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.