The Wayward Time Traveler: Naming Pseudonyms

Over the last year, as I’ve made my way through my Vacation in the Golden Age, I’ve read stories by a number of writers who I’d never heard of before: Arthur McCann, Phillip St. James, Lee Gregor, Caleb Saunders, Frederick Engelhardt, Kurt von Rachen, Rene La Fayette, Marice G. Hugi, E. Waldo Hunter, and Robert Willey to name just ten or so. Often times, one of the stories by these authors will be particularly striking, and it makes you wonder what happened to them? Why can’t I find other stories by that author? Did they just up and quit after a few short pieces in Astounding? Or is something else going on?

As it turns out, in most cases something else is going on. It’s been said that a professional fiction writer is a paid liar and so it should come as no surprise that in some instances, even the name that appears on their byline is made up. And so it is for each of the names mentioned above:

Arthur McCann is the pen name John W. Campbell used for non-fiction articles in Astounding. Phillip St. James is Lester del Rey. Lee Gregor is Milton Rothman. Caleb Saunders is Robert Heinlein. Engelhardt, von Rachen and La Fayette are all incarnations of L. Ron Hubbard. Maurice G. Hugi is Eric Frank Russell. E. Waldo Hunter is Theodore Sturgeon. And Robert Willey is the pen name that Willy Ley used for fiction, in particular, a great story called “Fog” (Astounding, December 1940). One name I didn’t mention because it has become a well-known pseudonym is Anson MacDonald, a.k.a. Robert Heinlein.


Back in the 1940s, when science fiction was less respectable than it is today, authors occasionally used pseudonyms as a way of hiding the fact that they wrote science fiction. Sometimes, they used a pseudonym to separate their science fiction writing from other types of writing they did. Heinlein used the MacDonald pseudonym for stories that didn’t fit into his Future History series, for example. I suspect that a pseudonym was also used from time-to-time to allow a reliable author to have multiple stories in the same issue of a magazine. In 1941 alone, Heinlein and MacDonald appeared in the same issue six times!

In the days before the Internet, I imagine it was easier to keep pseudonyms a secret. Indeed, pseudonyms were only likely exposed by mistake by one of the parties who knew the pseudonym, author or editor. Indeed, there are two instances in which Campbell made this “mistake.” In the “In Times To Come” section of the August 1941 Astounding, Campbell announced “By His Bootstraps” by Robert Heinlein as an upcoming story. “By His Bootstraps” did indeed appear in the October 1941 Astounding–under the name Anson MacDonald! In the late 1940s when Isaac Asimov was preparing for his doctor’s orals, he’d written a parody of a dissertation, “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline” which Campbell wanted to run in Astounding. Asimov agreed but, knowing that his orals were coming up, asked Campbell to run it under a pseudonym, something which Campbell forgot about. Asimov wrote that after his orals were finished, there was one final question for him from the inquisition he faced: “Mr. Asimov, what can you tell us of the properties of resublimated thiotimoline…”

Pseudonyms were also sometimes used by women writing science fiction, the most famous of these being Alice Sheldon‘s pen name, James Tiptree, Jr. More often women used initials to mask the gender of the author, so you’d get C. L. Moore, for instance. Sometimes, a pseudonym represented a writing team writing under a single name. Lewis Padgett, for instance, was the husband and wife writing team of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. (They also wrote under the name Lawrence O’Donnell, and indeed, Barry Malzberg‘s pseudonym K. M. O’Donnell is taken from this name.)

It is difficult to say if pen names are equally popular today as they were in the 1940s. We know some, of course. Stephen King wrote under the name Richard Bachman and did so because he wanted to see if he could still sell books without the glow of his name affecting the sales. Robert Jordan was the pen name for James Oliver Rigney, Jr. In writer’s circles, I am aware of a few pseudonyms in print today. Sometimes the reasons are similar to seventy years ago: separating the writer from other type of work he or she does. But I think a more common trend today is to use a pseudonym to re-brand a writer whose sales have, perhaps, been sluggish. In many of these cases, it is the publisher, not the writer who desires the pseudonym.

