Pen names, by definition, are meant to obscure a writer’s true identity and/or embellish her/his public persona. Because names are political entities—they’re gendered, for the most part; can indicate race and class; and often act as maps in identifying a person’s ethnic origins—the pen name a writer chooses makes a very deliberate statement not only about how the writer wants to be perceived, but that the writer specifically believes presenting his/her true name is a liability.
America’s founding forefather Benjamin Franklin famously began using a pen name, after a letter he submitted for publication in his older brother James’ newspaper The New-England Courant was rejected. Perhaps because James could not read the submission without imagining his kid brother, Franklin could not get published as himself. But in the witty voice of the widower Mrs. Silence Dogood, James and, ultimately, the newspaper’s readership could receive the interrogations of Massachusetts’ education system, love, and courtship that Franklin brought forth.
Franklin went on to write under a number of aliases, “often creat[ing] an entire persona for the ‘writer,'” a post on PBS.org listing some of Franklin’s pen names explains. Playing with the monikers to indicate temperament (Alice Addertongue and Anthony Afterwit, for example), he poked fun at assumptions people held of women, men, aristocracy, and the poor; examining issues ranging from gender equality to the matrimonial mores of the 18th century.
More recently, in 2013 J.K. Rowling published The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name Richard Galbraith because she felt her enormous success as the writer of the Harry Potter series had colored critics’ and readers’ reception of her work. She didn’t mention gender, i.e. why she chose a male pseudonym over a woman’s name, but enduring disparities in the number of female authors reviewed and the numbers of women reviewers begs the question be asked and the answer explored.
Gender crossing pen names are not a new thing; nor are nom de plumes that mask a more famous writer’s persona, or simplify a name for easier pronunciation, or suggest the author is of a different ethnic or national identity than s/he actually is. History and the present are rife with examples of all of these instances, but a recent case of a white writer using a Chinese pen name to up his chance of getting published has many writers crying shameful appropriation of the corrective provisions made for a protected class.
Here’s what happened: Michael Derrick Hudson’s poem was submitted for publication consideration in the Best American Poetry 2015 anthology under the moniker Yi-Fen Chou (his former high school classmate’s name). Hudson believed being perceived as Asian would increase the likelihood that his poem would be published. Apparently, Hudson has admitted to “using the pseudonym whenever a poem of his has been rejected ‘several times’.”
Sherman Alexie, the Native American poet and author responsible for choosing the poems that made the anthology’s final cut, admitted he had been “more amenable to the poem” because he thought the author was Chinese American. Alexie elaborated, “I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past: I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet’s identity.”
He further explained his decision to keep the poem in the anthology after he discovered the writer’s “colonial theft”:
If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I gave the poem special attention because of the poet’s Chinese pseudonym.
If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.
And, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular.
But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem. I think I would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity.
But that’s not what happened. In the end, I chose each poem in the anthology because I love it. And to deny my love for any of them is to deny my love for all of them.
The truth is, people of all colors are lumbering under a legacy that has privileged white skin and the experiences of white people over all others for the last four centuries—and we are handling this grossly unjust situation in different ways. Affirmative action and literary prizes eligible only to immigrants, people of color, or women, for example, are attempts at leveling the playing field. They exist because white privilege is so entrenched and institutionalized it directly and indirectly hampers the success of those who are not white, male, and preferably wealthy.
For so long, people who have enjoyed the benefits that come with legally recognized whiteness have not had to experience being passed over or marginalized because of their ethnic, racial, or gender identity i.e. their name. Even with attempts to correct the injustice and legacy of four hundred years of disproportionate white advantage, white people still have disproportionately better chances at success in America. Yet, still, some white people cry foul when they feel that corrective measures are taking even a sliver of their hoarded privilege away.
In the late ’70s, Allan Bakke, a white man from California who was twice denied admission to UC Davis’ medical school, sued the university for “reverse discrimination”. He charged that his grades and test scores were better than many students of color who had been admitted—ignoring the fact that he was the beneficiary of a legacy of privileges that those students of color, by and large, were not. The Supreme Court ended up ruling that the university’s admissions policy, which incorporated strict racial quotas, was unconstitutional and ordered that Bakke be admitted. But the ruling also upheld affirmative action—acknowledging the fact that a legacy of racism and discrimination continues to disadvantage people of color—contending that race could be used as one criterion to decide admission at tertiary institutions.
