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The Name of the Game

Not previously published

"What's in a name?" asked Shakespeare, and went on to conclude that there probably wasn't very much in it at all. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," he told us. Well far be it from me to contradict the bard, but when it comes to the names of authors, the whole topic assumes a degree of importance and interest that Shakespeare completely missed out on; probably because he was himself an almost perfect example of the thesis I want to explore here.

You see it is my contention that you cannot become a really successful writer unless you have a weird name. People with ordinary names just don't have what it takes. Nobody is going to remember an ordinary name when they go to the book shop looking for that special book.

I first started thinking along these lines when I realised that the two most famous people in my own professional field are the plonkingly ordinarily named Ken Thompson and the slightly more oddly named Dennis Ritchie. They designed the Unix operating system, from which I make my living. Thompson has never written a book (several research papers, but no books). Ritchie has never written a book in his own right, but has appeared as a collaborative author on several, usually with his best buddy Brian Kernighan who has an even odder name still and a very distinctive (and enjoyable) writing style.

Despite Thompson and Ritchie's enormous contribution to the field, the technical books on my shelves have all been written by other people -- Cricket Liu, Simson Garfinkel, Gene Spafford, Evi Nemeth, Stan Kelly-Bootle et al. (Kelly-Bootle, a Liverpudlian, is a man of many parts, some public and some private. As well as producing semi-serious tomes such as Understanding Unix he is the author of the delightfully cynical Computer Contradictionary and the linguistically challenging Learn Yerself Scouse). I am also the proud possessor of the strangely titled Understanding and Using COFF by the magnificently named Gintaras R. Gircys -- which sounds much more like the name of a cocktail than it sounds like the name of a writer.

I'm not sure that all the novelists we know and love would necessarily always accept the thesis that strange names maketh the author, but how else do explain away the fact that the very ordinarily named David John Moore Cornwell chose to write his way to fame and fortune as John Le Carré? Wouldn't you? Of course, given that he writes espionage novels, was once a spook himself, and seems to have an inordinate love of the streetcraft of the spy, it could be said that he is merely indulging his vanity. The nameless hero of Len Deighton's early novels once claimed that there is nothing more authentically English than a foreign name, and who's to say he's wrong?

Science fiction, as always, takes the trend to inordinate extremes. How many Isaac Asimovs have you met socially? How many Robert Heinleins? (I once met a Ray Bradbury, but he lived in Birmingham and so he doesn't count). There can be only one of each because their names are weird and therefore memorable. Nobody called Jack Williamson could ever be a famous writer, the name is too ordinary. Ooops! Just blotted my copybook there. But you must admit that Williamson's more oddly named contemporaries do tend to eclipse him on the bookshelves and I doubt that it is only the vagaries of the alphabet that puts Frederik Pohl's name first on their collaborations.

Perhaps that is the whole secret. Ken Bulmer sold many more books as Alan Burt Akers and as Tully Zetford than he ever did under his own name. Take that, Shakespeare! I once heard Bulmer speak at a convention. He remarked that he had spent his latest honeymoon at a friend's house where he and his new wife made the interesting discovery that the bed squeaked very loudly. So rather than use it for its intended purpose, they spent the night taking it in turns to jump up and down on it much to the consternation of their eavesdropping friend (the noise went on for hours) and their own vast amusement. It was at this convention that I first began to gain an insight into the mentality of people who write books.

Many of the science fiction writers with odd names seem also to share a common desire to commit autobiography. Once again Asimov is the prime example with three enormous volumes of direct autobiography and several smaller autobiographical squibs in other books such as the delightful Asimov Laughs Again which is a collection of jokes interspersed with incidents from his life (sometimes it is hard to tell them apart) and also the linking material in the anthology series Before the Golden Age. But he is not alone. Though Heinlein never produced an autobiography as such, there are many personal anecdotes in Expanded Universe and the posthumously published books Grumbles from the Grave (a collection of letters), Tramp Royale (a travel book) and Take Back Your Government (a political tract), contain much that is of biographical interest; so the field is obviously far from barren.

I began musing on these lines when I learned that L. Sprague de Camp had just written an autobiography. It is called Time and Chance, and I currently have it on order. I'm very interested in the book for several reasons. The most obvious, of course, is that L. Sprague de Camp has had an enormous influence on the field. Both alone and in collaboration with Fletcher Pratt, he reinvented the modern fantasy and produced literate, intelligent tales in the genre while his contemporaries were still mired deep in the barbarian swordsman cliché. Mind you -- de Camp produced his fair share of those as well!

