Editors view : Where does a pen-name end and a lie begin?

Department of dubious pleasures signI write under a pen-name, when I started writing erotica it was as a way to explore and have fun, “Ruby” was a sharpened version of one side of me. I’ve written about what my erotica pen-name means to me here, today I want to explore the notion of trust between writer and reader, not on the page of their fiction but in the marketing space between them.

As I wrote more and built a network of friends on social media, readers and eventually, found a publisher the pen-name grew in some ways to be a mini-brand name for all these different people to relate to. I am deliberately using the language of commerce to reflect that what began as a private decision evolved into a considered commercial decision.

At first I also used a pen-name as a way to protect my other professional identity as much as to have an outlet that need not be censored by the world’s view of women and their sexuality – if you set up a social media account that stands squarely in the world of sex then one has to trust that readers are smart enough to know what they are getting.

Over the years I’ve knocked down the distinction between the erotica pen-name and the rest of my online identity, I decided early on that I would not attempt to be anonymous, partly due to laziness and partly because I feel strongly that in talking openly, if not necessarily explicitly, about sex then I’m gently pushing the boundaries of how sex and sexuality is talked and thought about.

I believe that trust is an important currency in the commerce of reading; especially in a world where the social media marketing allows writer and reader to engage directly. Especially when writing about sex – where there are so many doubts, fears and judgements passed on writers and readers.

Have I lied to you by using a pen-name? No. I’ve chosen an alternative dressing for my identity.

Would I lie to you? My fiction is just that – fiction. My social media persona is me. I might not tell you all my truths and I might add some gloss or spin, tweak an experience to expose the kernel of truth I want you to see. But mostly it is me.

The important thing is that you know that my writing is fiction, we understand each other. I write stories and you read them.

What if I pretended to be someone else?

What if I created a false persona – someone that had a different life to mine, a life that I fleshed out with experiences that I offered up as truths in my back story, truths that you identified with, truths that you trusted? Or more to the point lies that you identified with, lies that you trusted.

Why would I do this – perhaps because I thought that this is the way to sell books. To create a persona that I think you want.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter – perhaps when I talk about sex and writing and the challenges I face, does it matter if these too are fiction?

I think it does. For me there is a huge difference between taking a pen-name to protect an identity or to be taken seriously by a publishing house or readership and creating and perpetuating a false identity to deliberately hoodwink your readers. But where does the balance tip?

For me it tips when someone actively pursues that false identity without acknowledging that they are playing a character – the transaction between the reader and writer is broken, with only the writer knowing that they are involved in a fiction.

In erotica and romance, genres where women have, traditionally, occupied most space it is especially affronting that men are being advised to take on women’s names and identities to sell their books. I’ve spoken to gentlemen who have been advised that they won’t get published unless they do this. Aside from this being utter bollocks and condescending to the writer and the reader, I also find it dismaying that the space where women have led is being co-opted by men. When for centuries women have had to submerse their identities to get published or taken seriously to have our identities and voice appropriated by men is for me, not okay.

Even more so when the men decide to create identities based on the tired sexist tropes, and choose images that play to a narrow heterosexual, stereotype of sexual attraction – youth, slim, childless, wild unending appetites that are met with no problems and no consequences. Please.  Even when I was young, slim and childless my sexual adventures were not glamorous, unproblematic and without consequences. They were sticky, funny, messy, awkward and sometimes sad, stupid and misguided. People and feelings got hurt. None of us arrived in our twenties with a fully formed sexual lexicon. In choosing a persona that plays to an out-dated formula they are narrowing the available space for the voices working to show diversity in their writing. Where we strive for diversity to strengthen the truths our fictions reveal and the safe places they create for our readers; spaces where they find people like themselves reflected back, others trample that with model good looks skimmed from a quick Google image search.

What’s the worst that could happen if you present an authentic persona to your readers? I know a gentleman that after several conversations with different writers at Eroticon 2014 changed their writer persona to match who they really were. Not only do they now have an authentic voice they also have the trust and respect of their peers.

But perhaps it doesn’t matter as much to others as it does to me?  Perhaps all that matters is that someone writes a book and someone buys it and the name on the jacket means nothing at all? Perhaps, but when the fiction moves from inside the page to asking your readers to relate to a made-up person, when they trust you with their confidences, I think it does matter.