Similarly, in 2002 Rachel Dolezal sued historically black Howard University alleging she was denied a teaching assistant job because she is white. She lost the case. Though Dolezal says she has always felt black, at Howard she looked white. By 2015, Dolezal had altered her racial appearance to appear African-American including tanning her skin and wearing tightly coiled wigs and braided extensions. She denied changing her appearance to legitimize her position as President of Spokane’s NAACP, but she did enlist a black friend to say he was her father, and lied about her race (citing African-American, Native American, and white) on an application to chair the city’s Police Ombudsman Commission. She was forced to resign her NAACP post and ombudsman role after being outed.
By presenting himself as Yi-Fen Chou, Hudson was essentially crying foul that he was not getting all the privilege. When the legacy of his white privilege became a liability in terms of gaining visibility among selection juries, he switched his identity. In so doing, he appropriated a protection that had been psychically reserved to right a systemic injustice against people who don’t have the option of enjoying the privileges his white skin has netted him from birth.
As a Native American writer intimately familiar with the ways white male nepotism adversely impacts publication opportunities for writers of color, Sherman Alexie chose to handle this injustice by doing what white male editors, reviewers, and prize/judges consciously or consciously, but routinely do for white male writers: He gave writers he presumed to share the experience of being marginalized for their identity the privilege of a closer look, and he was duped for doing so.
That Alexie was so easily manipulated playing the game that has been used against the very writers he hoped to protect is ironic to say the least, but a reminder of how superficial many of our identity markers are. Colonialism has resulted in significant populations of Asian, Caribbean, Native, and African people with Spanish, French, and British names for example just as religious conquests are the reason many Africans have Arab names, for example. Likewise, intercultural marriage can change a person’s assumed ethnic or racial identity if one is only looking at the name on paper.
To be fair, names are still generally reliable indicators of a person’s identity, but the point is it’s foolish and dangerous to assume, or judge, anything on face value. Yet face value is the shorthand we all too often use to make judgment calls which is why categories, even ones branded as negatives, can be used to serve the categorized’s purpose.
Michael Derrick Hudson took advantage of the system that advantages him so much it has to create handicaps so others can get in, and now he’s in. On its face, his publication in Best American Poetry 2015 is a victory for Hudson, but when the anthology comes out, his poem “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” will be attributed to an Asian woman—a signal that a system that doesn’t move past the superficial to determine substance is subject to easy and embarrassing defeat.
Writer Tracy M. Lewis-Giggetts asked three acclaimed authors if they felt forced to write about race or social issues because they are black; and about diversity in publishing.
Gathering of Waters author Bernice McFadden said “not once did I have an editor tell me what I should or should not write”. However, she cited the case of Millennia Black, “who had written a multiracial novel and was told by her editor that she had to make all of the characters black? This simply because she was a black author? Millenia sued the publisher and won.” Ghost Summer author Tananarive Due said she felt liberated when she realized she din’t have to write a particular kind of “black” story. “I could write books about black characters who reflected my own experiences, or otherworldly experiences – not just stories of history, poverty and oppression.” Song of the Shank author Jeffery Renard Allen told Lewis-Giggetts the issue goes beyond what black authors decide to write about:
Although a number of African American fiction writers have achieved acclaim, the fact remains that our society by and large views the work of black writers as insignificant, of less importance than the work of white authors. With that mindset, too few works of deserving fiction by black authors get published. Of the books that do get published, too few get reviewed. And often book reviewers only talk about black authors in relation to other authors, as if what we write plays no part in shaping the intellectual, political and cultural conversation in our country and abroad.
African American fiction writers almost never get nominated for the major awards, and too few of us win them. Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award, still our country’s most prestigious literary prize, for his novel Invisible Man in 1952. It was almost 40 years before another African American fiction writer won (Charles Johnson for his 1990 novel Middle Passage). Then it was more than 20 years before Jesymn Ward won for her 2012 novel Salvage the Bones.
The facts speak for themselves. Writers of international importance such as Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, Paule Marshall, Ishmael Reed and Percival Everett never received the award. The history of the Pulitzer prize is just as tainted: only three black fiction writers have received it.
The unfortunate reality is that for publishing to be democratic, African Americans need to have a major presence in the publishing world – as publishers, agents, editors and publicists, and as reviewers for books and jurors for prizes.