But the major reason for my interest in the book is that de Camp cut his biographical teeth on the definitive Lovecraft -- A Biography and also Dark Valley Destiny -- The Life of Robert E. Howard. These, together with several smaller biographical essays on various fantasy writers (collected together in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerors) make up a respectable and influential literary and biographical heritage and I am curious to see how he has applied the lessons he learned writing those books to the much more complex task of putting his own life down on paper.

Elsewhere de Camp has remarked that, proud though he is of his rather unusual name, he has sometimes wished that he had been called something ordinary. One of the major disadvantages of being called L. Sprague de Camp, is that he never knows where post offices etc are going to file his mail and whenever he checks in at a post restante address he always has the clerk check under 'S', 'D' and 'C', just in case. Mind you I think that is very wise. Even ordinarily named people often have their mail misfiled in post restante collection points, which are invariably staffed by illiterates who only speak Middle-High Cretin.

It occurs to me that maybe this is the reason for the success of the oddly named writers. Perhaps L. Sprague de Camp sells three times as many books as he otherwise would since all libraries and private collectors invariably buy three copies of everything -- one to file under 'S', one to file under 'D' and one to file under 'C'. That way librarians guarantee never to embarrass themselves by searching the index under the wrong letter since there is no wrong letter. All possible cases are covered and the writer is three times richer. That has to be a good deal for everybody.

Of course it wouldn't work for A. E. van Vogt since only two copies would have to be bought, and both would necessarily be filed under V, which makes multiple buying pointless. Obviously we must look elsewhere for the secret of his success, and what better place to look than his autobiography? It is a slim volume entitled Reflections of A. E. van Vogt and it was published in 1975 by Fictioneer Books, whoever they might be. From it we learn that van Vogt deliberately structured his writing into 800 word scenes -- every 800 words something new must happen; a birth, a death, a marriage, an alien invasion, the end of the universe. Whatever. Perhaps this accounts for the frenetic and somewhat breathless pace of some of his stories. But they sold, and they sold well. There was a time when Van Vogt's name was mentioned in the same breath as Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. He fell silent, distracted into Dianetics, and when he returned to the field in later years it had passed him by and he no longer seemed able to make the same impact as once he had. But oh! The thrill of first reading Slan, the frightening evil of granny, the strong will of Jommy Cross, the power of ten-point steel and the mystery of the tendrilless slans. I was a young teenager when I first read that book and I think I must have read the whole thing with my jaw hanging open. Later in life I discovered sex, but it was nowhere near as intense an experience.

I can still quote from memory the opening sentence of Voyage of the Space Beagle and the closing sentence of The Weapon Makers, though it must be thirty years since last I read them. Boy, could van Vogt write a memorable sentence when he wanted to. That was his special magic.

He started life as a writer of true confession stories for women's magazines, but once he found his fictional métier he stuck to it and with only one exception, the rest of his enormous output was solidly science fiction. The one exception was a novel called The Violent Man, a contemporary novel about the attempted brainwashing of Westerners by the communist Chinese.

Should it really be the case that there must exist one library book for every letter of the writer's name, I would imagine that librarians the world over give thanks every day for the fact that Ramon Felipe San Juan Mario Silvio Enrico Smith Harcourt-Brace Sierra y Alvarez-del Rey y de los Verdes chose to write under the pseudonym of Lester Del Rey instead of insisting on his birthright. I suspect that publishers and printers are rather pleased as well. Imagine trying to fit all that on the spine of a book! Of course, given the incredible page count of modern blockbusters, with the concomitant increase of available space on the spine, it might not be such a problem today as it was back then.

Del Rey actually published under several names of which the most interesting is Erik Van Lhin. As Van Lhin, he wrote a novel called Police Your Planet which was originally published as a magazine serial in Science Fiction Adventures (beginning in March 1953). That magazine was edited by Lester Del Rey himself, hence the necessity for a pseudonym, lest he be accused of self-nepotism (if I may neologise). When the story was eventually published as a book, the name on the by-line was Lester Del Rey and Erik Van Lhin, thus guaranteeing at least four copies in every library. Doubtless both authors made a fortune. As far as I am aware, SF is the only field in which writers are known to collaborate with themselves. It has happened at least twice -- the other incident known to me is The Outward Urge by John Wyndham and Lucas Parkes, both of whom were, of course, the same person.

