The name of a writer can affect their book's popularity. Photo: Getty
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What’s in a name? How a writer’s name can make or break the popularity of their work

A book’s popularity can depend on its author’s name – and the more memorable, the better. 

There are a number of prerequisites writers are usually told to acquire for their books or novels to grab people’s attention in a crowded marketplace – an eye-catching title, a good opening line. But perhaps another is something they have slightly less leeway with. I’m thinking of their name.

Of course, nobody is stuck with the name they are given at birth, and writers can get by without shedding theirs in real life –– readers over the world might love the books of W G Sebald but to his friends he was and always will be Max Sebald. Writers and many others have long taken pseudonyms to overcome what they might have perceived as social obstacles –– the Brontës and Georges Sand and Eliot taking on male monikers; Margarita Carmen Casino taking her mother’s maiden name to become Rita Hayworth and escape being typecast as a Latina; the Jewish movie stars who took on more “ethnically ambiguous” names such as Danny Kaye, Kirk Douglas or Tony Curtis.

Others simplified their names for the public in an adopted country – Józef Konrad Korzienowski to Joseph Conrad; Wilhelm Albert Vladimir Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky to Guillaume Apollinaire; Swedish director Viktor Sjöström produced his Hollywood work under the name Victor Seastrom. It has also become increasingly common for literary writers such as John Banville and Julian Barnes to write crime fiction under pseudonyms (an example that J K Rowling has followed in her new incarnation as Robert Galbraith), something many “career” crime writers have scorned.

The reasons for such changes are usually pragmatic, born of hard-nosed economic logic, but there is also a liberating potential for some writers to write under different guises – the various heteronyms of Brian Ó Nuallain (Flann O’Brien, Myles na Gopaleen, Brother Barnabas, George Knowall) all produced stylistically distinct work; Fernando Pessoa went so far as to conceive intricate biographies for his various alter egos (Bernardo Soares, Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caiero and Álvaro de Campos, among many others) as well as giving them recognisably different authorial voices.

By and large though, evidence would appear to show that most people prefer to publish, make films, produce art and so on under their own name. It might be a matter of pride or simply because it never occurs to them that they might change it to another. So what of those writers, actors and others who persist with their birth name, regardless of whether it might already be ‘taken’ (unlike David Bowie, for instance, who came to be known as such because he didn’t want to be mixed up with David Jones of The Monkees)? Do they get lost in the mix? In the past, it might have been an advantage to give yourself as “normal” a name as possible but today you might not really want to be one of those people whose name on Wikipedia appears next to the word “disambiguation”. 

Geoff Dyer is finding himself being shadowed, in a manner akin to Poe’s William Wilson, by another Geoff Dyer, the Financial Times’ Beijing bureau chief, whose books on contemporary China have no doubt snared a few unsuspecting buyers on Amazon. David Cloud Atlas Mitchell has, on at least one occasion, been represented in a broadsheet newspaper by a photo of David Peep Show Mitchell. Dyer and Mitchell are sufficiently successful not to have been damaged by the confusion. Still, circumstances can change. Who now remembers the American writer Winston Churchill – three years Sir Winston’s senior – who was one of the world’s best-selling novelists of the early twentieth century?

Personally, I have to admit I am guilty of neglecting writers on account of their names being just a little too ordinary. It took me a long time to get around to James Salter and George Saunders and I shamefully ignored the late Mavis Gallant’s work because her name, for some reason, conjured up the image of country parsonages and village fetes. It took best-selling John Green’s zany Flavorwire videos for me to pay attention to him because his name just blended into the background too much.

It’s one thing if you are getting a lot of press from the off – even then, if one is called Smith, it’s surely better to be a Zadie than a Jenny – but if you are relying, like most writers do, on word of mouth and exposure in bookshops and libraries, an ordinary name might not be the one you want. While China Miéville’s success is fully merited from a literary point of view, having a stand-out name has probably never harmed him either. A writer by the name of Peter Jones or Tom Jenkins is going to have a much harder time being remembered.

Still, that level of familiarity would be something that foreign-language writers trying to break into the English-speaking market would kill for. Selling writers in translation in English-speaking countries is often a slog so having a foreign-sounding name most likely puts one at a disadvantage, even if "Günther Grass", "Javier Marías" and "Andrei Makine" are all fairly humdrum names in those writers’ native lands.

There do exist people like me who tend to sit up and pay attention when the writer’s name is something foreign-sounding, and the stranger, longer, or shorter it is, the better. Having special diacritics like carons, tildes, umlauts or those strokes though the O that appear in Scandinavian languages wins extra marks. Judging by the sales of literature in translation though, people like myself are a small minority.

Personally, I have been blessed with a name that is, even in Ireland, rare enough but not too hard to pronounce. If anything, it is neither exotic enough to scare off the culturally conservative nor mundane enough to be confused with anyone else. But that’s not to say that I, or any other man writing books, will be forever safe from the perils of ‘nomenclatural discrimination’.

Male readers are known to be reluctant to read books by women. Female readers tend to be far less discriminating on the basis of an author’s gender. It is in the best interest of us male writers that female readers’ greater open-mindedness will hold, given they constitute the majority of readers of fiction. It wouldn’t do for a man to have to start disguising himself under a female pseudonym in order to sell books, would it?

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era