Tin House / Electric Literature Reading at Powerhouse Arena Bookstore – A Recap

Yesterday afternoon I saw a post by Small Beer Press (on Facebook) mentioning that Kelly Link would be reading at a bookstore in Brooklyn and right about there I decided that I wanted to go – no, NEEDED to go – and then suddenly had to figure out how I was going to do that.

I currently live in New Jersey, towards the middle, next to Trenton, which is just over the river from Philadelphia. The bookstore is in New York, the city (and the state) making it a whole other state away from me.

The problem is, though, that I had to go. Not only was it Kelly Link, whose work I adore, but Tin House and Electric Literature (warning, current cover art – posted on their home page – is NSFW), both great markets that are nearly impossible to get into, and it was a chance to adventure into Brooklyn, where I’d never been. It was also possible, thanks to a combination of trains and subway rides, and since I’m due to leave NJ for upstate NY in a few months (where there are no trains) it was a trip I won’t always be able to make. This particular event would never actually happen again. Add to that my feeling that as writers we’re not just supposed to write but also to read, to listen, and to learn from the writers we admire. To not attend these kinds of events is to sit alone in our apartments, only learning from ourselves. Continue reading

The Problem With Pen Names

There are a lot of reasons for using a pen name these days. From wanting to keep your writing a secret from friends or employers, wanting to keep two distinct writing styles separate so that readers from one genre aren’t turned off by the writing you do in another, or preferring a pen name which is less gender/racially specific than your legal name*, the reasons behind wanting a pen name are many and varied and for the most part, I don’t have a problem with any of them. However, I’ve run into a few people whose actions, enabled by the use of a false persona, are running dangerously close to unprofessional or even illegal.

Author Seanan McGuire also writes under the name Mira Grant. It is an open pseudonym, in that McGuire openly admits to using it. From her FAQ’s:

Q: Why are you Mira Grant?

A: I wanted a pseudonym for my science fiction because I wanted to create some “distance” between it and my urban fantasy work. Mostly, I wanted people to judge the Mira Grant books on their own merits, not based on how much they read like something they’d expect me to write. I believe this was the right decision, and I’ve been very happy with my life as Mira Grant.

Both websites use photographs which are actually of McGuire, and while the Grant site has a brief faux-bio blurb, the rest of the information is factual – release dates, book info, and the bio and the FAQs both end with pointing out she’s also McGuire. Author Joe Hill was born Joseph Hillstrom King, the son of author Stephen King, and felt a need to write under another name in order to be judged on the merits of his words instead of his father. His website and Twitter feed and books all say “Joe Hill”, but the pictures are actually of him, and when he talks about his children or his predilection for pie, he’s actually talking about his own life. These are just two examples of what I consider to be acceptable use of a pen name: you’re changing the name for the purposes of story submission, so you’ll be judged “fairly” when a publisher considers your work or a reader buys your novel, but the rest of your life as it’s presented under that name is close to 95% true.

Submitting stories under a pseudonym without informing your publisher that you have another, legal, name – or much worse, signing a contract under your pen name – can cause legal issues and certainly makes me less likely to want to work with you, but we’re still talking about just one mistake – not disclosing your legal name. I’ve had authors do that, and learn from it, and stop making that mistake, in which case, I’m happy to keep looking at their work. At what point does it go beyond acceptable use of a nom de plume for work purposes and pass into unacceptable, creepy, or disturbing? That point differs for everyone but for me it’s when the fiction becomes not just a mask but a lie. There are authors who use more than just a new name: they create a whole new life. Websites, Facebook pages, even in chatting online with others, they use not only another name, but false images and fake biographies. Posting pictures taken from the Internet, of people who are not you and don’t know you’ve stolen their image, to support your pen name is one example of going too far. Writing lengthy blog posts about the life you don’t actually have, with people who don’t exist, supported by pictures you didn’t take … unless you label the site as itself being fiction, you’re trying to convince your readers that you are someone who doesn’t exist. What’s the purpose of that? If it’s just to support your pen name with what you consider to be a reasonable back-story, then it’s possibly only poor judgment on your part.

What really makes me angry are the people who create this fictional life and use it to prey on others. Creating a persona that is (for example) a young, sex-hungry woman and then using it to flirt online, manipulate others, play games with their emotions … or use it to turn a profit, soliciting donations from others to support what is essentially a hardworking avatar … that’s cruel. It’s a lie, it’s wrong, and when I find out that authors are doing this I will never, ever, accept work from them.

Personally, I don’t use a pen name. I made a decision a long time ago to be read and judged and known for who I really am. I like knowing that my friends actually know me. I feel lucky that I’m not in a situation where I’d be forced to hide my writing, which is so much a part of who I am, in order to get a job or maintain peace with family members. I understand wearing a mask in this business, but you should ask yourself if you really need it. Do you think a white-washed name or a bio photo which is younger/thinner/prettier than you think you are is protecting yourself from being judged wrongly, or is selling more books? Are you honest about yourself within the confines of your persona, or is everything you present to the world a lie? And if it is … why?

