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That’s Not My Name

Betsy I

When I was in college, a budding screenwriter invited me to join a literary soiree in the west village. This was not an NYU sanctioned club, this was an off-campus affair, and I felt very honored to be included. The woman who called us together seemed much older than the rest of us; she was sophisticated and world weary, a cross between Gertrude Stein and Vanessa Redgrave. When we were introduced, she made it eminently clear that the name “Betsy” would not do. And from that moment on, she called me Elizabeth (my real name). Elizabeth, she said, was a poet’s name.

When it came time to publish The Forest for the Trees, I wanted to use Elizabeth on the jacket. The few poems I had managed to place in literary magazines were under Elizabeth. My editor balked. Everyone knows you as Betsy, she said. But how many people could that be, I asked. She insisted. I  recalled my junior year abroad when I tried to be known as Elizabeth and introduced myself as such. It was fine at first, but later when people called me Elizabeth I would sit as dumb as stone, completely forgetting that I had changed my name.

I’ve always wondered about writers who hid behind initials: TC Boyle, EE Cummings, TS Eliot, AJ Liebling, AA Milne, AM Holmes, just to name a few. What’s up with that. Maybe I should have tried it: ES Lerner.  I actually kind of like that.

Betsy Taylor

Before I love and leave you: I’m going to LA next week to pimp my wares. I don’t have a laptop and don’t know how regularly I’m going to be able to blog. I may just have to ask Keanu to hop off his desktop for a few. I’ll do my best. Until then, wouldn’t it be very entertaining to compile the biggest list under the sun of authors who go by their initials? Whatcha got?

Betsy Gilbert

Betsy Barrett Browning

45 Responses

  1. R.W.B. Lewis

    P.D. James

    L. Woiwode

    P.L. Travers

    R,D. Laing

    A. Alvarez

    A.A. Brill

  2. D.H. Lawrence

    J.M. Coetzee

  3. E.L. Doctorow
    C.S. Lewis

    Dare I be the one to say J.K. Rowling?

    Okay. J.K. Rowling.

  4. M J Hyland
    D H Lawrence
    A S Byatt
    F R Leavis (literary criticism)
    O Henry
    W B Yeats
    T S Eliot
    W D Snodgrass
    W H Auden

  5. H.G. Wells

    J.A. Konrath

  6. TC Boyle

  7. I love all your famous Betsy portraits. People are always shortening my name to ‘Sue’ which made me go berserk when I was younger, but now, pffft, I don’t care what people call me anymore.

    Meanwhile, I’ll go with –

    GK Chesterton.

  8. “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” – S.E. Hinton

  9. Canadian author
    RD Lawrence
    Two of his many books: The North Runner, 1979
    Secret Go the Wolves, 1980

    Have a great trip, ES, I mean, Betsy!

  10. My UK publishers are bringing my novel (The Murderer’s Daughters) out under the name “RS Meyers” in Britain, Ireland, Scotland and Australia, because of the meaning of ‘randy’ over there.

    Thus, I’ve been renamed overseas. A strange, strange feeling.

  11. P.G. Wodehouse hasn’t been mentioned yet. Although his friends called him “Plum”. I think that’s how to resolve this, Betsy — you’ll be known as ES Lerner to the teeming millions, but to us, your closest and dearest friends, you’ll be Betsy.

    R.K. Narayan, V.S. Pritchett, H.H. Munro, and V.S. Naipaul should also be added to the list.

  12. SJ Rozan
    AS King

    FX Toole

  13. I haven’t seen any triples yet, like JRR Tolkien…

    any others?

  14. EM Forster

  15. MFK Fisher

  16. SE Hinton

  17. LM Montgomery

  18. A.L. Kennedy.

  19. “Betsy “is very gothic. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

    Damn. M@ got PG Wodehouse before me. Does BF Skinner count?

    • Vivian Swift is the BEST author name I’ve ever encountered anywhere, anytime. It may be just be the all time best name, period, full stop.

  20. A.J. Liebling
    W.G. Sebald
    C.K. Williams

  21. Older Indian people (even non-authors) often employ initials. They’re crazy for PG Wodehouse in India, and his influence ossified their English(with a twist) into the “veddy good” idiosyncratic dialect we hear today. The use of initials may be a nod to that heritage, but it could also be that many Hindu names are too long to fit comfortably on a business card, letter head, or book cover.

  22. AE Hotchner

    Does F Scott Fitzgerald qualify?

    A Conan Doyle?

    L Ron Hubbard

    Half-pointers, maybe?

  23. A. A. Milne
    H.L Mencken

  24. Guys, my really smart nephew (who occasionally helps me with the tech side of the blog) sent along an email saying he didn’t want to spoil my fun or anything, but…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_initials

    “Spoil my fun.” I love being condescended to by a 24 year old. I love the kid, but he also uses one of the Scrabble dictionaries with fake words. Agh. Have a great weekend and thanks again for the submissions. ES Lerner

  25. Don’t worry, the list added the fun – now we know what the initials stand for!

  26. Next we should do a list of all the female authors who went by male names!

  27. AM Homes
    PD James
    AS Byatt

    One thing people haven’t mentioned–if you’re a woman and you use initials, people will likely assume you’re a man. Which overall is a good thing in terms of reviews and critical respect. I’m not saying that’s okay–but I do think it’s true.

    When I started publishing I was H.H. LeCraw. I have always liked my first name, but to me it doesn’t have a great deal of gravitas. Back when I was H.H., people always assumed I was male–agents I queried, people who read my stories and reviews. I met one author whose book I reviewed and he said in surprise, “That was you? That was a really great review! I thought you were a man.”

    Yep.

    When we were deciding who I’d be for my book coming out this spring, I was so eager to get it published that I let myself be convinced that bookbuyers (i.e. women) want to know they’re buying women. So I’m Holly now. Of course, in this day of internet transparency you can find out someone’s gender with the press of a button–or just look at the picture on the damn flap. But making it so blatantly obvious I’m female, and with a sort of cheerleadery name to boot, is going to have an effect, and I’ll never know precisely what it is.

    • Well – they did kind of mention it since it’s the well-known story behind why Joanne Rowling submitted her (so much rejected) manuscript as J.K. Rowling.
      But then there are also men I know who write ‘romance’ under female pseudonyms.
      (Shock horror – and sorry for mentioning the ‘r’ word.)
      It might be – I think – what has often been called ‘a vexed subject’ – or more likely an insolvable phenomenom. And does anyone really know what works when?

  28. DBC Pierre

  29. Another triplet: A. J. P. Taylor, by jove, and in the sf genre, C. J. Cherryh.

  30. Re: Randy who will have initials on her book in Europe. My name is Jan and in Europe it is always assumed I am male. I was even assigned a male roommate at a conference. Too bad he wasn’t a male I thought would work for me. But. I’ve wondered what to do about that. I generally let people call me Jane but perhaps initials are better.

    Next, can we talk about pseudonymns?

  31. P. J. O’Rourke

  32. Has anyone mentioned E. Nesbit?

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