Anonymous & The Art of the Pen Name
Who is Shale Aaron? And why, after writing three brilliant novels (one made into a major motion picture, another just optioned), two collections of short stories, and any number of essays under his real name; teaching writing at a prestigious university or two; and serving as the major draw of countless writers' conferences, has he chosen to write a mass-market paperback titled Virtual Death (Harper Prism, 293 pages, $4.50) under a false name?Not that Virtual Death, "A Necromantic Thriller," is bad. It's just -- well, the cover is bumpy. And shiny. Other than that it's a pleasure, even if you don't read cyberpunk. Ten minutes into Aaron's version of the future a virus has rendered all computers useless except for a few in government offices -- which may or may not be a conspiracy. Vending machines are plentiful, though, and they dispense condoms and disposable single-bullet handguns that share a brand name: One Shot. The setting, Philadelphia, is a city where dogs run free -- keeps the homeless problem under control -- and where people get their kicks by watching others die.Lydia Melmoth, our narrator, dies for a living. She is one of a handful of people who are paid to die on stage and come back to life without losing too much gray matter. Lydia has flatlined eight times and doesn't want to do it anymore. But then her mother "goes Banjo."The Banjo Society is a radical organization whose members have had enough of gun violence (the sound of guns going off is the aural backdrop for many of the novel's scenes) and have found an effective way to curb it: they kill gun sellers. With guns. Lydia's mother laments:"We've tried everything else. This is the only thing they respect." She looked over the black barrel carefully. "A gun's a terrible thing," she said, "but this one's a beauty, isn't she?"Banjoists are ruthlessly hunted down by the government. Lydia is compelled to die for her adoring fans just one more time to get the money that might mean her mother's safety. But this dying performance may be her last, because little by little all of her past deaths are catching up with her.Cyberpunk has always had its share of inventive authors. But in Aaron's hands, readers are not only treated to endless inventiveness (Lydia's best friend is a "Nowist," speaking only in the present tense; he's also a depression artist, who's depressed for a living) but also to real character development and masterful pacing. Virtual Death has Aristotelian unities. It has what E.M. Forster called a perfect hourglass shape.But why would such a literary writer turn his talents to a genre he doesn't often even read? "I wrote it as a lark," said the author, who referred to himself as Aaron during a phone interview last week. "Something different for a break after writing my last [serious] novel. I wrote Virtual Death fast, but the draft that was published was a revision. It turned out not to be a lark. It was hard work, like any other hard work."His labor is paying off -- Aaron has been nominated for science fiction-writing's prestigious Philip K. Dick Award (let's make one cheap joke and end it there: Shale Aaron is up for a Dick). "It was liberating at first, putting in every joke I could think of," Aaron said. "But my friend David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest) read it and said, 'You're not taking it seriously enough.' "Virtual Death readers will understand what Wallace meant when they recall Lydia's Chevrolet Reagan with no one at the wheel, or the fashionable "naked clothes": photographs of your naked body transferred onto skintight bodysuits so you can be naked and dressed at the same time. "It was liberating at first," Aaron repeats, "but a novel is long. You can only have fun for a little while. Virtual Death was a mixed blessing."If there's one critical observation to be made about Virtual Death, it's that Aaron wasn't entirely sincere about his love for the genre.UNDER COVERWhat motivates writers to take on pseudonyms? In Aaron's case pragmatism certainly played a role: bookstores shelve books alphabetically by author. Shale Aaron will always be one of the first on the shelf.But Aaron had other reasons to adopt a pseudonym, ones that are shared by many other writers. "Readers start having expectations," he explained. "After my first novel and book of stories, which were mostly about family, I wrote an exotic, jungly novel, and reviewers complained about how dark it was. They wanted the old me back."Doris Lessing had a similar experience several years ago when she published a couple of novels under the name Jane Somers; she too used an alias to escape the expectations of her readers and reviewers. The two Somers novels can now be found under Lessing's name, under one cover, and titled The Diaries of Jane Somers (the original titles were The Diary of a Good Neighbor and If the Old Could). Lessing's introduction to the named edition discusses how she didn't necessarily want to test the publisher as Jerzy Kosinski did by peddling his already published Steps under a different title and name. Rather, Lessing wanted to test outside forces. The fictional Jane Somers identified herself as a woman reporter. Who would review it? How would the books' subject matter -- a young widow befriending an old woman -- be taken? She watched where the books were placed -- among the "Aga sagas" in Britain, that middle-to-lowbrow section reserved for yuppie women novelists like Joanna Trollope (an Aga is a huge and expensive peasant-style stove commonly found in Londoners' summer cottages). Somers was called mannered and precious, terms never used to describe Lessing.There are as many reasons for writing under a pen name as there are pen names. It's said that Anne Rice writes under the names A.N. Roquelaure and Anne Rampling to keep separate her different kinds of novels. Some go by a pen name to avoid scandal: the late George Selden, an author of children's books, is rumored to have written the wonderful gay coming-of-age novel The Story of Harold (1974). Earlier this year a Boston publisher wanted to secure the rights to reprint this book, but Selden's estate will not acknowledge it as his, apparently to preserve his reputation as a friend of children.Some pen names are donned for political reasons: lately, speculation is rampant as to the identity of the author of Primary Colors. And Stendhal, the outspoken French chronicler (The Red and the Black), was the pen name for Henri Beyle, a political figure of some importance in France. To complicate matters, Stendhal wrote his autobiography and called it The Life of Henri Brulard.Some writers have more personal reasons for hiding their true identities. It was recently revealed that one of the teenagers depicted in the film Heavenly Creatures -- which told the true-life story of two schoolgirls who murdered