Thursday, 27 August 2009

On Pseudonyms: The Author as a Name or as a Person

There has recently been a strong debate in Sweden about the concept of writing under pseudonym. The root of the debate has been a brand new crime novel, Hypnotisören (literal translation: The Hypnotist) by "debuting" writer Lars Kepler. Now, the book was very hyped before publication, being sold to various international publishers even before it saw print here in Sweden (which from my understanding is not the most common way of things, especially not with Swedish debuts). I'll grant that this hype possibly stems from someone (whether the publisher or someone who'd just had a chance to look at the script) at the London Bookfair apparently having said that this Kepler might be the new Stieg Larsson. Given Larsson's huge international success with Män som hatar kvinnor (English title: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and the two following books, a comparison could easily enough cause a hype. Still, and quite importantly, this hype pre-dates the whole pseudonym debate.

You see, there is no Swedish writer named Lars Kepler. It is pseudonym and suddenly just about everyone in Swedish literary circles (journalists, reviewers, bloggers) were in some kind of mad feeding frenzy. There was an insatiable need to know... Who is Lars Kepler? (As I type this, it has already since a while back been established and confirmed that Lars Kepler is in fact writers Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril, a couple who for one reason or another opted to write a crime novel together, under the pen name of Lars Kepler.)

Now, I'm not big on crime fiction, I'll admit that up front, nor am I that big on Swedish literature in general as I often tend to favour English language literature. So maybe that is partly why the source of the debate has interested me very little. The debate itself has, however, fascinated me, simply because it has seemed ever so flawed in its reasoning. One reviewer (I forget whom, but then again that too might be for the better) angrily spoke of frustration, saying that he couldn't focus on the book because of not knowing who Kepler was. As if that fact would affect the quality of the text... or the plot... or... well, you get my point.

Accusations regarding it being a commercial stunt have rained down with some frequency in the debate and some people (the latest being a rather silly band of young Swedish writers putting together an even sillier manifesto) have harshly criticised the use of pseudonyms altogether; as if the practice was newly invented and shown off here for the very first time. And this disturbs me. There is a lack of historical knowledge at work here, a failure to recognise that the tradition of pseudonyms is both old and international. Not to mention that reasons for resorting to use a pseudonym are both numerous and varying in their degree of complexity or... shall we say "need." The latter by no means being a way on my part to concede that any form of "need" would be required for any writer to justify using a pseudonym.

I have thought about the debate a lot lately, partly because of reading Stephen King's piece "Why I Was Bachman" (included as an introduction in The Bachman Books Omnibus). King clearly had no "need" in the sense which at least some Swedish critics, etc, have seen fit to deem fair enough to justify the use of a pseudonym. But that doesn't mean his reasons weren't valid. Nor that he didn't have a right to use that pseudonym. In fact, the whole notion that it's a commercial stunt is rather lame. Sure, the publishing house made use of the debate that swelled up like a wave (as any smart commercial business would upon finding that a product of theirs was the focus of general attention for a time), but the hype was already there, the book was already selling.

Not to mention the fact that the use of pseudonyms hardly is a sure way to sell books. That notion is, quite frankly, laughable.

So why does the debate fascinate me? Why do I bring it up here (and more or less in its wake as it were)?

The answer is simple. It's because the debate itself points to something somewhat disturbing, which I incidentally haven't seen anyone bring up in the debate itself. And what it points to is this: Why is the "identity" of the author so important? Don't get me wrong. I enjoy listening to authors, reading personal anecdotes and watching interviews as much as the next guy; enjoy meeting authors I like at signings. But I'm also painfully aware that a great author needs not be a good public speaker, a pleasant person or come off good in those settings. Writing text is a very specific medium which doesn't necessitate social interaction or public speaking. Also, while it clearly does require a good grasp of language (preferably), it does not require quick thinking or instant wit. Not in the least. The writer has time to contemplate and a ponder, because of the natural time delay between sender and recipient in most textual situations.

As such, the current market with almost mandatory book tours and interviews, seems to be missing an inherent point in literature (regardless of genre); that the proof, as in so many other cases, is in the pudding; in the text itself. The reviewer who felt that he could not focus on the book because of not knowing who Kepler was, makes me question what he's looking at or for. How well do we think we know writers generally, watching them in interviews or just knowing their real name for that matter? Does knowing that name give us any power? And, perhaps more importantly, does it somehow alter the text?

If anything, the authorial name on the book (from the point of view of us readers) is a brand name or a linguistic marker. It is not really relevant as a signifier pointing to a flesh and blood person (which is neither to say that the physical author is unnecessary nor that he or she is unimportant as a human being). What it is relevant as is rather as a signifier pointing to a body of text. In some way, an authorial name on a book is comparable to a form of genre (albeit more limited in scope than most genres in most cases). If we like part or parts of one particular body of text, maybe we'll appreciate more of it. Here the authorial name is helpful. It may guide our browsing through the massive fields of text out there and help us decide what we should pick up next.

The recent Swedish pseudonym debate shows an almost unhealthy focus on the flesh and blood person, not the body of text in the making, but the real live body as it were. And I can't help but wonder if this is a sign that our contemporary society has taken the author cult of personality too far. Should we care, really, who is writing? Or, put differently, even if we do, should that be a primary concern? Is it the author who is important? Or is it the text? The current debate suggests that the author and his or her identity overshadows everything else. And I, for my own part, respectfully disagrees.


  1. Jag tappade intresset för boken så fort det kom fram vilka som låg bakom pseudonymen och det inte var några jag kände till. Jag gillar ju deckare i vanliga fall, så jag hade tänkt läsa den, men nu känns det inte lika kul längre...

  2. Lol! Jag kände tvärtom, att den nu var mer intressant! =)