* For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not using the phrase “real name”. What that is can be very different depending on who you’re talking to, and no one has any right to decide what’s your real name but you. I’m only interested in the distinction between “legal” (often but not always “birth name”) and “pen name”, a fake name under which you write and publish, which is not the same as your legal name.

You Should Read: Stephen Elliott’s MY GIRLFRIEND COMES TO THE CITY AND BEATS ME UP

Synopsis: Fiction or memoir? Stephen Elliott’s blistering new collection inhabits a mysterious area in between. As with all his work, these stories have the raw ring of truth filtered through Elliott’s downbeat poetic sensibility. No subject is too controversial, no image too taboo to put to paper in these brilliant first-person narratives. (From Cleis Press)

I almost don’t think I should review this book, because I’m not sure what needs to be said about it. Elliott presents a collection of short stories, all based on his real life, though fictionalized to different extents. He doesn’t dress it up or down or sideways, he just presents it. Here you go, he seems to say. Do what you want with it. Then he hands you the book, and doesn’t stick around to find out what you thought. The book just is. It’s simple. It’s honest. It is almost pedestrian, the way Elliott describes being tied up, beaten, cut, abused, and loved. His stories, though probably more extreme than most people’s, aren’t that unusual either. They’re familiar, if you’ve been there, and that’s kind of what adds to their brilliance.

The thing is, there are two kinds of people drawn to the BDSM scene. Of course, there a million kinds and everyone is special and no one wants to be pegged (unless that’s your thing, in which case, there’s nothing wrong with that), but the truth is, it’s those two kinds that make up the biggest population. The first are people who’ve experienced it all before, in nothing like a good way, and are eroticizing their abuse in order to get a happy ending to an event or a lifetime which scarred them badly. The second people are the ones who don’t feel enough, who want to feel more, and they’ve tried everything else. They weren’t loved enough, or wanted enough, or desired enough, and they’ve usually given up, and maybe don’t even think they deserve it anymore, to feel something so strongly, but they’re still hoping. In a way, Elliot’s book is like a good scene – you get what you wanted out of it. Either you read through to the end, past the hurt and fear and subjugating your body to the whims of crazy people, and you find the happy ending, or you feel what you’ve been longing to feel. You experience this man’s alternative history. While in the pages of the book your heart has raced, you’ve been scared, disgusted, compassionate, aroused, and curious, depending on the page. Either way you got what you came for.

Would I recommend the book to others? If you’ve read this far and aren’t certain this is a book you need to read, maybe you don’t. It’s too personal to force onto people, too specific in its kink to pass around to the mass market readers. It’s a book for people who look at it, and know.

MY GIRLFRIEND COMES TO THE CITY AND BEATS ME UP. Elliot. Cleis Press. 144 pages. ISBN 978-1-57344-255-8

 

You Should Read: Simon Winchester’s THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN

Synopsis: It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor–that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane–and locked up in Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics. (From Harper Collins)

For the last twenty years or so, since I was old enough to know better, if anyone asked me what my favorite book ever was, I would answer, “The Oxford English Dictionary.” I adore dictionaries, and the queen of them all is the OED. Humongous, diligently researched, and continually updated, it is a map to the sprawling landscape of the English language. As a historian and writer myself, I love to read well-researched non-fiction, especially about subjects long dead (it has been my experience that they tend to focus more on the facts than biographical works whose subjects are still alive, and presumably still willing to sue). When I saw Winchester’s book, it never occurred to me not to buy it. I mention it so that you know my bias ahead of time, and can take what follows accordingly.

I adored this book.

It is a quick, light read which intermingles archaic word definitions with crime scene descriptions. It clears up some long-held myths about Minor’s involvement with the OED, sacrificing drama for the truth, which always scores points with me. At the same time, Winchester writes as if the mysteries are worth being surprised with, and lets the story be told almost chronologically.

I learned a great deal about the circumstances surrounding the move to create the OED in the first place. I guess that I had imagined there had been dictionaries for many hundreds of years, and that this was simply a better version of one. That the OED is better, is true; that dictionaries are an ancient institution is completely false. I felt for Mr. Minor, who was made to seem as much a victim of his disease as the man he murdered. I loved Professor Murray’s way of organizing the submissions which poured into his office like sea water filling the Titanic. He kept his ship from sinking, and transformed hundreds of thousands of quotes from thousands of volunteers around the world into a workable document. Simon Winchester went to the graveyards of the men most central to this book, literally and figuratively. He scoured newspapers, read medical reports, visited the asylum and the OED offices. He took this great mountain of information and translated it into a work which unfolds smoothly before you. I don’t think that a reader would require a great education in any particular subject before reading The Professor and the Madman, which I have seen with other non-fiction titles about academic subjects. Instead it is one of those rare but wonderful books which presents you with a story, answers your questions, and leaves you feeling uplifted by knowledge.

The little paperback version I bought has the story ending at page 221, with notes afterward. I recommend getting the P.S. edition if you can find it; it includes an interview with the author, dictionary words, and additional reading suggestions.

Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Harper Perennial, 2005. 242 pages, plus P.S. ISBN 0060839783