the mother of one of them -- now writes mysteries under the name Anne Perry. Agatha Christie wrote six romance novels under the name Mary Westmacott, and several others under the name A.C. Mallowan -- a secret kept for 25 years. The Westmacott novels were too personal for the famously secretive Christie to print under her own name.Pseudonyms are particularly abundant in genre writing such as science fiction, mystery, and romance. There are at least two reasons for this: one is that there can be a "lowbrow" stigma attached to genre writing that could tarnish the reputation of a "serious" writer; another, more interesting, reason is that genre writers like to experiment with different formats and styles. Ruth Rendell, for example, writes mystery novels both under her own name and the pseudonym Barbara Vine, and she doesn't care who knows it -- it says so all over the Vine books' covers. Jim Baker, a big fan, reports, "Rendell's books are terrific, but Vine's are awesome -- more literary and, generally speaking, much darker."Imagine your pen name writing better books than you -- it's the stuff of a Stephen King novel. In fact, King is another who has played around with pen names, both literally and fictionally. George Stark in King's The Dark Half is the nom de plume of a writer who, near the beginning of the novel, decides to retire and "bury" his pseudonym (as King did with his own pen name, Richard Bachman), only to have the pseudonym come alive and try to kill him. The name "Stark" was based on novels written under the name Richard Stark, which are extremely violent and not at all like the books author Donald Westlake usually writes. Westlake also writes under the name Tucker Coe.Detective writing alone has attracted a long list of pseudonymous authors. Gore Vidal writes mysteries under the name Edgar Box; A.A. Fair was the "darker" pen name of Erle Stanley Gardner, who invented Perry Mason. Evan Hunter is a rather mediocre mainstream writer who penned The Blackboard Jungle and Strangers When We Meet, but he also wrote some 50 police-procedural novels under the name Ed McBain.Even in genre writing, the reasons for using a pen name can be hard to keep track of. Neal Stephenson, who wrote the science-fiction novels Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, wrote another novel, Interface, in that genre under the pseudonym Stephen Bury. Why? Science-fiction fans are vicious -- when I talked to people from a couple of science-fiction news groups I got the sense that readers would have buried Stephenson for writing the same book twice, which is essentially what they think he did.Despite its reputation, genre writing isn't always a lowbrow arena. Patricia Highsmith's crime novels, especially the Mr. Ripley books, are some of the most acute human psychological expressions of character this side of Dostoyevsky. And just to muddy the waters, the late, great Highsmith used a pseudonym (Claire Morgan) to publish her lesbian novel, The Price of Salt. Genre can be liberating for a writer -- Shale Aaron figured writing a science-fiction novel would strip him of expectations of highbrow literature.But even when the lowbrow distinction exists only in one's mind, it can be immensely important when it comes to marketing. The difference between mass-market and trade paperbacks is important in the bookselling industry; it dictates the sales, life span, and readership of the book. Mass-market paperbacks are the ones you find in grocery store racks. They're less expensive, printed on cheaper paper, and not built to last -- their average shelf life is about two or three months. Trade paperbacks are more durable, come in a variety of trim sizes, and have a longer shelf life. If you buy your books at the grocery store, you're likely to stay away from trade paperbacks. Independent bookstore owners observe that once an author is busted down to mass market, it's hard to climb back onto the trade shelves.On the other hand, that might not be such bad news. As Shale Aaron told me: "I went to my local bookstore and my own books weren't there, but there was a big shelf full of Shale Aaron. Aaron's sold 15,000 copies since ,Virtual Death's publication in February."PEN NAME GAMEBeyond their purely utilitarian purposes, pseudonyms can also create questions of identity that provide fictional fodder for postmodernists. Graham Greene, who rarely used a pen name (which is ironic, considering his political activities), carefully separated out his "entertainments" from his more serious novels; but in later years he stopped making such distinctions, inadvertently compounding the ambiguity he tried to extinguish. Thomas Pynchon has created an identity out of a nonidentity by hiding himself away; masturbatory essays have expounded theory after theory about Pynchon, suggesting that he's J.D. Salinger, William Gaddis, John Barth (or all four at once), or that Tom Robbins and Pynchon are one and the same.Vladimir Nabokov's early career was launched under the name V.Sirin, and throughout his works he played with fake names, including Sebastian Knight and the Nabokov anagram Vivian Darkbloom. Isak Dinesen was Karen Blixen's pseudonym, but Blixen/Dinesen wrote a Gothic novel called The Angelic Avengers under the pseudonym Pierre Andrezel.Julian Barnes writes mysteries featuring a bisexual detective under the name Dan Kavanagh. Donald Barthelme wrote parodies of contemporary fiction for The New Yorker under the name William White. His parody "More Zero" (a lot more than Less Than) and others can be found in the book The Teachings of Don B. William Burroughs has written books under the florid name Akbar del Piombo.Sometimes one wonders who the author is hiding from. And sometimes it doesn't matter any more -- who cares who Tennessee Williams, Marguerite Yourcenar, John LeCarre, or Voltaire really were or are?But it matters to book collectors. People who buy and deal in antiquarian books keep very close track of who writes what, and this enhances the value of their collections. Dick nominee Shale Aaron said his agent just fielded a request from a high-end book club asking that Virtual Death be considered for a limited, leather-bound, autographed edition. Not the highbrow "real" author's books, but Shale Aaron's.Yet pen names can create a tangled web that ensnares the writer. In Aaron's novel, Lydia Melmoth's mom has successfully "gone Banjo"; she has slipped into the underground and changed her identity. But can Shale Aaron go Banjo? Virtual Death has been out for two months now, and already, with an award nomination and a lucrative request for a limited edition, it seems only a matter of time before Shale Aaron will have to come out of hiding.While you're waiting, grab a copy of his book the next time you're at the grocery store. Sit back and enjoy the lark -- and just try to guess who Shale Aaron really is.