In The Early Del Rey the eponymous author interspersed the stories with a lot of autobiographical material (thus confirming the trend I mentioned above) and this partly accounts for the fact that the collection ran into two very large volumes. However I must admit that the stories had their attractions as well. Del Rey's early successes as a writer were far eclipsed by his later successes as an editor, which is a shame because, in all seriousness, he was a very good writer indeed, and in common with many such he now seems to be almost completely out of print. I suggest you haunt the second hand bookshops. Look particularly for Pstalemate, one of my favourites among his many novels. (Del Rey was also Edson Mcann, who was one half of Frederik Pohl in the novel Preferred Risk which was a satire of the insurance industry. Not a memorable name, but certainly an odd one, and the book isn't bad too).

Charles V. de Vet and Katherine Maclean have never written an autobiography and are therefore considerably less than famous. But they have written a novel together and it is called Cosmic Checkmate. It concerns an earthman who is sent to investigate a planet whose inhabitants' social and political status depends on their proficiency in a chess-like game. I have to confess that it is not a commonly seen book (though I have read it in at least two separate incarnations). Maclean is perhaps better known for a short story called The Snowball Effect in which the ladies of the Watashaw Sewing Circle take over the world. Whether or not they make a good job of it I will leave you to judge. Charles V. de Vet is less well known and there is a persistent rumour that Maclean actually wrote Cosmic Checkmate herself and shared the by line with de Vet (her husband) in order to give his career a boost. If so, I think she was less than successful.

Given the tenor of this discussion you could be forgiven for thinking that the oddly named are purely an historical phenomenon from the Golden Age of science fiction. Today we are more sophisticated and such things are beneath us. Well perhaps so, but don't forget that very few of the oddly named are pseudonymous.

Ursula K. Le Guin as yet has not autobiographised. However she certainly belongs to the oddly named and must therefore be famous and she is. (See! It works). Lately though I have taken to wondering how deserved her fame might be. It is more than quarter of a century since she last produced anything memorable and to me she appears to be coasting on her reputation and many of her books give the impression that she was not really concentrating on the job at hand. I hate to say this, but I don't recall enjoying very much beyond the original Earthsea trilogy, the absolutely stunning Left Hand of Darkness and the utterly fascinating and absorbing The Dispossessed. Mind you, that is enough for anyone to be proud of. But Malafrena bored me and Always Coming Home was terminally tedious and occasionally twee. Currently Four Ways to Forgiveness is sitting waiting to be read, but I'm finding it hard to force myself. I think I bought it out of a sense of duty, which is a poor motivation for buying a book.

A question arises in my mind, and for all I know in yours as well. Are there any oddly named writers who are less than excellent in their literary output? Well I can think of at least one, His name is John de Chancie -- but even he has flashes of merit which just goes to prove that the advantage an odd name gives you is a very difficult one to overcome. But he tries hard.

I first came across him as the author of a trilogy of novels which can be loosely summed up as truckers in space. Unfortunately he lost control of the plot towards the end, largely because he stuffed so many contradictory ideas into it that they leaked out of the sides and corroded the paper. But it had its amusing moments and was highly enjoyable. He followed this with an hilarious little masterpiece of surreality called Castle Perilous, which is best described as a Zelazny homage (with golf and monsters). Unfortunately he then succumbed to an attack of Sequel Syndrome and wrote far too many increasingly dire follow-ups to it. Recently he seems to have discovered the Internet and he has published an alarmingly predictable book called Magicnet. Hands up all those who can't guess the plotline? Like the Piers Anthony that he is starting to resemble more and more closely, he has also developed a fondness for weak puns and consequently I doubt that he stands much of a de Chancie in the oddly named and famous stakes.

The same cannot be said of Charles de Lint, a man who just seems to go from strength to strength. I don't like fantasy books very much and I read very few of them, but one fantasy author whose books I snap up as soon as I see them is the aforementioned de Lint. He is a Canadian writer and many of his stories and novels are set in Canada (an interesting twist in itself). He seems to be equally at home with the modern urban fantasy (verging on the magical realism of Gabrial García Márquez) as he is with the traditional elves and magic and faerieland. Indeed, he has on occasion mixed the two genres to excellent effect. Unfortunately he suffers badly from the enmity of his publishers who all seem to have entered into a conspiracy to sell as few of his books as they possibly can, and actually finding a Charles de Lint book to buy is next door to impossible. They go out of print faster than the speed of light (which probably means that they all travel backwards in time and end up on the shelves of bookshops that I didn't go into. It's all a conspiracy. Fnord). By dint of much scouring of the bibliographic highways and byways I have managed to acquire fourteen of them and I think this is a world record -- certainly I have never met anybody else with as many as that. If you can prove me wrong, please do -- I want to borrow your extras. Now!

As for me, my future course is clear. From now on my name will be Alan de Triffid. As in "Dat's him, he's de Triffid".

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