Name, name, what’s in a name?

It’s amazing to me how upset people get over names. Twitter, Facebook, Craigslist and the mass media are all a-flutter about the whole J.K. Rowling situation. “Oh my god, she totes just lied to us, yo!” So, you’re mad because someone who makes their living by making things up and convincing you they’re worth buying just… made something up? So what? (And for the record, J.K. Rowling is itself a pseudonym; Her name’s Joanne. No middle initial. The publishers apparently convinced her to submit Harry Potter under the initialed name, thus obfuscating her gender so as to “hook” boys in her audience. So if you’re going to be butthurt, perhaps you should retroactively apply that to the Potter-dom as well? Didn’t think so.)

Now, I understand why she’d create the Galbraith name; sometimes you want to do something under the radar, don’t want to be typecast and pigeonholed or don’t want one set of work poorly reflecting on the other. It’s why Dean Koontz has done it (Leigh Nichols is but one of many names he’s written under, one or two of which involved if not gender-swapping, at least gender-obfuscation.) Then there’s Stephen King, who even now, years after his case of “cancer of the pseudonym” still occasionally puts out a book under his alter ego’s name (The Regulators and Blaze were both published under the Bachman moniker, The Dark Half was originally going to be tagged that way, and Thinner usually has both names on it.) His son, Joseph? Yeah. Go find “Joe King” in your bookstore. You won’t; he writes under Joe Hill.

Getting out from under a known name (or attempting to create a name that has nothing to do with your “real” one for reasons of privacy or what have you) is a pretty well-established and standard sort of situation. But it seems like this backlash is completely out of proportion, especially given the seeming negativity of most of it. When “Bachman’s” cover was blown, sure, everyone was talking about it. But they were excited to discover that an author had previously unknown books. The Bachman fans were scurrying out to scoop up King’s work, while King fans were all too happy to discover these “lost tomes.” We didn’t have the internet at the time, but the CompuServ/AOL crowd didn’t seem too pissed about it, and I don’t recall seeing CNN showing angry “fans” throwing a snit about how they were deceived.

Then some folks are annoyed at the purported bio of Galbraith. Again, I come back to “so what?” For whatever reason, people put such a focus on the individual that created a piece of art, above and beyond the actual art itself. How likely are you to say “My god! This crime thriller is written by a 40 year old mother of three with waitressing experience ! I must have it!” vs “Wow! This crime thriller was written buy a guy who used to be a cop! Sounds juicy!” Assuming neither name was known, I’m willing to bet the second line is going to come up a lot more often than the first. Almost no one will crack it open (or use the “Look Inside” button), read the first few pages and decide to buy or not buy based on that criteria. So what if “Galbraith” is just as fictional as any of the characters between “his” covers? Again, not like it hasn’t been done hundreds – if not thousands – of times before over the last several hundred years. Does it change whether the words on the page are worth reading or not? Nope. Those words are the same. (See also my posts regarding “The Tale or He Who Tells It,” for other extensions of this silliness.)

I think all of it’s missing the root of the problem. We’ve created this culture of worship surrounding artists, so the central thing of import is the artist themselves rather than what they’ve created. We’re all so worried about what a given artist is doing rather than what they’re creating; we’re all so concerned about what it says about our political, religious, sexual or social leanings based on what those leanings are in the authors we read, the directors and actors whose films we watch, the musicians we listen to. (Witness the current mess regarding Ender’s Game, or look back at The Dixie Chicks or Sinead O’Connor.)

C’mon, folks. It’s really time to stop worrying about the name on the cover, and focus on the story on the page. Maybe if we relax these weird attitudes, authors (and other artists) wouldn’t feel the need to “hide” behind pseudonyms, and could just focus on putting out a good product… I’d say that’s win/win for everyone. Plus, it might lower the collective blood pressure of the world, which would be a plus. Just sayin’.

What’s your opinion? Use the magic box below! Until next time!

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3 responses to “Name, name, what’s in a name?

  1. Oh, this is news to me, Kaine (I’ve been living under a stone given the current heat-wave we’re having in the u.k.). Well done to J.K. for choosing to write under a pseudonym for her own personal reasons, when she could have written it under her own name with all the fame and reputation that goes with it, though that’s probably the main reason she chose not to.

    I agree with you – people have been writing under pen names for a very long time, for whatever reason. Look at the Brontes, who adopted the pen name of Bell and first names that could belong to either gender – Currer, Ellis and Acton.

    Perhaps it’s the invented biography that upset people. Maybe they feel they’ve been misled, but I think J.K. can be excused for that little bit of fabrication, considering the reasons for it. Her reasons seem valid to me. I believe her last novel (an adult novel) got mixed reviews, so I can understand her wanting to write under another name and freed from the high expectations that are associated with the name of J.K. Rowling.

    Thanks also, Kaine, for pointing me in the direction of Joe Hill. I didn’t know that Stephen King had a writer son – I need to get out more! :O)

    • From what I hear, The Casual Vacancy didn’t do so well – a lot of people whining that “It’s not Harry Potter!” another handful not realizing it wasn’t really kid-friendly, and some folks just finding it rather odd. Personally, I enjoyed it. However, I can totally understand wanting to “slip out” from under the Rowling name, if only for a bit… and am terribly amused that the new book did almost ridiculously well, winning several awards and distinctions before she was outed as the author.

      And King has actually got two writing children. Joe opted to go incognito, only confirming his identity once he was pretty well established on his own – wanting to see if he could make a go of it without leaning on his famous dad was his stated primary reason – but Owen (King’s younger son) just put out Double Feature without the dancing. It’s kind of mirroring the Charlie Sheen/Emilio Estevez thing, to me. Haven’t had a chance to check out DF yet, but it looks decent. Though I think Horns (from Joe) is probably still more awesome… and bringing it back around, Daniel Radcliffe (who played Harry Potter) will be staring in the movie of Horns. XD

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