A Question of Identity
Happy new year! The kooks who made stuff up about the Mayans were wrong, the world didn’t end, and we have now rolled into 2013. I for one am happy that 2012 is over, since it was in many ways a tough year for my family, and I am looking forward to a far better 2013.
One of the developments I face in 2013 is the fact that I’ll be publishing a weekly column/blog over at Amazing Stories. With that, comes the necessity of choosing the name under which those posts will be published. Identity has always been a fraught choice for writers: whether they adopted a pen name to appeal to their audience’s higher ideals (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay writing as Publius), to prevent confusion (Winston Churchill writing as Winston S. Churchill), to increase the prospective audience of their works (Alice Sheldon writing as James Tiptree, Jr.), or to keep different facets of their life compartmentalized (Charles Dodgson writing as Lewis Carroll), each of us who picks a pen name does so for personal, often idiosyncratic reasons.
The Modern Identity Crisis
We have our professional lives, the part of our day when most of us put on respectable clothes, harden our professional smiles, and step out of our doors to interact with the world within the boundaries of our chosen profession. Then we come home, shut the door, turn the lock, put on our fluffy slippers, and reveal our private, personal selves.
We perform our daily life, both in our public roles and in private. If you think this is duplicitous, then I’m sorry, but would you go to a job interview dressed in your PJs? Of course not. We are part of a society, and that society accepts certain behaviors in certain contexts and condemns others. For most of us, our private, personal passions are reserved for exactly that: for the private spheres of our lives, to be shared with those closest to us.
The more roles we play – husband, father, friend, child, boss, volunteer, employee – the more varied our presentation. That’s only natural, only human. But today, identity has become a difficult, mutable beast. Where twenty years ago, we could leave work at the office and have our private passions at home, now social media and the 24/7 work culture has eroded those once-firm borders. The compartmentalization we all take for granted, that we all rely on, has become fluid.
Navigating these waters can be exhausting. And when a personal passion begins to shade into a professional presentation (like when, oh, I don’t know, one starts getting one’s personal, passion-driven work published) the way in which we construct our identity begins to have consequences.
Who Am I?
When I first started writing about speculative fiction, I chose to do so semi-anonymously. I didn’t reveal my full name, and instead just opted to go by my first name of Chris. As I wrote in my first post here, I did this to keep my day job separate from my writing. My professional career, and the circles I move in to maintain and develop that career, would neither understand nor accept my creative passions. People would – out of ignorance or small-mindedness – question my professionalism, my maturity, my seriousness. Never mind that I’ve been building multinational businesses since my late teens. Too many people have difficulty accepting that many of us are complex creatures, built of myriad and wonderful parts.
This fact is tragic and painful.
But it remains a fact, and one which must be faced. I could choose to say screw it, and to wear my love of speculative fiction proudly. At this point in my professional career, and with my creative work now starting to show up in more places, I am tempted to do exactly that. But before I start publishing my work (non-fiction or fiction) under my real name, there is another factor to consider: the commercial implications of that name.
Supposedly, when Harry Turtledove first started publishing novels, his publisher told him that no one would believe a name like Turtledove (despite the fact that it is his real name). He initially adopted the pen name Turtletaub as a result.
When Jo Rowling published the first Harry Potter book, her publisher in the UK demanded that she merely use two initials to better appeal to middle-grade boys.
When Julie Woodcock publishes her romance novels, she does so under the name Angela Knight because otherwise the double entendre of her surname might harm her sales.
Pearl Zane Gray chose to publish his classic westerns as “Zane Grey” because many of his readers wouldn’t have bought a western written by a man named Pearl.
The quality of our work, the genres we publish in, and the names we publish under are the brand we develop as writers. Yes, that sounds marketing-ese, but it remains true. And in today’s writing world, we have to shoulder so much of the burden of our own marketing, our own publicity, that if we want to actually write professionally, I think it behooves us to think strategically about how we do so.
My full name is a fine name. It’s a long, Polish name, with all of the consonants, syllables and difficulties that comes with it. My mother, who came to this country as an adult in the late ’60s, insists that if she had to learn to pronounce “Smith” then everyone else should learn how to pronounce “Modzelewski”. I think she has a point.
But as a writer hoping to build a name for myself, and as a writer hoping to one day sell books, I need to consider more than just the Honor of the Family Name (for the record, I think that would be a great mainstream literary title). Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself:
How will a difficult-to-pronounce name affect word-of-mouth recommendations? How will a hard-to-spell name affect search-driven sales on Amazon? How will a tough name affect the likelihood of bloggers and online reviewers writing up my books? Will a tough name diminish booksellers’ propensity to hand-sell my titles? Will signing my super-long name on stock give me carpal tunnel syndrome?
A difficult name is not, of course, a deal-breaker for any of these concerns. An editor friend once laughed and told me “We know how to deal with those kinds of issues.” That is no doubt true, and of course these are all absolutely manageable. But there’s a way to forestall any and all of these concerns, and that is to adopt a pen name.
That’s why, to ring in the new year, I’ve decided to drop my half-maintained veneer of anonymity. Instead, I’m going to actively try to promote and develop a new identity for myself. It might be a silly strategic choice on my part, and maybe in the future it might change, but for the time being I’ve chosen to write under the name Chris Gerwel (That’s my first and middle name, in case anyone was wondering. Gerwel is my late grandfather’s name, and I’m sure my mom’ll be thrilled that I’m using it.).
The way I see it, the name is shorter and easier to spell than my “proper” surname. It remains a little unusual, which hopefully helps make it memorable. And it won’t get confused with my professional day-job world, letting me maintain – at least to some degree – a little compartmentalization between the spheres of my life.
Others might have made a different choice, and I might yet reconsider this one (I expect that either an agent or an editor might want to weigh in on such matters at some point). But as I wrap up a difficult 2012, I’m looking forward to starting 2013 with a name.
With that, I am off to celebrate the holiday with my family. Happy New Year, everybody! May your 2013 be better than all the years that came before.