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On writers, pseudonyms and entertainment

I realize that it’s been a little while since I’ve posted. Or longer than a little; I lost two months of working time and have been playing frenzied catch-up ever since because I am foolish and never build “oh crap” time into my work schedule.

But. Something a fellow writer said poked small needles into the back of my brain, and as I need my brain to focus on the very end of this book-that-will-not-end, I decided that I would make a small post. This author writes under two names, and having read some of either name, I think it’s a smart choice, because they are very different types of books.

Full disclosure, in case anyone who actually reads this is not aware: I write under two names. The biggest reason for doing so, for me, was reader expectation. I considered the two books to be different enough in tone and texture that I wasn’t certain people who liked one set would also enjoy the other.

I’m not embarrassed by either set of books. I am happy to own them both. I am happy to write them both. But I don’t expect they will necessarily have the same audience which is why I use different author names for either.

Authors sometimes want to write different things. To write, for instance, horror (no, that would not be me, it’s just an example), or SF, or Middle Grade fantasy, or, or, or. This is, in part, because they enjoy reading many of those things. They want to write epics, they want to write contemporaries, they want to sometimes have fun and let their hair down and be over-the-top silly.

I have been really happy with this arrangement. My readers have been great. I have had people tell me they don’t care for one or the other series, but they’ve been polite; they expressed their personal preference without general invective at my choice to write both; they don’t buy the books they don’t care for, but they don’t give up on my writing as a whole because they don’t know, from book to book, if it will engage them.

Did I digress? Sort of.

Let me go back to this Other Author. Other Author has written two relatively successful series of books. Under--yes!--different names. The author name, regardless of whether it’s hidden or not--it’s not in this case--is meant to be a bit of an indicator, IMHO. (It’s a humble opinion because I can’t divorce intent from effect. I know that as a reader, I would assume a difference in tone and text from two books with different author bylines; I don’t know for certain that I would expect that if I weren’t also a writer. So, humble. Humble opinion.)

Other Author is notified by angry reader(s) of one pseudonym that Reader is unhappy (angry, disgusted) at the garbage (trash, paranormal junk) that she is writing under a totally different name.

I have two objections to this.

The first is obvious: She wrote them under two different names. They are not connected textually in any way. The packaging for each name is totally different, and the despised book in question does not promise to be anything it is not; the look, the blurbing, the cover quotes--everything makes it entirely clear. If you are upset that what you are reading is exactly what it is packaged to be, this is a new twist on resentment of publisher packaging; most readers are angered when the book purports to be something it’s not.

The second objection is actually the longer one. Possibly a more subtle one. For a Michelle variant of the word subtle.

So here we go: What is the writer’s crime, here? The writer has used a totally different name, the book is published by a different publisher.

The writer’s crime is disappointing the reader by writing garbage. Fluff. Something fun (for a variant of fun that’s got a lot of punch, but still). Something that entertains a large number of people who want to read something that is - yes! - entertainment that doesn’t demand brain cells at the end of a long damn day.

Now, it’s possible that the readers who are castigating the author also castigate people for, oh, watching almost any television, because frankly, most of it is under-structured and aimed at the viscera. It’s possible that the readers are sneering at their friends for going to see blockbuster movies with no plot logic but incredible special effects. And of course those readers would probably never ever watch any of those things, because - hey, trashy, fluffy entertainment.

But, you know, I kinda doubt it.

Why is it that writers are expected to be consistently grim and serious? Why, if they offer a work that is textually multi-layered and complex, are they expected to always approach their novels in the same way?

Or, flip it, why are they expected to be consistently fluffy & fast brain-candy? Why are they expected to do only one thing, when as readers, as consumers, none of us adhere to only one type of entertainment?

Why is that that some of the writers who are taken so very seriously in this field can, in fact, go on and on about the other media that entertains them - (some) comics, blockbusters, etc., etc., - and have these other forms of pure, fluffy entertainment be lauded or at least quietly accepted, while writing or reading anything that is purely fun and fluff is somehow a personal betrayal and an act of selling out?

Yes, I understand that if Neal Stephenson decided to write a 2000 page paranormal romance, this would upset his readers. I get that. If I pick up a book with the name Neal Stephenson on it, then one, I will have a hernia if I have to carry it around and two, I have some idea of tone, voice and structure. But if Neal Stephenson decides to write a normal paranormal romance under an entirely different name? No.