I find the use of pseudonyms fascinating, especially when I read something written under a pseudonym by an author I’ve read before. In some ways, a pseudonym equals out the playing field by eliminating preconceived notions of what an author brings to the table. Isaac Asimov once received a terrible review for The Caves of Steel only later to receive an excellent review for one of his Lucky Star books by the same reviewer. The reviewer had no idea that Paul French–the name under which the Lucky Star books were originally published–was actually Isaac Asimov. I can see the same happening today, from time-to-time. Writing an occasional short story under a pseudonym might give a writer added confidence in their ability to sell a story of a very different type from what is typically expected from them.

I think the very notion of author branding makes pseudonyms more difficult to use today–unless you start out using one–because the notion of author brand seems to be what publishers focus on.

That said, I still enjoy making little discoveries, reading stories written under pseudonyms that I am unaware of and then discovering (usually to my great surprise and delight) who the story was really written by. It’s kind of like finding that toy in the box of Cracker Jacks.

7 thoughts on “The Wayward Time Traveler: Naming Pseudonyms”

  1. You stated that “the very notion of author branding makes pseudonyms more difficult to use today.”

    However, you are ignoring people like Alis Rasmussen, Stephen Leigh, and Megan Lindholm who have restarted their careers as Kate Elliott, S.L. Farrell, and Robin Hobb.

    Harry Turtledove started out using “Eric Iverson” at the insistence of an editor and began using his own name at the insistence of a different editor.  He also used Mark Gordian when an issue of Analog carried two of his stories, H.N. Turteltaub to indicate historical fiction (see comment on Nora Roberts, below) and Dan Chernenko when he wanted to try something completely different.

    Similarly, authors often use pseudonyms to distinguish between different types of books so that, for instance a reader knows the book will be one thing if it is by Nora Roberts and another thing if by J.D. Robb, so the reader can set expectations correctly.

    Finally, of course, although Lester del Rey claimed that his birth name was Ramon Felipe Alvarez-del Rey, he was actually born Lester Knapp.

  2. Steven, I didn’t mean to ignore anyone. I can only claim ignorance in those cases. I had no idea. I guess some pseudonyms are better guarded than others. Or maybe seven decades just allows for more exposure. :-)

  3. Also, what I meant by author branding making pseudonyms more difficult is that it would seem if you’ve got a good thing under one name, publishers would be reluctant to take a chance with a work under a name that doesn’t have the same brand recognition, knowing there might be more sales under the brand name, so to speak.

  4. I find the use of pseudonyms interesting in the modern day, since keeping the secret is much harder than it used to be. But as Steven pointed out, some writers do it purposefully and to a point.

    Seanan McGuire’s use of Mira Grant for the Feed novels is another example, but this is a case where Seanan is open about the pseudonyms. This makes me wonder if the term is even the right one when the writer is open about the pen name.

  5. Branding can work the opposite way.

    If Joe Author published a book that the chains order 1000 of and only sells 750, his next title will only have orders for 750 (because the computer sees his name and sales numbers and places the order).  That book only sells 450 copies, so for his third book, the chain only orders 450.  Each book, the order placed is lower.

    To stop that slide, Joe Author adopts a pseudonym:  Frank Writer.  Now, suddenly, the chain orders 1000 copies of his next book instead of 200 copies.

     

  6. Maurice Hugi was a real person.  Eric Frank Russell acted as a ghost writer reworking/editing his story that was eventually pubished as “The Mechanical Mice.”  Hugi did publish a few stories on his own.

  7. The oldest example of the phenomenon that Steven H silver describes above of which I know is Nicholas Yermakov, who wrote several critically well-received sf novels that sold successively worse one after the next. Eventually he was unable to sell under his own name and reinvented himself as Simon Hawke.

    Sometimes the rebranding is done quietly; sometimes it’s supposed to be quiet but the true identity leaks out very quickly, either because of careless copyrighting or loose lips.

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