It worked for JK Rowling with a novel published last year under her Robert Galbraith pseudonym. Whatever the truth of it, and whether you see it as a gimmick or not, the revelation that Robert was JK and the subsequent hype pushed the book right to the top overnight.
There’s nothing new about writing under a pseudonym. Sometimes it’s done to protect the author’s identity. Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra is actually Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former army officer who could certainly not have been published under his own name and the secret wasn’t out until he left the military and also left Algeria for France.
His taking a female pseudonym as a way of throwing people off the track of his real identity is a reversal of the situation more than a century ago when the Brontë sisters, and numerous other female writers including George Sand and George Eliot wrote under male pseudonyms at a time when publishing was a thoroughly male-dominated business. The echoes of this are still there with some female writers falling back on initials to hide their gender – JK Rowling again, and she’s far from alone in having done this.
Then there are those who use a pseudonym to differentiate between the characters of their varying brands of fiction. Barbara Vine is Ruth Rendell, Benjamin Black is John Banville. There are plenty of others. Donald Westlake wrote under a bunch of pseudonyms, notably as Richard Stark for the harder Parker novels that have a different tone to the books he wrote under his own name.
Frank Richards, creator Billy Bunter, the Owl of the Remove, was just one of the many pseudonyms of Charles Hamilton, an astonishingly prolific writer of an estimated hundred million words during his long working lifetime. Presumably he needed to file material under different names simply to keep track of it all.
Political columnist Joe Klein (supposedly, he never admitted it publicly) published the excellent Primary Colors simply as ‘Anonymous’ rather than under a pseudonym, a straightforward enough approach, although the ‘Anonymous’ author name was in itself guaranteed to whip up speculation. Would Primary Colors have attracted so much interest at the time if the author’s moniker had been Jim Green? Probably not.
Anonymity isn’t easily maintained in the digital age, as several anonymous bloggers have found out, such as Zoë Margolis, the Girl with a One-Track Mind, when she found a tabloid team camping on her doorstep, and Dr Brooke Magnanti, aka Belle de Jour, who pre-empted her own unmasking by going to the Sunday Times with her story.
Even Iceland has its own anonymous crime writer, the mysterious Stella Blómkvist. The truly astounding thing about Stella is that her (his?) true identity is still a successfully guarded secret after more than fifteen years. In a society like Iceland, where secrets are are common enough but generally tend to quickly become wide-open secrets as one person whispers to another, it’s amazing that Stella Blómkvist’s real identity isn’t generally known. Maybe people are happier speculating? There has been much speculation, guesses ranging from established writers to political figures – not least the former prime minister and current newspaper editor Davíd Oddsson – as to Stella Blómkvist’s real identity.
In fact, it’s extraordinarily difficult to maintain anonymity, especially for a writer. Your agent has to know who you are, your agent’s accountant is probably going to have to know. The cheques are going to have to go somewhere, so someone, somewhere along the line, is going to know who the reclusive author is and may be tempted to spill the beans.
It’s less easy to take a pseudonym seriously when it’s part of the hype. It has been reported widely enough that Jo Nesbø is working on a book that will be under the nomme de guerre of Tom Johansen. So when it’s made that obvious, and the publicity is aimed at making sure that nobody misses it, why bother? Why have a cover proclaiming
to ensure that nobody could possibly mistake the unknown Darcy Sarto for the much-loved Johnny Oxford? Why not just stick Johnny’s name on the cover and dispense with the clunky pseudonym?
Now there’s a new one on the way, and this time the hype’s less comfortable, clearly aimed at generating maximum publicity. Claire North is billed as ‘an acclaimed author who has previously published several novels’ and the book under her name, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, clearly has a heavyweight marketing effort behind it. But there’s no intention of keeping the secret and it has already been announced that Claire North’s identity will be announced later this month – or it may already have been announced by the time you read this. Maybe it’s JK under another pseudonym? Unlikely. But it smacks a little of desperation to my mind and I won’t lose any sleep wondering who Claire North really is.