I understand disappointment if the writer is doing both of these wildly divergent things under the same pen name. I get that. But writers are people too, and they have as wide a breadth of things that entertain them as any other reader/consumer. If they are taking pains to make clear which style of writing you can expect from the book in your hands (and honestly, I consider the author name on the cover to be a really good indicator), just read the books you like and skip the ones you don’t care for.


( 51 comments — Leave a comment )
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Feb. 10th, 2012 07:05 am (UTC)
I suppose it's a similar thing to seeing a much-respected professor, doctor or other professional at the beach, in a bikini, with a cocktail. You ahve a particular impression and set of expectations based on the first context, and if you are nto terribly flexible of outlook, it's a challenge to your worldview to see someone out of context. Like the point where kids realize that their parents are people and have problems, anxieties, sex lives...

I had a real disconnect with someone I dealt with in a professional capacity (and this one is terribly silly). Based on her voice and phone manner, I had a picture of her in my head. I never could reconcile the picture her voice evoked with her actual appearance. Not sure why, but they were totally disparate for me. Now, if she was talking, it all aligned, but I couldn't recognize her until she spoke, no matter how many times (really only a few) we met in person.
Feb. 10th, 2012 07:07 am (UTC)
Which is nto in any way meant to justify the criticism, just illustrating that I cna sort of understand that sort of expectation and disconnect. Maybe like finding out that JRR Tolkien wrote soft porn (not that I know of, just a made-up example!).
Feb. 10th, 2012 07:06 am (UTC)
The one objection I can see to a writer writing (under a different name) That Stuff I Don't Like is that it's somehow taking away time that would otherwise be spent writing That Stuff I Do Like.

However, I don't accept that objection, for reasons including the following:
1. GRRM INYB, or in other words "authors don't owe readers books on a schedule".
2. What if it's the gear-shifting to the other series that makes it possible for That Stuff I Do Like to be as good as it is?
Feb. 10th, 2012 08:39 pm (UTC)
I immediately thought of GRRM INYB, too.
Feb. 10th, 2012 07:22 am (UTC)
Under what pen name do you write your trashy fluffy?
Feb. 10th, 2012 10:53 pm (UTC)
Under what pen name do you write your trashy fluffy?

According to some readers, both...

And yes, when I (finally) see you in real life again, there will be very mild violence :D
(no subject) - trektone - Feb. 11th, 2012 09:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 10th, 2012 10:07 am (UTC)
Yes, I understand that if Neal Stephenson decided to write a 2000 page paranormal romance, this would upset his readers.

Actually, I'd read that like a shot.
Feb. 10th, 2012 10:10 am (UTC)
Yes, me too.
(no subject) - salanth - Feb. 10th, 2012 10:15 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - icedrake - Feb. 10th, 2012 05:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - desperance - Feb. 11th, 2012 08:32 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lnhammer - Feb. 10th, 2012 05:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Feb. 10th, 2012 10:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - leahbobet - Feb. 10th, 2012 07:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Feb. 10th, 2012 11:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - leahbobet - Feb. 11th, 2012 05:18 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - desperance - Feb. 11th, 2012 08:54 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - leahbobet - Feb. 12th, 2012 03:35 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Feb. 10th, 2012 10:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 10th, 2012 10:10 am (UTC)
I've never really been able to get my head around that kind of reader entitlement behaviour -- it's as if there is some kind of disconnect in their heads between the books and the writer, and somehow if the writer goes 'wrong', their enjoyment of the books is threatened. I can see how that might be effective if you found out a much-loved writer was, say, a serial rapist or a paedophile. That could be very conflicting for all sorts of reasons. But a writer writing something you dislike? That suggests an almost childlike attitude, where the author is a kind of parent-figure who is only supposed to nurture.
I'd been thinking about you: I hope the lost two months are not down to anything too traumatic, distressing or painful for you and yours.
Feb. 10th, 2012 11:01 pm (UTC)
I'd been thinking about you: I hope the lost two months are not down to anything too traumatic, distressing or painful for you and yours.

