She Who Must Not Be Named: J.K. Rowling and the power of pseudonyms

© Marijus - Fotolia.comFor a few fleeting weeks, anonymity meant freedom for J.K. Rowling.

A London law firm apologized late last week for exposing Rowling’s secret pseudonym — that is, Robert Galbraith, the supposed first-time author of the critically acclaimed but modestly-selling detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Soon after the secret was leaked, The Cuckoo’s Calling skyrocketed to the top of the Amazon best-seller list, with first edition copies going for over $1,000 a pop. Great news for her publisher, no doubt, but Rowling was not pleased.

She who must not be named
So what exactly is Rowling griping about? For starters, a respected law firm leaked her identity in a major breach of confidentiality. But more than losing a sense of privacy or anonymity, Rowling lost her ability to experiment and play without the pressure of expectation. As she notes in the FAQ section of Robert Galbraith’s author website, her pseudonym wasn’t a marketing ploy, but rather a desire to fly under the radar: “If sales were what mattered to me most, I would have written under my own name from the start, and with the greatest fanfare.”

Rowling also notes that eventually, things may have gotten complicated with requests for interviews with Galbraith coming in — but she hoped to reveal her pseudonym on her own terms, if it came to that. For people wondering why in Voldemort’s name Rowling wouldn’t publish under her own name in the first place, just consider the very public lukewarm reviews she received for The Casual Vacancy, her first work following the Harry Potter series. It was impossible for her to dabble in a new genre without constantly hearing from fans or reviewers that it wasn’t as masterful or immersive as Harry Potter. A good problem to have, in a way. But I understand Rowling’s desire to have a secret, just for a little while.

The purpose of pen names
These days, it feels like there are so few secrets.  That’s why we get such glee out of mysteries like the anonymous writer behind the hilarious Ruth Bourdain Twitter account, which satirized food writing with particular relish (excuse the pun). In the age of personal branding and over-sharing, it was hard to imagine someone not taking credit for creating something so popular. I guess sometimes, a pen name is about the sheer joy of mystery.

Of course, there’s the dark side to anonymity as well. Anonymity on the Web makes it possible for people to share questionable and sometimes downright harmful ideas without having to be accountable for the consequences of their actions. To be sure, there’s power and bravery in putting your name on a piece of writing that’s open to ridicule, debate, or misinterpretation by anyone in the world with access to the Internet. But not everyone’s lucky enough to be granted freedom of expression, and sometimes pseudonyms serve a real purpose. Here’s a look at why a few famous writers adopted their pen names:

George Sand (a.k.a. Amantine Dupin)
George Sand was a prolific French author, writing in the mid-1800s with contemporaries like Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac. As a woman, she struggled to find publishers who would take her seriously — which is eventually how she stumbled on the nom de plume of George Sand (a lover named Jules Sandeau supposedly helped her settle on the name).

Mark Twain (a.k.a. Samuel Clemens)
Samuel Clemens was America’s first celebrity author, but one of his earliest jobs was piloting riverboats.  “Mark Twain” was a term referring to the second mark on a line that showed where the Mississippi was two fathoms deep. It became Clemens’ pen name when he became a reporter — a common practice, especially to protect crime reporters.

Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. Theodore Geisel)
Theodore Geisel adopted the pen name Seuss, his mother’s maiden name, after he was banned from writing for Dartmouth’s humor magazine (he got caught drinking with friends in his dorm room). He upgraded himself to Dr. Seuss after graduation. A playful pen name bolstered the sense of whimsy he created in his books (true for Lemony Snicket, too).

Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm (a.k.a. Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden)
Hobb, a best-selling science fiction author, first published her work under the name Megan Lindholm. She was originally going to publish as M. Lindholm, when an editor told her it was important for women writers in science fiction to “declare themselves.” Eager to explore new styles and perspectives, she later took on the pen name Robin Hobb.

Like Rowling, she likely realized that maintaining two successful author personas as just one real person wasn’t going to be easy — and she eventually revealed herself as the writer behind both identities. Today, she continues to publish under both names.

The lesson for the rest of us writers? If you’re in a rut or paralyzed by a vicious attack of “what ifs” (What if they hate it? What if it’s no good?) consider writing under a different name, even if it’s just on your blog — you might find a voice you never knew you had.