If I talk with someone I trust that they are who they say they are, and that even if the name is a fiction that the experience of life that they show me is authentic; because sometimes all we have for truth is words – just as these are all we have for our fictions.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts – do you care that a writer creates a totally fictitious person to sell their books?

Author: Ruby Kiddell

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5 Comments

  1. I personally don’t write much erotica (and certainly nothing I’ve ever submitted for publication – there’s a bit on my blog, though), but I do use a pen name for all my sex-related online dealings, along with attending events and going places. It’s not really a name so much as a description of my personality – “Innocent Loverboy” – but I would find it very difficult to use any other name, even for something such as writing erotica. I have come up with a few, but am finding it hard to apply to myself (although naming characters is relatively easy by comparison!).

    In terms of writers, using a different name can be beneficial for things as closely-related as erotica and erotic romance – KD Grace and Grace Marshall spring to mind – or fantasy and crime (JKR spoke openly about feeling very liberated when writing as Robert Galbraith, as she didn’t feel the pressure). There can be many reasons for using an alternate name (or even alternate alternate names, if your “primary pen name” is in itself a pseudonym), and in my humble opinion, I don’t think it really matters too much what the name on the story is, as long as you’re enjoying what you’re reading!

    This issue becomes a lot woolier when the author is inventing an entirely new person and pretending to be them – not in order to maintain anonymity but to persuade people that you are a real person with a complicated, often difficult or traumatic, backstory to gain sympathy (or readership) – a blog that was well-read a few years back, allegedly written by “Alexa” (a call girl with ‘stories to tell’), was found out to be completely fabricated and written by a man; more recently, two fairly well-read blogs were deleted completely after one was found to contain fake pictures and rumours began to circulate that they were the same person – that sort of thing.

    I’m not going to go so far as to claim that pretending to be someone you aren’t is a crime – actors do it as a job – but to do it in order to gain more money, attention, fame, etc. is slightly despicable, although it does depend how far you take it and if you are willing to admit that it’s a pseudonym (or fake identity) from the start that’s not a problem. But as you say in the article, there’s a balance between writing fictional characters and being a fictional character, and it can be a fine line to toe.

    TL;DR? I have no problem with people using a different identity in order to write stuff that I enjoy reading – but if it’s appropriated to trick the reader into thinking more about the author than the text they’re meant to be providing, that shouldn’t be the point of the whole thing.

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    • The example of Alexa of The Real Princess Diaries is a good example of using a persona to deliberately gain status and of a persona that created and exploited the trust placed in it. A writer creating a persona is perhaps seeking to do no more than use a devise to sell more books, once people start placing trust and sharing confidences based on the fiction of the persona, well that’s where I have a problem with it.

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  2. Ruby,

    I think this is brilliant – I completely agree with the difference between using a pen name for anonymity and the creation of an identity that doesn’t align with reality.

    I have seen it happen on blogs where a person is creating an absolute false sense of who they are for their readers, without stating that their persona is fantasty. This has always bothered me (I wrote a post about it which you can read here: http://wp.me/p3SI98-z8) but you have helped me understand why.

    Thanks for this!

    Ann (my pseudonym)

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  3. I prefer a pen name because I don’t want to be judged on just the contents I write for the adult site. Meeting people face to face and having them expect me to be just as I am on the site is weird to say the least.

    People get confused about who I am because nice girls don’t actually like BDSM, especially should a nice girl Dom. A woman can’t possibly be nice if she likes to be in charge.

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  4. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Give a man a mask and he will show his true face.”

    Which is kind of ironic, given we write about intimacy, happy to describe our characters revealing themselves, yet some of us are so reluctant to reveal ourselves.

    But that’s OK. Masks enable us to behave differently, that’s why the word masquerade has come to mean to frolic in disguise. So why shouldn’t we take advantage of a nom de plume to express a side of ourselves we usually keep so concealed, without self-censorship, shyness or inhibitions.

    Jung called it your Shadow, the secrets and thoughts we decide to keep to ourselves. It exists because we are social creatures, and society functions because we have masks to wear and roles to play. As we grow up we learn to be discreet, deciding what side of ourselves to present in public, our culture might unravel if everyone was suddenly completely candid with each other! So there’s nothing wrong with separating your public persona from your private one – and then expressing your most cherished desires through the magic of words.

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