The Year of Living Pseudonymously

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

Who on earth would turn down a byline in Vanity Fair's new Fanfair section? A playground for Spy grads, the section is littered with Spy-like epithets and asides. It boasts the vaguely British bylines of James Wolcott and A.M. Homes. But one byline is vaguest of all: A listings page appears under the dubious moniker "Calendar Boy."

A VF spokeswoman refused to identify Calendar Boy, which tells me he must be hiding something. Or perhaps the "writer" is a composite. But if "he" is one person, he appears to be a young, religious man with a naughty side, a Sharon Stone obsession, and a sarcastic streak. (After telling subscribers that this year they are all "invited to Graydon's super-swanky V.I.P. Oscar party in L.A.," he snaps, "Yeah, right. Like he'd even eat at the same restaurant as you.")

Maybe Calendar Boy is a cousin of "Josh Freelantzovitz," who until recently wrote a monthly "diary" for VF. Josh was obviously an editorial creation, a caricature of a jerk who passed his days pestering Norman Pearlstine and Steve Brill with stupid ideas. The genre of the gossipy pseudocolumnist was perfected at Spy in the 1980s, when it sicced "J.J. Hunsecker" on The New York Times and "Celia Brady" on detested Hollywood agents and producers.

Now, the pseudocolumnists are everywhere. The Globe and Mail has "Tertius" and Fortune has "Stanley Bing" (in real life, a top CBS flack). The New York Press has "Mugger," who eventually outed himself as Russ Smith, then proceeded to out his nemesis, the "Masher" (Don Hazen of Alternet). Rick Barrs is New Times's "The Finger."

Pseudonyms flourish in the ironic domain and, increasingly, on the Web. Most Suck writers choose to write under an alias, and Dave Eggers doubles as "Lucy Thomas" for McSweeney's. It's no surprise to see so many noms de screen, because the Web is all about games of persona. Hence, Jake Tapper wrote for Suck as "James Bong," and "Donna Johnson" told Nerve readers how she used a dildo on her boyfriend.

Why hide behind a mask? Above all, to get attention. Whether or not Joe Klein deliberately tried to hype Primary Colors by signing it Anonymous, it helped sell the book. That kind of stunt doubles the publicity, encouraging postpublication stories that speculate about the byline, reveal the truth, and weigh in on the outrage of it all.

Ideally, a pseudonym lets you frankly recount an experience that's unique. This first-person genre dominates Web sites like Nerve and Word, and according to Word editor Marisa Bowe, "only a small handful of people ask us to change their names to fake ones." Nerve editor Jack Murnighan points out, "Sometimes pseudonyms allow people to be honest where they wouldn't otherwise; other times, the reverse."

You might change your name to tell a story without giving up your day job. Supposedly that's why police officer Edward Conlon writes for The New Yorker under the name "Marcus Laffey." (He got a book deal, too.) This week, Washington City Paper is publishing an anonymous tale by a local nurse. Editor David Carr says he performed "due diligence" to confirm her identity, "but many people will still think it's bullshit because there's no name on it."

Some noms de plume are used to duck confrontation. Starting in the 1980s, The New Yorker began responding to readers' letters under the name "Owen Ketherry," supposedly because the responses were the product of many editors. But one insider says the pseudonym was used for fun and for cover: "In a job like that, you don't want to get stalked." Pseudonyms can also be used to spread gossip without taking the heat. In 1988, Spy's Celia Brady was dishing so much dirt on Hollywood that a powerful agent was rumored to have put a detective on her trail.

It's a good idea to use an alias if your contract prohibits you from publishing somewhere else. Thus, a Condé Nast writer might try to use a fake name in Talk, or vice versa. If Entertainment Weekly's Andrew Essex had used a pseudonym to publish in The New Yorker, he might not have gotten fired for contract violation last year.

One of the biggest pseudoscams involved "Robert X. Cringely," a tech columnist for InfoWorld. Initially, Cringely was the creation of editors who put the name on their masthead for fun. Then they asked "Stanford professor" Mark Stephens to write a column as Cringely. By the time it came out that Stephens's Stanford credentials were bogus, it didn't matter any more. He had already landed a book and a PBS deal.

The first step to becoming a star pseudonymist is choosing the right name. Many are derived from the classics: J.J. Hunsecker debuted as the Burt Lancaster character in Sweet Smell of Success, while Suck's "Holly Martins" alludes to the Joseph Cotten character in The Third Man. (In real life, Martins is Newsday's Chris Lehmann.) Anglo-Saxon names can be reassuring. For example, some readers assumed Owen Ketherry was Welsh, only to learn the name is an anagram of The New Yorker.

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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