Literary Camouflage

Literary Camouflage
by Steven Hayward
Wall Street Journal
June 23, 2011

Eric Blair contemplated calling himself H. Lewis Allways, P.S. Burton, Kenneth Miles””or George Orwell.

Eleven years ago, a writer named JT LeRoy stormed the literary world. The 19-year-old son of a truck-stop prostitute, LeRoy published a semi-autobiographical novel called “Sarah” recounting his experiences as a “lot lizard”””a child hustler and prostitute””in the truck stops of West Virginia. The book quickly accumulated prominent supporters, including Winona Ryder and Madonna. Obsessively reclusive, LeRoy allowed himself to be interviewed only by telephone; he refused to give public readings, often having one of his famous admirers stand in for him. There was a second book, a movie deal and by 2005 the literary tastemaker Dave Eggers was commending the young writer to posterity: LeRoy’s two titles would “prove to be among the most influential American books in the last ten years.”

Less than a year later, LeRoy was revealed as a hoax: Laura Albert, a woman old enough to be LeRoy’s mother, confessed, amid mounting media speculation, that she created the alter ego””and had never even visited West Virginia. The film company that had optioned the novel successfully sued Ms. Albert for fraud. Throughout the trial, Ms. Albert defended her right to use a nom de plume, contending that her work should be read as part of a long and distinguished line of pseudonymous texts. “LeRoy was a veil upon a veil,” Ms. Albert later told the Paris Review, “I never saw it as a hoax.”

As Carmela Ciuraru observes in “Nom de Plume,” her “secret history” of pseudonyms, there is nothing new about literary masquerades. “The curious phenomena of pseudonymity reached its heights in the nineteenth century,” Ms. Ciuraru writes, “and as early as the mid-sixteenth century, it was customary for a work to be published without any author’s name.” It’s unlikely, though, that those long-ago writers went to the lengths pursued by Ms. Albert, who enlisted her boyfriend’s half-sister to pass herself off as LeRoy in public appearances.

The long history of pseudonymous authorship exerts a particular fascination. “If the authorial persona is a construct, never wholly authentic (no matter how autobiographical the material),” Ms. Ciuraru says, “then the pseudonymous writer takes this notion to another level, inventing the construct of a construct.” The fictitious author, in other words, is false in the same way as the fictions he or she produces.

Ms. Ciuraru, a critic who in the past seems to have concentrated on single-subject poetry anthologies”””Doggerel: Poems About Dogs,” “Fatherhood,” “Motherhood”””writes with clarity and confidence, and her research is impressive. The genre here is literary biography rather than literary criticism””16 brisk miniportraits of pseudonymous authors filled with arresting literary trivia.

There is a certain pleasure, for instance, in being reminded that Samuel Clemens derived his pseudonym from his experience on riverboats, where “two fathoms, or twelve feet, was considered safe for the boat to pass over.” When the sounding rope indicated a two-fathom depth, the crew would call out “mark twain.” Or that’s the phrase’s origin; Clemens said that he once knew a steamboat captain who wrote for the New Orleans Picayune and signed his pieces Mark Twain. After the man died, Clemens said, he appropriated the byline as his “nom de guerre.”

Ms. Ciuraru also tells the story of Alice Sheldon, who became an influential science-fiction author with the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr.””a name she hit upon while contemplating the label on a jar of marmalade. And we learn about Eric Blair, who submitted a list of potential pseudonyms to his publisher after his first book was accepted: H. Lewis Allways, P.S. Burton, Kenneth Miles and the one he preferred, George Orwell.

“Nom de Plume” does not offer much in the way of an overarching thesis””which is understandable, given the historically and culturally disparate group under consideration, from Aurore Dupin, who wrote in 19th-century France as George Sand, to the Danish writer Karen Blixen, the Baroness Blixen of Rungstedlund, who wrote as Isak Dinesen in the mid 20th century. Ms. Ciuraru simply regards the use of a pseudonym as a personal matter for writers””she draws a straight line from the dysfunction of the Brontà« family to the sisters’ decision to publish as brothers with the last name of Bell.

The result is a history that often presents the pseudonym as symptom or retreat, a haven for the damaged or pathologically insecure. Such a diagnostic treatment gives the profiles a predictable form and tends to flatten the writers’ personalities. It’s too bad Ms. Ciuraru didn’t broaden her approach to pursue questions about what pseudonymous writing might tell us about shifting ideas of authorship””surely there is a fruitful discussion to be had about the difference between Laura Albert’s JT LeRoy stunt and Eric Blair’s casting around for a name to use as a writer.

“Nom de Plume” might also have benefited if Ms. Ciuraru had thought more about the role of the publishing market in the use of pseudonyms. Ms. Ciuraru essentially ignores market considerations other than in the present moment: “Even though the practice of pseudonymity is still going strong, it has lost the allure it once had,” she writes. Using a pen name today is often a “commercial” choice, she says, “no longer driven by genuine concealment or reticence.”

But isn’t the market, one way or another, what has always made life complicated for the pseudonymous writer? Readers, after all, are also customers, and they usually long for authors to be authentically themselves. Think of mathematician Charles Dodgson rebuking those who called him Lewis Carroll after that book about a girl named Alice started selling so many copies. Questions of literary identity and authenticity are rendered more complex””more interesting””when they are considered in the context of a world in which books are also a commodity.

Mr. Hayward teaches English at Colorado College. His most recent novel is “Don’t Be Afraid.”