I think at the moment, the most traumatic thing about it is I feel so desperately far behind, but we are all well at the moment :)
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Feb. 11th, 2012 10:56 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - desperance - Feb. 11th, 2012 08:59 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Feb. 11th, 2012 10:59 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - desperance - Feb. 11th, 2012 01:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Feb. 11th, 2012 03:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 10th, 2012 12:29 pm (UTC)
I'm just sitting here boggled at the idea of bitching out an author for writing something I don't want to read. The obvious response is, "Enough other people approve of that series that my publisher keeps buying the books, so you're outvoted."
Feb. 10th, 2012 11:02 pm (UTC)
That’s how I felt when I heard about it. Maybe because I write fantasy under both names, I’ve never suffered that reaction from readers. (Thank god).
Feb. 10th, 2012 12:46 pm (UTC)
Welcome back, Michelle!

You'd think that the different pseudonyms would be a little indicator that the books are going to be different, but I guess some people don't get the hint. Perhaps they expect people to write the same thing, in the same style, all the time. Some people don't like change, after all.
Feb. 10th, 2012 01:21 pm (UTC)
Some authors write different types of books under the same name. If they can pull it off, great! And if I don't like something, that's my problem, not the author's.
Feb. 10th, 2012 01:35 pm (UTC)
The whole notion that one can't write different sorts of things under the same name baffles me, admittedly. asked entirely on the readers I've interacted with (fewer than either you or the author in question do), who seem to be smart sorts who can tell from the packaging of a book that some of an author's works are not like others, and choose accordingly, and make the choice whether or not to cross among genres just fine. Resulting in a few extra crossover readers I'd not have had otherwise, while the rest go about their business unperturbed. I do this myself, when I read, too.

I wonder what percentage of reader really want their authors to only write one thing ever, as opposed to clearly signaling the different things. Some, clearly, but are there enough of them that serving them matters more than gaining potential crossover readers. I don't honestly know, but I wonder if anyone is sure, or if there's some received wisdom gong on here.
Feb. 10th, 2012 03:12 pm (UTC)
Adding to the author can write what they want under whatever name and it's good. In fact, when I started reading your "West" books, I had no clue you also published under "Sagara" as well. When I found out I didn't have a fit or anything, I just did as you said and figured there was a reason behind the different names and I'd eventually pick up the other series if I felt it interested me.

Having authors write books that fall into different genres under the same name is kind of interesting as well because it can open a reader up to the new genre type as well. I ran into this when I was in a used bookstore and found Darwin's Blade (I think that's the title) by Dan Simmons. I'd read the Hyperion series and had no clue he wrote suspense as well, but I certainly wasn't about to get upset about that. Hey! New book to read!

Personally, that last sentiment is the most important to me personally. Anything which gives me an excuse to read more books is always a good thing. Author wrote books under differentname? New books! Author wrote other genre of books under samename? New books! You can never have too many books to read, just ones waiting in the wings.
Feb. 10th, 2012 11:06 pm (UTC)
Having authors write books that fall into different genres under the same name is kind of interesting as well because it can open a reader up to the new genre type as well. I ran into this when I was in a used bookstore and found Darwin's Blade (I think that's the title) by Dan Simmons.

This is a good argument for using the same name, no matter what you write. I tend to err on the side of reader expectation as filtered through me own sense of the work (which is admittedly never going to be objective), but I could see writing space opera under the Sagara name, or SF, under the West.

I guess it’s not so much about genre as tone, to me.
Feb. 10th, 2012 05:31 pm (UTC)
I'm honestly surprised that more authors don't pull a Barry Hughart and just kind of go "Fine, I'll just piss off then, and go do something less stressful than writing." - as someone else mentioned, this level of reader entitlement is just mind-boggling.

Personally, I don't even think the author's name really gives the reader any entitlement regarding the type of story. I mean, I appreciate the courtesy, but I'm fine without it. But that's probably just a product of my early reading habits, before this crazy level of genre balkanization came along. I just have trouble picturing someone writing to say, Lois Bujold and being angry that she wrote another Miles book instead of a Chalion book - I mean, I'm sure it happens, but how on earth can I take that seriously?

