Pen Names in the Digital Age

Before the blog post, a bit about the festivities at today’s three-ring Churm circus:


February 20, 2008

Before the blog post, a bit about the festivities at today’s three-ring Churm circus:

First, if you have any interest, I’ve revealed my real name and previously undisclosed location in my newest “Dispatch from Adjunct Faculty” at McSweeney’s. Some say that I’m outing myself, but the occasion is not that sexy, I assure you. Independent of all that, the dispatch essay is about deep comedy, compassion, the limits of memory and imagination, and, of course, porn star Ron Jeremy. I hope you like it.

Second, the incomparable Susan Henderson at LitPark has interviewed me about taking off the mask of pseudonymity. And she might have a photo of me looking fearfully at a clown. Please head over for a look.

Third, and most important, LitPark is also hosting a short writing contest in celebration of my little revelation, with terrific prizes from sponsors Inside Higher Ed, the McSweeney’s store, featherproof books, and Les Chauds Lapins. It’s easy to enter! It’s fun! Come on, now. Give it a try!

And now, a posting called:

Pen Names in the Digital Age

The Digital Age has allowed us to be as amorphous as we wish. It’s not called the ether for nothing. Not surprisingly, relatively few want that. Pure anonymity makes recurrence all but impossible, and without continuity there’s no mass to an online existence. More often, we re-present ourselves with alternative but meaningful signs: Icons, photos, lists of what we enjoy, clever blog titles, and pen names. These all are aspects of persona, chosen to suggest we are integral beings, not isolated tendencies.

A pen name is like the title of a story: It’s significant because it’s the first thing we see, and it hints at what’s to come. I formed mine from two characters’ names in Henry James’s “The Real Thing.” The story is about an artist who comes to question who or what is “real” in art and life. Oronte and Miss Churm, his working-class portrait models, are honest, vital, and can get truly portray anyone, even aristocrats, while the actual aristocrats make the drawings come out all wrong.

I took the pen name mostly to keep parts of my writing life separate. Only a small part of it was to protect my job as a non-tenure track lecturer, but then you never know when you might want to say something really awful about your employer. Quickly I began to see opportunities the voice provided and became intent to do something better with it. I still have little security, and revealing my real name still feels risky. But I’ve tried to be a reliable, versatile employee and a good departmental citizen, and what I’ve learned writing as Churm has informed my teaching in ways I’m still trying to unpack. With luck, I’ll be seen as more credit than embarrassment.

Attitudes toward the use of pen names are interesting. Even though their use is widespread on the Net, some still seem to feel they indicate hubris or theatrical affectation; pseudonyms should be reserved for the lesser gods and royalty of our culture, such as Madonna and Prince. Others dislike how a pen name doesn’t give out its home address or tell you the names of its accomplices. But I don’t know those readers any better than they know me and must take their very existence on faith, even if they sound too fantastical to be real.

A couple of people have told me they like that Churm is a mere ghost in their minds, speaking somewhat subversively to and for them alone. This intimacy is important, something to possess, and if they ever had to watch me having lunch with, say, William Gass, they worry they might not like my writing anymore. That saddens them, and I think they want to float the idea past me as a kind of warning against claiming credit for what my alter ego has done.

But hasn’t that been the issue with electronic publishing in general? Maybe its lack of credibility to date for academic and other credentialing has not really been due to lack of peer review, or its suspiciously low cost, which makes it all too democratic at times. The real problem might be the same as with the use of a pen name: Can something perceived as amorphous, diffuse, or ghostly ever be considered the real thing?


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