Monday, June 13, 2011

Blogs: Where Noms de Plume Rule!

"At its most basic level, a pseudonym is a prank. Yet the motives that lead writers to assume an alias are infinitely complex, sometimes mysterious even to them."
Carmela Ciuraru

So Ms. Ciuraru opens the article in Salon as part of the publicity for her new book, Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms. The excerpt isn’t very satisfying, and her descent into academic constructland has the usual soul-numbing effect on the unsuspecting reader:

"If the authorial persona is a construct, never wholly authentic (no matter how autobiographical the material), then the pseudonymous writer takes this notion to yet another level, inventing a construct of a construct."

But it’s her conclusion that is setting my pseudonymous head spinning:

"Today, using a pen name is less often a creative or playful endeavor than a commercial one."

Maybe true in dead-tree publishing, but has she glanced at bloggers? I understand her thesis is "the decline of the pseudonym: false names have allowed many famous writers to make a new start -- but the digital era is changing that." But if she is interested in where the tradition of pen names is alive and well, then she must look beyond commercial publishing to the community of bloggers.

Creative Endeavors All

The self-publishing form that lead to the explosion of blogs gave rise to a resurgence of the nom de plume. Some early blogs were established with the author's name, like Tom Watson, but many were titled for an idea or sensibility that shaped the blog in some way, giving it a personality and setting it apart from other blogs. The average blogger wasn't launching as an established writer, but their knowledge of cooking or film or living on a remote Scottish island became something that other people were interested in reading about.

My blog circle offers some very imaginative pen names: Blue Girl in a Red State (now a Redesigned State) who started blogging during the Bush years when Ohio was a red state to rage against those dark times. Lance Mannion, whom James Wolcott christened as “manly name, manly blog” when he came upon Mannoville in its early days. The Self-Styled Siren, who launched with the tongue-in-cheek sultry appellation which she has now owns. Mr. Peel’s Sardine Liqueur, whose nom de plume reveals a desire to be married to the original delectable Mrs. Peel and a love of Cassavetes. And the late, great Jon Swift, who carefully chose his pen name to craft a faux-conservative, satiric blog. From Media Matters report of his untimely death in 2010:

'Jon Swift' was a talented and droll satirist, with a keen eye for the absurd, who lovingly adopted the persona of a faux, well-intentioned conservative who did not take kindly to folks besmirching Fox News. (Think Stephen Colbert, but without all the manic yelling.)

I have met some of these bloggers in RL and know them by their real names. They each to differing extents use their names in certain parts of the digital space. But their writing is how I know them best—it’s the place I interact with them most-—and so their pen names are stronger identities to me than that line on their birth certificates. Many would have said the same about Mark Twain in his lifetime.

I Fall Into a Pen Name

I have an affinity for the literary pen name. Some of my earliest literary memories are my mother telling me about Elia (I think because she had “his” Shakespeare volume, and he’s often in the crossword puzzle) and Saki, when she told me the story of “The Open Window.” While still in elementary school I knew of O. Henry, Lewis Carroll, Georges Sand & George Eliot (whom I mixed up for a bit, like I did the colors “silver” and “gold” until I really got it all straight in my head), and then in high school I was interested in Genet (whom I mixed up with Jean Genet for a bit). [As one commenter noted in the Salon piece, who remembers the real names of the great pen names? Can you identify the given names for my list?]

So perhaps I had a predisposition for a pen name. I can assure you it had nothing to do with “a construct of a construct.”

Here’s how M.A.Peel was born. In 2006 I became a fan of Matt Zoller Seitz’s “The House Next Door.” I lurked for quite a while, and then decided that I really wanted to comment on posts. At the same time, colleagues of mine at the day job were starting a group blog. To give it personality they decided that all the posters needed potato-based names. Can’t say I know how they came up with that idea. But one person was Tater, one PommesFrites, one Spud, one Mashed, etc. So to participate I needed a potato name. The word peel popped into my head, and it was a short hop for a life-long Avengers fan to arrive at M.A.Peel.

That group blog was short lived, but it gave me the impetus to register the name on blogger and start writing.

For me having a blog name is a flight of fancy, a bit of whimsy, it’s entirely playful. It’s not a full-blown persona, like Jon Swift was. It just adds a special layer of creativity to my essays, criticisms, and travelogues. It does afford some privacy, but it’s not a shield, I don’t hide behind it. If there was any serious issue that needed “my” direct attention, I would take care of that.

With the small body of work I’ve created as M.A.Peel I feel a literary connection to my childhood pals Saki and Elia. Who can ask for more than that?

I hope Ms. Ciuraru will find some enjoyment in the blog writers who are embodying the great nom de plume tradition that she cares about.


Tim Footman said...

What about those pseudonyms actively intended to deceive? I suppose gender switches such as George Eliot and Currer Bell were along those lines, but the more recent, but the straight male Syrian lesbian is getting a good old digital kicking for his deception...

Hannah Joy Curious said...

Although writing from the perspective of the other gender is a common literary exercise in "dead tree publishing", I would very much like to know about the motivations of the straight male Syrian lesbian and of the editor of Lez Get Real, who is also a bloke. It's just... bizarre.
Regarding my own "nom de plume", it allows me to write freely about life on a very small island, something I couldn't do with the same truculence otherwise. The intention here is not to deceive but to inform.
Lastly, nice to meet you Mrs Peel.

M.A.Peel said...

Tim, Evans and Bronte writing under male names was less to deceive than to be taking seriously as writers.

From Wiki:
Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine' — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise"

But Tom MacMaster has joined the tradition of literary hoax, not nom de plume. Big difference.

HJC, very nice to meet you too, thanks for popping over. Your blog has great graphics.

Tim Footman said...

Sorry, I beg to differ. Evans and the Bront√ęs still set out to deceive. Their deception was entirely right and understandable, given the prejudices of their age, but ultimately they were pulling the same stunt as McMaster: by manufacturing an authorial identity, they set out to change the readers' perception of the text, and to give it more authority. In the 19th century, it was believed that men were more authoritative when it comes to literary fiction; in the 21st, we believe that a Syrian lesbian is more authoritative when it comes to talking about being a Syrian lesbian.