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Who's who?

April 30, 2006|Jonathan Freedland | JONATHAN FREEDLAND is an editorial page columnist for the Guardian of London. His novel, "The Righteous Men," written under the name Sam Bourne, will be published in August by HarperCollins.

WE'RE USING the wrong word. Our default term to describe the manipulation of political language, or the nightmare of permanent surveillance by a totalitarian state, should not be "Orwellian." It should be "Blairite."That's not a cheap shot at the authoritarian habits of the British prime minister, though Tony Blair's critics throw the charge at him often enough. No, it's a statement of fact. Strictly speaking, it was Blair who inserted these enduring ideas into the public sphere -- not Tony, but Eric. For Eric Blair was the man behind Big Brother and Newspeak, Room 101 and "some animals are more equal than others." George Orwell was a mere pen name.

He took it up because he feared his family would be mortified if they discovered the life he had lived while reporting "Down and Out in Paris and London"; a pseudonym meant his secret would stay safe.

In so doing, the great British journalist and novelist became one of a long line of writers who have chosen to park their ego and give an invented person the credit for their work. Sometimes the motive is, like Blair/Orwell's, embarrassment. According to the scholar John Sutherland, plenty of 18th and 19th century writers sought pen names because "no one wanted to be associated with the low trade of writing novels."

Among them was Mary Ann Evans, who yearned, says Sutherland, for the authority and stature associated with a man -- and so became George Eliot. What's more, "she despised what she called silly novels by lady novelists, and she was damned if she was going to be a lady novelist."

Others have a more hardheaded motivation. Jack Higgins, the author of "The Eagle Has Landed" and one of the world's most successful thriller writers, has a stable of alter egos, including James Graham, Martin Fallon, Hugh Marlow and Harry Patterson (the last of that series being his real name).

He had to resort to multiple identities because he was simply too prolific, sometimes producing a book every three months. Publishers were wary of flooding the market, so they pretended he was five different men, each turning out a new title every year.

The hyper-fecund Stephen King wrote as Richard Bachman for the same reason (until he killed Bachman off, citing "cancer of the pseudonym" as the cause of death ). The Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin, creator of the acclaimed Inspector Rebus series, found himself in a similar spot in the early 1990s, when he was bursting with ideas but with a publisher wary of putting out more than one book a year. Along came Jack Harvey -- named for Jack, Rankin's first son, and Harvey, his wife's maiden name. The marketing folk were pleased, reckoning that a name beginning with H could only be good because it planted the book in the middle of the shelf, where the shopper's eye would easily find it. Rankin himself confesses to a more mischievous thought: "Maybe fans of Jack Higgins would be tricked into buying my titles instead of his."

Even if the original motivation owes more to commerce than art, once chosen, a nom de plume can be liberating, taking a writer to places that might have remained unexplored.

"Jack Harvey wrote thrillers, which are very different beasts to crime novels: lavish, almost pornographic descriptions of weaponry; sex scenes; world travel," Rankin told me via e-mail. "These things were closed to me in the kinds of crime novels I was writing."

Others have noted the greater psychological suspense and stronger sense of place that separates the works of Barbara Vine from Ruth Rendell -- as if the change of name releases some untapped area of the writing brain.

I confess to more than an academic interest in all this. In August, I will publish my first foray into fiction, a thriller that will appear under the name Sam Bourne. I have toiled on it for most of the last two years, having incubated the idea about seven years ago. Several of my friends have wondered how, having worked so long on the book, I could possibly forgo the credit that goes along with publication.

It was the publishers' idea. It would be wise, they said, to separate this new venture from my day job as a newspaper columnist. As for the choice of name, that was simple enough. I have a son named Sam, and when this book was hatched, the hit movie of the hour was "The Bourne Supremacy." Sam Bourne was born.

I'm slowly getting used to it, readying myself to let this stranger take the credit for my labors. But in the unlikely event that people start referring to ideas or events as Bournian, I just might get a little jealous.

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