Book review: ‘Nom de Plume’ by Carmela Ciuraru

Carmela Ciuraru author of "Nom de Plume."
(Pieter M. van Hattem)
Special to the Los Angeles Times

“The obvious trouble with pen names … even with the most inspired and impressive ones, was that they somehow failed to convey truly the full extent of one’s literary genius,” said Romain Gary, the great French filmmaker and novelist, among other things.. Here Gary, a.k.a. Émile Ajar, was referring to his trouble picking out a pseudonym, one that he felt suited him well enough, considering the fame he expected.

Literary genius, secret lives, alter egos, publishing qualms, society’s attitudes and more are explored by Carmela Ciuraru as impetus and inspiration for pseudonyms in her new book, “Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.”

Ciuraru chose 16 authors alive during the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, including the Brontë sisters, Lewis Carroll and Pauline Réage, and chronologically delineates (within a brief biography of each) their reasons for creating noms de plume.

In Ciuraru’s disclosure of their psychologies, their family lives, their traumas and thrills, we get a little bit detective story, a little bit gossip and an argosy of insight into more than 16 reasons for wanting to publish under another name. One by one, Ciuraru’s thoroughly researched coterie is presented. She builds up to the history of each author’s books written with and without pseudonyms, then follows their lives after publication into the toils, tribulations and triumphs through their use of an alter ego.


“I am a reclusive type, afraid of meeting people, except on paper,” said Alice Sheldon, a science-fiction writer. Hiding from public view was only one reason for not using one’s real name. In fact, in many instances, a new name proved a way of achieving the fame the author couldn’t achieve with his or her name. Taking a pen name was also a way to protect others. And in other instances, it was for the fun of it. In addition, Ciuraru explores the personal mysteries and secret desires the authors hoped they could divulge safely by using a pen name.

Starting with the Brontë sisters’ difficulty as females getting published in the 19th century, which necessitated the use of male names, the history continues until a century later, when publishing was accessible to females and their work was even acknowledged favorably by critics. The exception was when it came to writing a novel about consensual and satisfying romantic love between two women. Or publishing science fiction, a predominantly male genre, and being critically acknowledged. Patricia Highsmith and Sheldon did just that. Highsmith published “the first gay or lesbian novel with a happy ending” under the nom de plume of Claire Morgan. Sheldon had enormous critical success under the pen name James Tiptree Jr. — Tiptree taken from the label on a jar of jam.

Ciuraru’s prose is reminiscent of that of science writer Mary Roach, whose wit and solid research are used to give us the history of cadavers, the afterlife and sex. Ciuraru has a wry sense of humor that lightly steps in at just the right moments: “ ‘The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt,’ Sylvia Plath once wrote, but when it did creep in, she pounded it like a Whac-a-Mole until her achieving self could surface once again.”

In unraveling their psychoses, their fetishes and their impulses to relate the stories of each personage, both real and created, Ciuraru has created a book that is not just a reference, but one that also details the evolution of writers’ conflicts with finding their places in the world of publishing.

Ciuraru builds each history as its own personal story, then builds the literary charm and genius behind the pathos, the desperate need or the business savvy for each individual case, creating a history of pseudonyms that becomes a tale of literary genius all its own.

Wallen is the author of the novel “MoonPies and Movie Stars.”