Scullion! Rampalian! Fustilarian! Insults from Shakespeare, the Elizabethan dis-master

© heywoody - Fotolia.comA good insult is a thing of beauty. Nobody understood this better than William Shakespeare, whose biting wit was so memorable, it continues to shape how remember historical figures like Richard III — the short-lived King of England who reigned from 1483 to 1485.

Just a few weeks ago, the remains of Richard III were dug up under a parking lot in Leicester, England and identified using some pretty fancy DNA-based technology. The discovery has reignited the debate over who Richard III truly was — was he a villain, victim or tragic hero?

Some scholars say Richard III was the victim of a smear campaign — anti-Plantagenet propaganda commissioned by the Tudor Dynasty and perpetuated during their 120-year reign after Richard III’s death. Whether Shakespeare intended to portray Richard III as a villain or parody this overwrought propaganda is open to debate. But there’s no doubt that his play is a major factor in how we view Richard III today.

In honor of this major historical and literary discovery, we look at some of Shakespeare’s most brilliant insults — from Richard III as well as some of his other most beloved works:

1. Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog! Thou poisonous bunch-back’d toad!
Ouch. Your mama jokes have nothing on these insults used to describe Richard III, whose scoliosis gave him a hunchback and who was portrayed as being corrupt and vile.

2. Away, you scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian!
This fine line comes from Henry IV, and boy is it a doozy. It basically means, “Get away from me, you menial servant! You scamp! You low-life stinkard!” Let that one sink in.

3. I do repent the tedious minutes I with you have spent.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is basically the world’s greatest insult factory. Remember that repenting in Elizabethan times meant you were really darn sorry you did something.

4. No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip: she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.
Okay, Dromio of Syracuse, we get it … she’s a little rotund. This winner from the Comedy of Errors is a reminder of what not to say to or about, well, pretty much any woman ever.

5. [Thou art] a knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave.
That’s only half of what the Earl of Kent says to Oswald in King Lear. Well, I guess don’t piss off the Earl of Kent. Let’s just say this quote speaks for itself, broken meats and all…

And with that, I leave you to create your own Shakespearean insults — because they’re so much better than any four-letter word. After all, being a master of witty insults is likely to make you a more memorable person. From Shakespeare to Thaddeus Stevens to Mark Twain, our favorite wordsmiths knew how to tell people off in style.

Litquake kicks off in SF, ushering in the most literary season of all, in my mind, is the most literary season of all. Something about pumpkins, red-orange leaves, and apple cider makes me want to read a little Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, or other eerie 19th century writers who were slightly out of their gourds.

Why fall? Maybe it’s because there’s something poetic yet ghastly about a season where nature is at its most beautiful right before it all shrivels up and dies for winter. Or maybe it’s just because as a New Jerseyan by birth, I associate fall nights with being too chilly to spend outside, making autumn a season of reading.  Whatever the reason, I’m out of my gourd with excitement for Litquake 2012.

Litquake, San Francisco’s literary festival, kicked off this weekend and runs through October 13th. As a fairly new San Franciscan, I’m still getting used to the idea that fall isn’t really a season here. But the origins of this festival sound positively autumnal to me:

Originally hatched over beers at the Edinburgh Castle pub in 1999, Litstock debuted as a free one-day reading series in a fog-bound Golden Gate Park.

Thirteen years later, the festival now runs for nine days and features a variety of free or affordable events like public writing sessions, a literary quiz night, and a chance to see creative minds like Daniel Clowes and Dave Eggers in conversation.

But the event I’m most excited for is LitCrawl on October 13th– the “wildest, most wanton literary night of the year” featuring free readings that move across 85 venues including bookstores, bars, cafes, and more. (It allegedly stemmed from a USA Today report that “San Franciscans spend twice the nation’s average on books and booze.”)

It’s such a brilliant idea that the event has caught on in a handful of cities across the U.S. So look for a LitCrawl in a city near you. And if there isn’t a LitCrawl near you, never fear. From Indonesia to Canada to England, this is one of the most popular times of year for literary festivals the world over. Or, you can just curl up with a good book and your favorite libation and celebrate the spirit of fall. After all, there’s no better season for getting lit — literary that is.