The one thing that can potentially be irritating is when an author shifts style/content mid-series - that usually doesn't go very well. But I understand that sometimes an author doesn't have total control over the story that they need to tell, so it's not something that going to make me outright angry (usually). And it's still far preferable to seeing an author flog a dead horse of a series along, long after they've obviously grown to hate every word that they put out :p

Anyway, back to the point - readers can take their entitlement complexes and stick 'em where the sun don't shine :p
Feb. 10th, 2012 11:12 pm (UTC)
I just have trouble picturing someone writing to say, Lois Bujold and being angry that she wrote another Miles book instead of a Chalion book - I mean, I'm sure it happens, but how on earth can I take that seriously?

I would bet money that it did happen - but in the other direction. There’s more friction if you switch genres. In my case, I write fantasy under either name. I did hear a lot of comments about this when the first CHALION novel was published - but that was in the bookstore, and talking about books with your bookseller is not the same as writing a sub-civil missive to the author.

I did hear a lot of “I wish she would stop these and go back to Miles”, but that never irritated me; it was expression of preference. If someone had said, “How dare she write this garbage?” I would probably have been a little chilly in response.
Feb. 10th, 2012 06:00 pm (UTC)
I'm in two minds about the two names
First: I quite agree that a reader complaining to the author about the kind of books s/he writes is out of line - the reader is not entitled to a guarantee that every book by a writer will be the same, like a mass-produced factory item.

That said, I'm in two minds about the practice described here, of denoting a different style of books by a change in the author's name.

On the one hand, there is the question of whether this makes a clear difference for a not-clued-in reader.
The way you do it, with Michelle West, Michelle Sagara, and Michelle Sagara West, the names are (to me) noticeably different, but once 'in the know' quite recognizable. They are also shelved in a different spot.

But, when I found out you were the same person under all these names, I never thought it had anything to do with the kind of book: I just thought you had gotten married in the meantime, or divorced or something like that, and American naming conventions for married women are quite unfathomable to me... and in future I never noticed the exact name on the cover, just: "it's something new by that author whose books I love: buy it!"

I've also seen someone attempt this by using an initial for one type of book, and the written-out first name for the other: J.S. Fancher = SF, but Jane S. Fancher = fantasy, and J. Fancher = non-standard vampire-story. I never noticed that difference, until the author mentioned it on her blog.
This difference is too slight too clue in every reader (her fantasy was still quite close to SF anyway). The only result is, that as ebooks they are automatically put in different author-folders, so I don't get all this author's books at one glance, but felt that my e-reader had a rather muddled way of shelving my books.

On the other hand, if the author's multiple names are different enough to be clear at a glance, this can mean that as a reader I can miss some books I'd really like.
Sagara and West are shelves apart in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, and from knowing the one it took me a while to discover the other (only through the Internet did I find out that those were the same person).
I love the way you write, your voice, the layers and the emotional depth you bring to your characters; so I love that writing whether it's the multi-character long epic or the single-viewpoint more self-contained books.

And sometimes, with writers whose voice I like, and who write in different genres, this has tempted me to try something new - and sometimes added a whole new sort of books to enjoy to my reading list.
Sometimes, it turns out that I don't like their voice in that other genre enough to keep reading those books (or I'll dislike the genre enough that no-one can entice me to try it, however much I like their writing). But that's no man overboard: one can often borrow the book from the library before deciding to buy, if you find a certain author's books aren't always to your taste.

So, if authors use pen-names that are different enough that readers don't recognise them as the same writer, that might mean the readers won't take this chance to try out another kind of book, and maybe miss out on something they'd love (and that generates income for the author).

This means that both different pen-names that are too similar, and pen-names that are too different to be recognizable, have drawbacks, at least in my view.

So why use the author's name to mark the difference in genre or type of book?
I'd think that clearly marking the kind of book on the cover, in the blurb, as well as in the kind of cover-image, would be a much clearer and better way to differentiate.

As an aside: cover images on both sides of the Atlantic are often in very different styles, so just using the image to convey 'what kind of story this is' doesn't always work really well for me, at least not for complex stories with some depth (the all-too-similar paranormal romance and Harlequin-romance types are recognisable as such).

