masquerades and pseudonyms: The Dressmaker story

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Julie Bosman's New York Times feature on author Patricia O'Brien intrigues us.  O'Brien had sold five novels, the story goes, but could not sell a sixth, entitled The Dressmaker, thanks to the sales of her previous titles.  O'Brien's agent suggested a pseudonym.  O'Brien agreed.  Within just three days The Dressmaker had sold for a very nice sum under a new author name, Kate Alcott.

There was some lingering subterfuge to attend to, of course.  Some funny back and forth—a new email address, scanty personal details—with an editor who believed she had bought the work of a first-time author.  But it wasn't until it was author photo time and the first blurred photo that the author sent was deemed no good that the gig was finally up, the truth spoken.

As one who teaches memoir and advocates for the truth in the form, it's hard to know how to feel about this.  I mean, we're talking about fiction, after all.  And the pseudonym business surely isn't new.  And I'm certainly one of many writers who wishes deeply that the sale of her future books were not so tied to the sale of books she already wrote.  We aren't always responsible for what happens to our books out there—can't insist on publicity, can't do much about where our books sit within our publishing house's priorities, can't dictate whether or not ads will be taken, whether or not a tour will be financed, whether or not the book resonates at this particular time, whether or not a lot of things.

But when I try to imagine keeping the charade going post sale—interacting with an editor under false pretenses, say—I wonder if I would have had the gumption to keep going, editorial letter after editorial letter, conversation after conversation.  I suspect I'd be one of those who would have early on had to blow her cover.  Working with an editor is personal, in the end.  And novel writing can be akin to confession.


Amy said...

Oh that is interesting. And sad. :(

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

Fascinating story! I came *this* close to using a pseudonym for the same reasons this author did after having 3 books go nowhere due to a variety of reasons, but my new agent told me "not yet" and "let's wait and see" as she started subbing for me after I had an 8 year famine. Six weeks later I had a huge 3 book deal with Scholastic and then another 3 book deal with Harpercollins this past October in a pre-empt. Timing, the right agent, the right editors, the right project - it all has to come together at once.

So glad I didn't give up during all those awful, discouraging years - but I very nearly was done in - and did.

I looked up the book THE DRESSMAKER and it sounds fantastic! Just ordered it.

Jeanie Ashburn said...

As a former journalist, I've always argued for transparency in all forms of writing.

And yet, there are great authors we would never have known if they hadn't fictionalized not only their names but their gender. OK, so those days are gone. I hope.

And yet, as someone who knows entirely too much about how we are tracked, targeted and even abused in this digital world, I am tempted every day to find or invent the computer equivalent of a disposable cell phone. Because finding out who wrote what when and on what computer isn't some future worry; it's here.

I probably couldn't keep up the exhausting charade either, but my bottom line is that if she chooses to publish under a pseudonym, I think that's her choice and being unmasked becomes another gray, wobbly line on the privacy battlefield.

Jean Ashburn

Susan Taylor Brown said...

Boy, this is a tough one, isn't it? I often think that I need to change my name to make another sale but honestly, I think I'd need to change it to something famous, not just another unknown. I'm already unknonw. :)

kelly said...

Finally, there is hope!

Serena said...

I've always wondered how a pseudonym would work for someone who has already published say they wanted to enter into another genre....its odd that authors have to do these things or feel that they have to to sell their work. Would it really matter if an author wanted to branch out...does that necessarily mean the work would not sell?

Lilian Nattel said...

I don't think I could either, but I applaud her. It's the power position of the corporate HQ and the unfairness that drove this. The editors, too, are subject to the dreaded previous sales issue, and the subterfuge may have given the editor a freedom that's win-win on all sides.

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