A Second Meditation on Names

Picking your name over breakfast…

Writers, musicians, actors, performers of all sorts have been uniquely able to choose their own names. Lil Nas X wasn’t born with that name; neither was Bono, or Emma Stone, or Bruno Mars, or Katy Perry.

The choice of a pen name seems to open infinite possibilities, but there are constraints. A writer could choose to call herself, say, Charlotte Bronte, but that seems unwise. There are lots of names that are so historically specific that they’re now out of bounds, like a retired jersey number.

In our more enlightened age, it’s also seen as disrespectful to appropriate an identity that isn’t our own. I could choose a pen name like Aleksey Meshkov or Nguyen Van Nam, but readers would expect a certain cultural authenticity from a writer with such a specifically identifiable name. Likewise if I chose Annette, or Evelyn, or Sarah. We increasingly see all writing as autobiographical, and so are offended if the biographical facts are thought to be a misrepresentation.

So I’d be left with choosing something that sounded more or less male and more or less Anglo. That simplifies things; 95% of the world’s possible names are now out of consideration. But 5% is still a lot of names.

There are alphabetical considerations. If I wanted to court Stephen King’s customer base, I’d choose a last name like Kiniston, so that his bookstore browsers would stumble across me. (The Beach Boys and the Beatles were inevitable B-E-A shelfmates for a decade.) It doesn’t make sense to choose a last name starting with A, because those are way up on the top shelf and wouldn’t be seen. Or a last name starting with W, because everybody’s tired of looking at books before they get all the way down there. Go to your local bookstore and see who’s at eye level in the first bay, and fit yourself into there.

There’s a modern trend toward using initials instead of a first name. JK Rowling, EL James, CJ Boxx, JD Robb. The letter J seems like a good choice to be in there, doesn’t it? Plus a single syllable last name, so the cadence becomes a simple, descending-tone bump-bump-bump. But you have to be careful about cultural associations: PJ Hanes sounds like kids’ underwear.

There are those who chose something other than a different, recognizable name. The architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret wanted a sort of mysterious, god-like aura, wanted to shed the weight of history and become Modern, and so named himself Le Corbusier. Bono, Lady Gaga, 50 Cent, Banksy, The Rock. I like the idea of a name beginning with The, but I don’t know what a good noun would be. The music producer David Singleton occasionally writes under The Vicar. I don’t know… The Groundhog? The Bird Feeder? The Ficus?

The science fiction writer Alice Bradley Sheldon chose her name James Tiptree Jr. over breakfast, inspired by the brand of marmalade on the table. And maybe that’s how it works, just the random sense of yes that strikes at the right moment.