I agree with Allen’s assessment, but believe even a major presence of black publishing industry personnel will not remedy the problem of poor representation of black writers and other writers of color, or the disparity in acclaim that exists between straight white male writers and all other writers. While we are seeing an exciting explosion of attention directed toward African writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; more and more longlists / shortlists alike are reflecting refreshing diversity in the backgrounds of writers; and a new crop of literary prizes like the FT/Oppenheimer and Miles Morland Scholarship specifically focused on unearthing talent of color, the issue goes deeper than hiring and promoting more blacks to power positions — though that would undoubtedly help.
For writers of diverse backgrounds to get a fair shake when it comes to pick up by agents and editors, promotion by publishers, reviews by critics, and reception by readers, there needs to be a fundamental cultural shift in the value we place on / the way we treat people who aren’t rich, white, and male. Racism, sexism, and cultural chauvinism are so entrenched in our culture that we often perpetuate them subconsciously.
Lauren A. Rivera recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times examining how “cultural fit” factors into job interviews, specifically: “To judge fit, interviewers commonly relied on chemistry. …Discovering shared experiences was one of the most powerful sources of chemistry, but interviewers were primarily interested in new hires whose hobbies, hometowns and biographies matched their own.” As a result, of course, “Selection based on personal fit can keep demographic and cultural diversity low.”
Conversely, many members of discriminated classes either unconsciously or deliberately adapt their behavior to thrive in environments where they are in the minority to protect their position. As a result, they may not represent the interests of their classes or other minorities for fear of being (further) branded as “not one of us”, and ultimately punished in subtle ways like exclusion from invitation to certain social outings that offer opportunities to network with higher-ups — or because their own privileged status makes it difficult for them to relate to the majority experience of their minority group.
The other thing to consider is, even if more blacks are hired, they must be in positions of power to effect lasting institutional change. You can hire all the black publishers, agents, editors, and publicists you want, but if the big bosses don’t co-sign their recommendations or initiatives, it’s business as usual. And this is all assuming that all people of the same gender/race/class/sexual orientation have the same taste in literature, which we know isn’t true (thankfully).
Obviously, it’s a complex and layered issue that requires a scalpel approach to amelioration. A true and accountable commitment to diversity in hiring is a necessary start, but it’s just the beginning of the work required to enable black writers, and other minorities, equal access to publication, promotion, review, and reader reception.
Before she won multiple awards and wrote one of the Times Book Review’s top-ten books of 2014, the young poet Eula Biss tried to sell a book of essays to major publishing houses. “They were looking to push her into a more polemical voice,” says her literary agent Matt McGowan. Biss wouldn’t change her diffident, lyrical approach, and nothing came of it. Then she won a publication prize from Graywolf Press, a nonprofit outfit in St. Paul, Minnesota. After the resulting book, Notes From No Man’s Land, won a National Book Critics Circle Award, publishers were the ones doing the courting. “I could have easily sold On Immunity for more money,” says McGowan of Biss’s follow-up. Instead, “I made Graywolf do a little song and dance to make sure they were going to make this big.” They did, and Biss’s study of vaccination merited wide acclaim, strong sales, and another call from a commercial house — this time offering six figures for the paperback. McGowan declined: “Why change a winning team?”
Money is important, but most important thing to consider is the support your publisher will give you. In the end, meaningful backing from your publisher–and an agent who gets that–is worth more than money.
What do you want to happen to your unpublished manuscripts and in-progress work after you die? It’s a macabre, but necessary thing to consider; something that’s been on my mind since a writer friend who had just completed his first novel passed on suddenly last month, and after reading of the protracted fight between the family of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy author Steig Larsson and his partner of 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson.
Most writers have unfinished stories, completed novels that they (or multiple agents/editors) feel unfit to see the light of day, and/or pages of notes filled with ideas about new projects. The constant rejection that comes with the profession makes many of us assume these writings have no value, but Larsson’s experience should be a lesson to start thinking very differently about our work and its worth.
Before he died in 2004 of a heart attack, Larsson had written the three volume series that became The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. He had signed a contract shortly before his passing, but left no instructions as to what should happen to his work in the event of his death, or who should be in charge. Tattoo met instant success when it was published in 2005, with Fire and Hornet’s Nest following in 2006 and 2009, respectively. The trilogy has since sold over 80 million copies worldwide.
As a new fourth book in the series was released last month, The Girl With the Spider’s Web written by David Lagercrantz, Larsson’s family–which received the rights to his estate because they were his legal next of kin–remains locked in a public battle with his girlfriend Eva Gabrielsson.
