Thursday, November 1, 2018

Talking Shop

re pseudonyms (cont’d)

One argument in favor of using a pseudonym is that life can get very weird when you become a public figure; even as minor a public figure as a published writer. There is a small but determined subset of the species who seem to believe that because they’ve read and liked something you’ve written, you’re their new best friend, and you would be just absolutely delighted if they were to phone you up at two in the morning to tell you that, or show up on your doorstep one day expecting to be invited in for tea and biscuits, or in one particularly memorable incident, to walk right into your house, in the delusional belief that you would be thrilled to see them and eager to drop everything and start talking about whichever story of yours it was they wanted to talk about.
[Luckily, that particular incident happened many years ago. I wouldn’t try it now. The current Mrs. Bethke is the daughter of a Marine Corps combat veteran who in subsequent civilian life became a career cop, and he taught his daughters to apply .357 Magnum first and ask questions later.]
The obverse argument for using a pseudonym is that when you write for publication, like it or not you by definition become a public figure, and forever after are subject to being held responsible for everything you’ve ever written, no matter how long ago you wrote it, how cranky, peevish, or puckish you were feeling on the day you wrote it, or how your thoughts on the subject might have changed or evolved in the years since. Every throwaway quip, every lightning-rod opinion put into the mouth of a character, every out-of-context quote from what you believed at the time to be private correspondence, and every misquote and paraphrase written by someone else writing about you has the potential to become grist for some easily triggered nitwit’s outrage mill.

In the decades since I began writing professionally it’s only gotten worse, as the Internet gives readers an unprecedented level of access to writers and nothing ever truly goes out of print and vanishes forever anymore. (Except the December 1999 issue of S!ren, which contains one of the few stories of mine I’d like to see again and don’t have a copy of, as a hard-disk crash ate the original file and I never received my contributor’s copies.) The irksome part of this is that you have little choice in it, other than the non-starter choice to shut up and not write at all, as you have no way of knowing now which throwaway line will in the future turn out to be an enormous lightning rod for some profoundly unhinged person, or which idea that it is perfectly acceptable to express now will in the future be found retroactively to be an unspeakable thoughtcrime. Even the most benign and amusing metaphorical expression might someday become exactly the right words to trigger some dolt in the Painfully Literal & Utterly Humorless Brigade—especially if those words suggest that you might not absolutely adore cats.

(And don’t even get me started on all the people who busy themselves ferreting out code words, dog whistles, and wrongthink hidden in the subtext. Honestly, there are days those people make me feel as if I’m back on the ranch with the Manson family, listening in as Charlie reveals all the secret messages buried in the lyrics of “Helter Skelter.”)


With those as arguments in favor of writing under a pseudonym, then, why do I continue to write under my own name? Well, that’s pretty simple. For one thing: for me, it’s too late. I’ve already got too much stuff out there to try to call any of it back now.

For another: over the course of the past 40 years I’ve observed that more often than not, writing under a pseudonym becomes a trap. Time after time I’ve watched writers who should know better succumb to the temptation to believe that using a pseudonym confers everlasting anonymity. From this, they make the leap to thinking that this anonymity gives them license to voice opinions they would never otherwise dream of expressing out loud.

The problem, though, is that unless you one day disappear without a trace, this anonymity is not everlasting and absolute. Sooner or later, someone will find out who you really are. On the day this happens, it won’t matter whether they’re doing it out of admiration or animus: they will feel as if they have a mandate from God Herself to “out” you, as far and wide as they can reach.  

And having been on the receiving end of such a thing, let me tell you: an outing is no picnic. the legendary “biker” story...


Jacob said...

I like privacy and would definitely use a pseudonym.

~brb said...

As the folks at the No Such Agency like to say, "Go ahead and imagine that you have privacy, if it makes you feel better."