Feb. 11th, 2012 12:01 am (UTC)
Re: I'm in two minds about the two names
So why use the author's name to mark the difference in genre or type of book?
I'd think that clearly marking the kind of book on the cover, in the blurb, as well as in the kind of cover-image, would be a much clearer and better way to differentiate.

Authors don’t have control over the cover image, or the blurbs used (unless the book is self-published, but in my case and in the case of the other author, they’re not).

They submit the novel to the publisher, and the publisher chooses how to market the book - which means, they’ll make the choice of cover art, type, useful blurbs. The sales force will look at it, say “OK, Urban Fantasy”, and that’s how it will be presented to the stores.

And yes - the covers that are effective in the UK vs the US are often very different, because the markets are different.

Hrmmm. I guess for me, the deciding factor was that I didn’t want West readers to pick up the Sagara book and read it waiting for the political complexity, the differing viewpoints, and the opening up of several plot arcs.

I didn’t want the Sagara readers picking up The Broken Crown and expect the more UF single viewpoint with a much more self-contained story.

I think it’s the expectations - people have them when they approach a book by an author they know. I have them. I don’t expect the same book over and over again, but there’s something I want from the gestalt.

So...I went with different names. I could write different series/books as Sagara or West; I don’t think that readers expect the same *story* over and over again. But there are some stories that I think would work for readers who like the Sagara novels, and some for the West.

Having said that, there are a number of people who like both, but it is definitely not 100% in either direction, or close; I would guess max 50%, but I’m leaning toward 30%.
Re: I'm in two minds about the two names - (Anonymous) - Feb. 16th, 2012 07:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 11th, 2012 12:41 am (UTC)
Sorta Off Subject......
.... I've never cared what name you write under for one simple fact.

I actually enjoy the offerings under both names. I was slightly off on the House Wars books, however, this last one has rekindled my absolute joy (and lack of sleep, given I did a marathon to finish it off).

In fact, I only have one complaint! Given all my books are across three states and some are out of print... why does the Elantra books have all the e-love? *ahem* Not that I want to go a week without sleep or work just to start a series over from the beginning.. no..not at all..

But back to two names and such - there's a couple of my favorite writers who do this - and, yeah. Different storylines and tones and subject matters are to be accepted. And usually? Enjoyed all the more.
Feb. 15th, 2012 07:22 pm (UTC)
Re: Sorta Off Subject......
re: ebooks

I would not be surprised if the reason is that LUNA is a Harlequin imprint and they were one of the first regular publishers who actively jumped on the ebook bandwagon right away - not to mention that the Elantra series is simply much younger than the Essalieyan books.

I bet DAW just has so many books of the last few years that they still have the rights for which they want to transfer into ebooks, that it simply takes time. If I understand it correctly the DAW team is a fairly small one. Those books are most likely stuck in the conversion and proof-reading pipeline.
Feb. 11th, 2012 04:57 am (UTC)
And of course, there are those who, like Tanya Huff, write all genres under the same name.
Feb. 11th, 2012 05:45 am (UTC)
Yes - Tanya is a perfect example of an author who’s tone/texture is so ineluctably hers that no matter how different the books are in theory, they are always Tanya Huff books.
Feb. 14th, 2012 01:57 pm (UTC)
I have no problem with an author uses different names. Sometimes it's to separate styles (Charles de Lint wrote several horror/thrillers as Samuel M Key -- later reprinted under his name -- after he got flack for Mulengro, which was more horror than his previous urban fantasies), sometimes it marks a change in writing career (Megan Lindholm becoming Robin Hobb), sometimes it's because of reader expectations (men using female names to write romance, etc), and sometimes it's because of other careers (Gail Carriger, as I recall, uses a pseudonym because of her day job, and I remember seeing notices in Locus about books sold being a under a pseudonym because they work in the publishing industry).

But if a writer is writing under multiple names, I hope they don't make it too difficult to figure out, since if I like Writer A, and I realize (s)he is Writer B in a field I don't usually read, I might give it the second look I wouldn't normally have, since I actually know the other works.
Jul. 1st, 2012 09:16 pm (UTC)
At least two authors I can think of differentiate their genres with a single initial: Ian (M.) Banks, (F.) Paul Wilson.

On a tangent, at least one detective novelist had a book with both his pen names listed as co-authors.
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