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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism