The Year of Living Pseudonymously

Of Mugger, Masher, Donna Johnson and . . . Calendar Boy

In choosing a name, you create a persona. For example, as Owen Ketherry, you might imagine yourself as an older gentleman with time-consuming habits like pipe smoking and fly fishing. And the name "Libby Gelman-Waxner," under which Paul Rudnick writes for Premiere, is a stereotype, but, according to one writer, "it tells you exactly who that person is—a wealthy Jew who married another wealthy Jew."

Don Hazen says pseudonymity "lets you change your personality, be loose, smart-alecky, flirt with being a jerk about things that tick you off or are silly." And readers like it, too. Marisa Bowe calls reading the sadistic writing in Suck "exciting, like a quasi-erotic masked ball. You don't know who's hitting you from where." She prefers not to know who's behind the mask, because "whatever you bring to the phrase 'Calendar Boy' makes it more vast and mysterious." When you find out, it's boring.

In literary magazines of the early 19th century, it was standard to publish criticism unsigned, with initials, or pseudonymously. Then as now, the device was used for self-aggrandizing attacks (disguised as George Eliot, a young woman published the essay "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists"). In those days, says one lover of pseudonyms, "writing under one's own name would have been considered the depths of vulgarity."

And since when is a "real" byline more trustworthy? For one thing, there are all those anonymous sources. Selective editing of quotes. Heavy rewrites. Indeed, a byline can function as a pseudonym for the editors, as when Talk completely retooled a story by Sahara guide Mark Ross. And a real name can be a pose, too. If "A.M. Rosenthal" sounds formidable, "By The New York Times" is downright monolithic.

In the end, a liar will lie under any byline. The problem is not pseudonyms, but people who abuse the power of the pen. All pseudonymists who are proud of their work come out sooner or later to take credit. And that's why I predict Calendar Boy will be dropping "his" mask any day now.

Cynthia Cotts will return next week.

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