According to New York Magazine‘s entertainment blog Vulture.com, Gabrielsson, “who tried for years to negotiate with the Larssons (though she had no legal claim) and wrote a polemic memoir about their life together”, is among a group of Larsson’s close friends furious about Lagercrantz’s continuation of the series. Writer Boris Kachka says in his Vulture.com post, “Two of Larsson’s childhood friends… [called] the project ‘grave-robbery'”. Kachka added, “writers have chimed in to say they’d never do what Lagercrantz did, and would draft their wills more carefully.”
So what should be in a writer’s will? According to PublishLawyer.com, writers should be as equally focused on the provisions in the contracts they sign, as they are in expressing their wishes in a legally binding will.
1. Be sure your agent does not use the phrase “agency coupled with an interest” in their agency agreements. If you have already signed such an agreement, ask your agent to release you–in writing–from these terms in writing.
“This is a bit of legalese intended to make the agency relationship irrevocable (again!). Ordinarily, a principal (you) may terminate an agent “at will” (or at the end of a contract term), and the agency also terminates automatically on the death or disability of the principal. This clause, however, grants the agent the exclusive, irrevocable right to represent your works for the entire term of those works’ copyright. This means that even if you terminate the agency, and the rights to your book revert back to you from the publisher, you are obligated to pay the agency a commission forever for all future sales, even if the agency did nothing to cause that sale. It could even mean you would be paying two agency commissions, which could amount to thirty percent or more. This also would apply to your heirs. Again, if you have such a clause in your agreement, you should ask your agent to give you a written release from its terms.”
2. Refuse an “interminable agency” clause.
“[S]ome literary agencies include in their agency agreements (or in the publishing contracts they negotiate) an “interminable agency” clause. Rather then limit their right to representation during the term of your agreement, such clauses grant the agent an exclusive, irrevocable right to represent your work for the entire term of those works’ copyright. The agency will be entitled to a commission on your work even after it goes out of print from the deal the agent negotiated, and a new publisher republishes it. After your death, your executor would have to keep track not only of which of your works are still under contract, but will also have to determine whether an agency has an interminable right to represent any of your out-of-print works. Your agency may merge, dissolve, or change names, providing more complications for your executor. If you have such a clause, you should ask your agent to give you a written release from its terms.
3. Appoint an executor who will fastidiously represent your work, and protect your legacy.
Your executor will be responsible for keeping track of which of your works are still under contract, and managing your estate’s relationship with your agent. Be sure to pick a person who is up for the job as the right executor will ensure that your heirs continue to receive what is rightfully theirs.
Make sure to consult an attorney for legal advice suited to your situation.
Malaika Adero has worked in pretty much every aspect of the book/publishing business. She started her career as a librarian, was a member of the Howard University Book Publishing Institute’s first graduating class, and worked as a college textbook sales rep before transitioning to editorial. As an editor, Adero spent three decades (at Simon and Schuster, then Amistad Press, then S&S again) publishing books by everyone from Maryse Condé to Prince (to me!). Oh, and she wrote a book called UpSouth: Stories, Studies, and Letters of African American Migrations, and produced the UpSouth International Book Festival. Most recently, she founded the online magazine Home Slice, a destination where readers find thoughtful curation of new reads, cultural events, and other inspirations.
In advance of her May 7th appearance at the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival in New York, she answered a few of the burning questions many writers have about the selection and publishing process.
In addition to good writing that connects with the acquiring editor, what factors determine whether a publisher will acquire a writer’s manuscript for publication?
You’re right to consider that there are factors beside the good quality of the work. Publishers have to consider whether the project is marketable, e.g. Is the author well-known? Is there something about the work and/or the author that is media-sexy? Does the publisher have the influence with the author’s readership and the ability to make the author attractive to media and to retailers? The publisher has to consider whether they can afford the sign the author. The author might command a higher advance than they can pay. They also need to consider their existing commitments: do they have the time and resources to properly support the author and their project?
How does the editor/publisher decide how much of an advance to give a writer? (How much do social media following, and, where applicable, past sales, literary awards, etc factor into this decision?)
Acquiring editors in most publishing companies must create a profit and loss statement, a P&L, which includes their educated guess of how well the book might perform in the marketplace. They base these educated guesses on the sales track record of similar titles.
What should writers beware of in the boilerplate contracts publishers give them to close a deal?
Writers and authors need to pay attention to every clause in a contract. Make sure you keep a copy of your contract. I’m shocked by how often authors don’t have a copy of or haven’t read their contracts.
