John Wray and the art of the pseudonym

Are pseudonyms a form of hiding or a way for writers to get closer to themselves?

I’ve long been suspicious of pseudonyms. Why, if writing is an art of communication, publish under another name? But John Wray’s recent piece on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog has made me think again. Here, Wray (which is itself a pseudonym) argues for the pen name as a vehicle of creativity and freedom, as a strategy for stepping just a bit outside ourselves.

Mark Twain and George Orwell and Isak Dinesen were something more than they would have been without their pseudonyms, or so it seemed to me,” he writes. “Their desire to reconfigure their real, lived experience was so great that it had broken the constraints of their fiction and bled, if only ever so slightly, into the actual world. … They were taking something foisted on them, the identities they’d been assigned, and refashioning them to suit their own designs. They existed as authors and as characters simultaneously.”

Wray, whose fourth novel, “The Lost Time Accidents,” will be published next year, is at something of a loss to explain his own pseudonym: “The answer I usually give, when cornered,” he tells us, “is that I took my pen name for no reason at all.” But the beauty of his little essay is the way he deconstructs this, much as the pseudonym deconstructs the very substance of identity.

To illustrate the point, Wray cites the case of Toby Forward, an Anglican vicar who took on the persona of a teenage girl named Rahila Kahn, arguing that it “released me from the obligation of being what I seem to be so that I can write as I really am.”

There is self-justification at work here, as Wray acknowledges -- “I don’t think anyone writes as they ‘really are,’ … since all style is either learned or invented” -- but the larger point, about the “release from obligation,” stands.

Writing, after all, is difficult work, in which we often have to trick ourselves into revealing what we otherwise might not. That can take a variety of forms -- pretending we are writing only for ourselves and not for a readership; procrastinating until deadline looms so vividly that all other concerns appear to fall away -- but there is no denying the risk and pull of admitting, in public, what we think and feel.

If that sounds antithetical to the use of a pseudonym, the reality, Wray suggests, is more complex. “The advantage of a pen name,” he observes, “in my case, at least, is that it gives [a] writer the courage to perform for his imaginary audience, no matter how charmless or pretentious he might feel.”

It is, in other words, a way “to dodge my inhibitions” -- which brings us back to the constant high-wire act, the push-and-pull, of writing: the necessity (and challenge) of exposing who we are.

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