Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Why you shouldn't use a white male pseudonym

The below exchange is between my husbo, John Cotter, and a former student of his, a young Chinese woman whom I've anonymized. She has a common Western first name and a common Chinese surname; let's call her, for the purposes of this post, Judy Li. I thought it was really great advice for a young writer, so I wanted to share it. 


Hi John,

What do you think about pen names? My flash fiction just got accepted for publication for the first time, and I was completely unprepared. I've toyed with the idea of using a pen name in the past, but since I hadn't been published, it was an imaginary dilemma until now.

For me, the main reason I would want to use a pen name is so that the reader wouldn't approach my story with any preconceptions. My name immediately communicates (even if only to the subconscious) a female and Chinese perspective, which I would prefer to leave out of the experience of the story. Do you think the author's name really has a big influence on the reader's experience?

Also, logistically, how would I go about establishing a pen name? Do I make a note of it in my cover letter?

Thanks for your input!

-Judy

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Judy,

Well the very first thing is that congratulations are in order. You should be proud of yourself. Let me know where it was accepted and when it's coming out and I'll help you spread the word. I'm sure this is the first of many successes.

Secondly, I don't have any problem with pseudonyms at all. They are a great tradition. That said, I don't think you should use one, and for the exact reason that your name is Judy Li. Publishing is changing, very very slowly, but it is changing. An entire organization, VIDA, exists for the purpose of shaming publishers (and they should be shamed) who don't publish a representative number of women in the arts, and they're getting results. Publishers are more conscious of diversity than they've ever been. The review site The Critical Flame (a very smart site) just vowed to review no books by white men for a full year. These are small examples, but there will be more of them. You're really young, but say you were ten years younger, a teenager with a female Chinese name, and you were flipping through literary magazines. Wouldn't you want to see the name Judy Li in the TOC? Don't we all wish in retrospect that George Eliot had published under the name Mary Anne Evans? Also: plenty of white men write convincingly about women and having a white male name doesn't seem to bother their readers all that much.

Thing is, if you're going to change your name, then you're going to be signaling some kind of ethnic & gender identity no matter what you do, just by the fact that people will read into the name you do choose. I'm guessing the kind of name you're thinking of picking is one that will be read as white and male, under the assumption that this is a normative state, a blank canvas, on which the reader won't project a specific identity. But they will project an identity: a white male identity. Do we really need more of those? And isn't the fact that we have so many of them part of the problem? By publishing as Cody Billings (or whatever) you'll be making it all the more likely that the next Judy Li won't want to use her name either. The cycle will continue forever, enabling further bigotry.

It's trickier to publish under the name Judy Li -- there will be readers who come to your pieces with preconceptions and unfortunately some of them will be editors and publishers -- but I think you should accept the burden (and it's not nearly so large a burden as it was only 10 years ago or will be in another 10 years). You'll be helping to redefine the normative (since, as you know, white males aren't the majority) and helping to direct literary culture toward something more readily inclusive and more imaginative.

That said, the choice is yours and not mine. And let's not forget that I'm speaking from a position of privilege -- I'm not in your shoes and don't know how I'd feel if I was (aside from being irked after reading such a long, preachy email). Of course any decision you make will the the right one for you and so, as far as anyone should be concerned, the right one. But you've got my 2 cents now in any case.

As for practical stuff, the best thing is to never tell the publisher your real name (submit as your pseudonym) but, barring that, a simple, smiling mention in your acceptance note that you'd request your work appear under the name XY should do just fine. You'll also need a fake bio note, and sometimes they'll want a picture (that's when it gets a little strange).

Good luck whatever you do and let me know when the piece comes out. And congratulations again!

JC

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For what it's worth, this was her reply:

Thanks so much for that thoughtful advice. What you wrote makes a lot of sense. I will publish under Judy Li.

11 comments:

  1. I have mixed feelings about this. There are legitimate reasons for wanting readers to project a boring identity, because it's easier to let a boring identity fade into the background. If the point of publishing is to get feedback or to get a particular point across, it can be counterproductive and distracting to have an unexpected name on the cover/byline. Yes, in the long term it would be best if everyone were to use their real names (as this would take the sheen off exotic names), but (a) there are always going to be some people from distractingly exotic backgrounds and (b) one is not obligated to sacrifice one's utility for the sake of future writers. In particular, just being a minority doesn't -- or cannot, justly -- require one to be unusually socially responsible in one's choices.

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    1. Agreed it is not *required* -- similarly it is not required that women be feminists -- but I think everyone should try to be socially responsible when they can, regardless of their minority status.

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  2. There's also the possibility of a pseudonym that doesn't have ethnicity-- there's a long tradition of such names, including "Weegee" or "Man Ray" or "Saki" or "Trevanian" or "Doctor Seuss"

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    1. Sure, as John notes in his letter there's a rich history of pseudonyms ... not sure I agree that your examples don't convey anything about gender/ethnicity, but theoretically yes. I still think there is value in seeing women's names and ethnic names in publications.

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  3. I used to use the pseudonym Fane Draegerman. I made a pseudonym and crawled behind it like a worm. Probably sounds like just another de-trop white dude.

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    1. Fane is a good pseudonym for a noir kitten.

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    2. Awww...
      I AM a noir kitten--one of the Cat People. But just looking for a snuggle.

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  4. It's my understanding (from a poet friend more knowledgeable on this than I am) that it was Ezra Pound who made the decision to publish Hilda Doolittle's poems under just her initials H.D., apparently because Pound felt that readers might dismiss or disparage Doolittle/H.D.'s poems if they were published under a recognizably female name. Doolittle herself apparently didn't want to use the pseudonym or abbreviated name, but Pound was more or less insistent.

    Over the years I've met a few poets who used names other than the ones their parents had given them, not just for publication but as their full-time new names. In recent years I've found it especially common that people reading/performing at open mikes did so under some type of "stage name," incorporating a city or musical instrument or some other such thing into their names: Chicago Pete, Banjo Betty, Johnny Hollywood, that sort of thing. One time at an open mike reading, a guy I knew slightly from elsewhere asked me what name I performed under, and he seemed surprised when I told him that I use my own name.

    I've never had any notion to use a pseudonym or stage name. In fact I remember commenting once (in a conversation with several friends, where we were talking about our names, how our parents chose our names, etc.) that my name seemed to me the kind of name someone might make up as a stage name. A couple of the other people immediately agreed.

    I don't know how I might have thought/felt about this if my name were one that suggest some more specific ethnic or cultural place or space -- if I had a recognizably Hispanic or east Asian name, for instance, with whatever else that might suggest about the life I'd lived and my relating with the world (so many possibilities I can't begin to guess). Really interesting discussion about this. The range of real questions this raises plumb great depths, much more than might be apparent at first glimmer.

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    1. Lyle Daggett does sound a little made up!

      And it is an interesting question! I don't think the answer is obvious, but I still like the way John replied.

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  5. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked to submit to Asian-American journals/anthologies/contests.

    -catherine (not chinese) meng

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    1. Huh! What kind of name is Meng anyway? (So you can submit to THOSE anthologies...)

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