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14 May 2014updated 27 Sep 2015 3:54am

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. 

By oliver farry

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”. 

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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?