The Nobel laureate Doris Lessing (1919), who tested out a nom de plume in the early 1980s, learned that she was better off sticking with her own identity. One of her aims had been a respite from the public’s perception of her work; she sought to upend preconceptions of what it meant to read a ‘Doris Lessing novel.’
Lessing wanted to see how her books would be received if no one knew they were by the author of ‘The Golden Notebook’ (a novel that had sold nearly a million copies), as well as more than twenty other books. ‘I wanted to highlight that whole dreadful process in book publishing that ‘nothing succeeds like success’, she said later in an interview. ‘If the books had come out in my name, they would have sold a lot of copies and reviewers would have said, ‘Oh, Doris Lessing, how wonderful’.’
That’s debatable, but on another level, Lessing had revenge in mind: the ruse was a way to strike back at critics who she felt had ‘hated’ her then-recent Canopus novels, a five-volume science-fiction series of which she was extremely proud. (She considered the series her most important work.) So Lessing became ‘Jane Somers’ and wrote the novel ‘The Diary of a Good Neighbour’, which her long-time UK publisher, Jonathan Cape, rejected, insisting that it was not commercially viable. The novel traced the friendship between two women: a middle-aged magazine editor and an octogenarian. After Lesser found a publisher, Michael Joseph, the book was released in the UK in 1983. (The coy jacket copy indicated, falsely, that Somers was the pen name of ‘a well-known English woman journalist.’) It sold only a few thousand copies, and the American edition also fared poorly.
Was it failure due to people’s fixation on famous authors, or was it a bad book? Lessing blamed the former. Was her test nothing but an egotistical publicity stunt? A critic from the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley, seemed to think so. He argued that it was not at all the ‘success syndrome’ that had troubled Lessing, but rather that ‘reviewers refused to be seduced by her name on the ‘Canopus’ novels and picked them to pieces.’
Regardless, Lessing followed up a year later with a Somers sequel, ‘If the Old Cloud’, and soon after its publication she confessed that she had written both books. ‘The reviews were more or less what I expected,’ she said of her experiment. ‘It was interesting to be a beginning writer again, experiencing how patronizing reviewers can be.’
Ciuraru, C. (2011), ‘Introduction’, Nome de Plume, A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, p.XXI
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