A Lot's in a Name | Newberry

A Lot's in a Name

I’ve been kinda checking around on the Interwebs, and there is no real consensus on what to call her. I was curious because somebody sent us a book called Sugar and Other Stories, by Antonia Byatt. The only Byatt I could recall seeing books by is the one who goes in Literature, A.S. Byatt. What, I wondered, with that perception that has made people compare me to Sherlock Holmes…snickering all the while, if her first name were Antonia?

Well, as anyone with credentials in the Lit Biz probably already knew, the lady’s name is Antonia Susan Byatt. Some people call her Sue and some Antonia, though most people simply call her A.S.Byatt But nobody on the Interwebs had any particular answer as to why this particular book, not her first by any means, was credited to Antonia. (This happened again with another book, eight years later.)

Other authors have had success under variant forms of their own name. We discussed James Branch Cabell in our last installment. One of a band of writers who vowed to write beautifully of beautiful things (trying to hold back the trend represented by upstarts like Hemingway and Faulkner), he produced his epic series of novels about the land of Poictesme (sometimes awkwardly shoe-horning earlier novels into the sequence with a little literary sleight of hand) and then, when he wanted to write about other people and places, gave up on that name and wrote solely as Branch Cabell. That was as much his name as the other and, like A.S. Byatt, did not create any trouble for the folks alphabetizing at the Book Fair.

But there was also Ford Madox Hueffer, another of those great writers whom people don’t bother with much nowadays. He did publish some fiction under the name Daniel Chaucer, but his mightiest works, including his classic The Good Soldier, appeared under his own name. During World War I, however, he worked with the British propaganda service and started feeling that perhaps his last name just sounded too German for someone working in a patriotic line. So he became For Madox Ford, and subsequent editions of his previous books would appear under that name. He made it his own name legally, so he had a right to do so, but you’re not fooling me. He did it so his books would appear one bookcase farther to the left at the Newberry, with the F authors and not with the Hs.

It’s a matter of personal taste what one does with one’s name. Joseph Rudyard Kipling and Newton Booth Tarkington did their best with a shortened version of their given names, as did Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. They decided early on what they wanted to keep and didn’t fiddle around with experiments. Ursula K. LeGuin was very definite about her name. Once, only once, she wrote, had she ever used a pseudonym, when a publisher wanted to conceal her sex and asked her to use “U.K. LeGuin”. She seems to have felt guilty about it, and I can see why, but still, it wasn’t actually a pseudonym, just another form of her name.

Some problems can be caused by a woman who has been successful in her writing getting married, and switching her last name on the poor book buyer. Agatha Miller, who had no luck at all writing under her maiden name, saw business pick up after she married and became Agatha Christie, and did not change that even after Archibald Christie was dropped from the picture. She did publish one book as Agatha Christie Mallowan, about what it was like to be married the archaeologist Max Mallowan, but by that time she was famous enough that no one read past the first two names on the cover anyhow.

The most exciting book ever to arrive at the Book fair under an unexpected name was an elderly Victorian tome called “Science and Health”. This had been written by Mary Baker Glover, who had not yet married Mr. Eddy, under whose name she would become one of the most famous religious leaders of her time. Science and Health has been reproduced in millions if not billions of copies, but a nice hardcover with that unfamiliar version of the author’s name turned out to be worth the time and research (whereas Mr. Cabell is worth about the same with or without the James..)

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