With self-publishing gaining more respect, and some authors finding success by selling their books via digital platforms/retailers, do you think writers still need agents, editors, and traditional publishers?
Writers need agents 1) to give them access to potential editors and publishers, and 2) to explain publishing practices and culture. They can help you sort out what is common contractual practice and what is not, for example.
You need editorial support to help you refine and polish the work. There are developmental and line-by-line editors to help you shape content, copyeditors to help you correct grammatical and punctuation errors and flag problems, and proof readers. You need other eyes to be sure the work you’ve done is presented in the best light.
How do you see the role of agents, editors, and traditional publishers evolving in the next few years?
In this time of transition, the role of publishing professionals will vary more and more from organization to organization. Writers will want to seek professional support that is tailored to their individual needs.
The current publishing landscape is requiring writers to be as focused on the business of writing as they are on creatively honing their craft. What resources would you recommend authors seek out?
The business of writing and culture has always been important for creatives to keep in mind. The difference now is that enough creatives have suffered that we should know better than to depend on someone else to take care of our business.
Two weeks ago, Jill Abramson, former Executive Editor of the New York Times and the first female to hold the post, told a room of young women writers to have “some fucking respect” for Alessandra Stanley. Referring to the social media backlash her onetime Times colleague received for her “tone deaf” characterization of Shonda Rhimes as an “angry black woman” (not to mention Stanley’s agreement that actress Viola Davis is “less classically beautiful” than Kerry Washington and Halle Berry), Abramson offered Stanley’s 1990s coverage of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill sexual harassment case as reason to give the writer a pass. Anita Hill is a black woman, you see, and Stanley stood up for her.
Ironically, Abramson made this oblivious comment at the inaugural BinderCon Symposium–a conference that grew out of the instantly viral Facebook group Binders Full of Women Writers, which itself was inspired by 2012 Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s assertion, during a debate, that he had had to go to “a number of women’s groups” for help finding women to employ. “They brought us whole binders full of women,” Romney said.
That Abramson would even bring up Stanley, when the discussion had theretofore centered on her experiences as a woman at different prestigious publications and the circumstances surrounding her ousting from the Times, is evidence of the age old, but ever spry, tension between feminism and racial justice initiatives. In the ongoing battle for human rights in America, black women have often been forced to choose between civil rights and women’s rights, and in New York University’s Vanderbilt Hall where Abramson was speaking, the black women in the room were being given the same ridiculous, impossible ultimatum.
Abramson’s remarks were symptomatic of the myopia of privilege, and the narrow focus privilege politics can take by extension. In the effort to topple the privilege totem, we can often construct our own towers, effectively excluding those outside our membership or association circle–insensitive to (or compliant with) our own perpetuation of exclusion.
Throughout her keynote conversation with journalist Emily Bell, Abramson spoke proudly of the nearly 50:50 (women: men) masthead she achieved during her tenure at the Times. She detailed how she aggressively fostered female growth at the Grey Lady, connecting with women staffers outside the office for standing bonding sessions. But when Abramson was subsequently asked about her efforts to racially diversify the New York Times newsroom, she answered much like Romney had: Hiding behind the lack of proportional racial representation across the entire industry, she claimed she had personally attended conferences and visited other venues seeking to recruit (binders full of?) people of color.
Whether we’re talking about writing for an outlet like the New York Times or writing a book, the industry of letters is notoriously exclusive and exclusionary. If you’re not weeded out because you can’t afford to take a low-paying editorial position and hang in there for the years/decades it could take to climb up the food and salary chain, or if you don’t have the luxury of taking advantage of a(n unpaid) month(s)long writers’ residency because you have to report to a job; you could be excluded because you’re self-published, as authors of so-called vanity books are often ineligible for the major prizes and literary awards that come with financial remuneration, publicity, and access to a powerful network. You could be ghettoized because of your identity as literary reviews disproportionately review books by male authors. Or you could be a victim of rolodex nepotism–cut out of the game because of who you don’t know, or where you didn’t go to college or graduate school.
Abramson probably had a myriad of personal and professional reasons for sticking up for Stanley despite the problems with her piece on Rhimes. But those reasons are probably not unlike the ones held by the white men that created a climate in which Abramson felt she had to be vigilant about cultivating women’s ascendancy at the Times in the first place.
When it comes to interrogating power and access, we have to ask ourselves: are we against privilege only when it excludes us, or because it excludes at all? Who deserves to be shown some “fucking respect”? Who doesn’t?