The Name that Signs the Paper

The Miles Franklin Award will be conferred on one of three shortlisted nominees tonight at the State Library of Victoria, the second year it hasn’t been hosted by Sydney’s Mitchell Library as the award continues to reinvent itself. We wish all three nominees well. We hardly need remind readers of the controversies surrounding the award this year. Miles Franklin is of course a pseudonym for Stella Franklin, which is why the organisers of a new Australian prize for women’s fiction have chosen to call their award the Stella Prize, even though in the US there’s already a Stella Award, for the most absurd litigation of the preceding year.

Miles Franklin chose to write under a masculinised name because prejudices against women’s writing were common in her day, despite the trailblazing efforts of 19th-century scribes Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and the Georges, Eliot and Sand (of which more below), all of whom published some or all of their writing under pen names. Sadly, such prejudices persist.

Sexism is one of many reasons writers choose to write under assumed names. An intriguing list of 10 reasons to adopt a pseudonym was recently published on the Huffington Post. It includes some of literature’s best known noms de plume. When The Bell Jar was first published, its author was Esther Greenwood, who had no mother to fear. Beginning at the age of six, Fernando Pessoa invented some 72 pseudonyms - he called them heteronyms - and each one had its own distinctive voice. Old Etonian Eric Blair toyed with the pseudonyms H. Lewis Allways and P.S. Burton to mask his privileged background, before settling on his better-known pen name. Aurore Dupin, the 19th century French novelist, was naturally androgynous and delighted in dressing as a man. Richard Bachman’s novels were published under his name for branding reasons, and some writers - like Samuel Clemens and the Reverend Charles Dodgson - were just pathologically private, perhaps because the skeletons of madness or forbidden desires were locked in closets to which the key had long been discarded.

Then there’s Anonymous, the fallback pseudonym for the publicity-shy writer fearful of political retribution, or hungry for publicity. Anonymous' bestselling pull has only grown over time.

Last, but by no means least, because our reflections were inspired by the Miles Franklin Award and not solely out of impertinence, we can’t but mention in passing some of the other great Australian pseudonyms: Helen Demidenko and perhaps the finest, most subtle literary hoax of all time.

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