your own name?

there are a million reasons for a writer to use another name (to dissimulate her gender, like the brontes; to free his voice, like westlake/stark; to smuggle a script past the commie hunters, as in the movie; or, in the case of someone like the portuguese poet fernando pessoa, for the pure play of it.) but when literature's innate propensity for lying meets up with the endless labyrinth of the
internet, what's amazing to me is not that there are some names out there that seem to elude capture, but that there are any that don't.

anyway, thanks for the shout-out, mabuse. i like your site.

Posted by: lizpenn at March 17, 2004 11:36 AM

oh, i left some words out. can i have that back?

this is why i hate posting in comment boxes.

Posted by: lizpenn at March 17, 2004 11:37 AM

Since it would be criminal to discourage Ms. Penn/Ms. Stevens from her effusive moments, I have emailed her and asked if she'd be up for an addendum or a corrected post. Should she respond, I will happily correct the above comment with her amendments.

Posted by: Ed at March 17, 2004 12:56 PM