The Brief Wondrous Life of Rae-Jolene Smith

Yesterday novelist Nora Roberts greeted fans and signed books at the offices of the Washington Post. I didn’t go—I haven’t read any of her books, so I wouldn’t get much out of it except for watching the spectacle—but the Post‘s Book World fiction editor, Ron Charles, covered it thoroughly, both via Twitter and video. (Disclosure: I’ve contributed to the Post a few times, and he’s worked on my copy.) At one point during the event Roberts was asked why she uses multiple pseudonyms, to which she responded by quoting something her agent told her: “It’s marketing. There’s Pepsi, there’s Diet Pepsi, and there’s Caffeine Free Pepsi.”

Pity be upon the writer who feels compelled to whip up a persona that’s equivalent to Caffeine Free Pepsi, a drink I imagine people consume only because some medical authority has guilted them into doing so. But there are more noble reasons for writing pseudonymously. In 1987 Joyce Carol Oates wrote a lengthy rumination on the history of literary pseudonyms and writers’ motivations for using them; Marian Evans (aka George Eliot) did it to escape the sexism of her era, while Doris Lessing wanted to test what kind of critical response she’d get if she wrote something under a name that wasn’t her own.

And Joyce Carol Oates herself? Her piece dodges that question, despite the fact that earlier that year the New York Times revealed that she was getting ready to publish a mystery, Lives of the Twins, under the name Rosamond Smith. She told that Times that, much like Lessing, “I wanted to escape from my own identity.” A contrite-sounding Oates told the paper, “That’s the last time I’ll try to use a pseudonym.”

Time would prove her a liar: She wound up writing eight novels as Smith and three suspense novels as Lauren Kelly. At this point the word is out about Oates’ pseudonyms, so they now serve less as escape hatches and more as ways to signal that she’s tinkering with genre. A report from a reading in Paris earlier this month shows she’s been a longtime scholar of crime stories:

When asked about the relationship between her work and detective fiction, she responded “I don’t write thrillers, exactly” and went on to list many different genres and subgenres of detective fiction. “I’ve never written a thriller and I’m not drawn to the genre,” she said before going on to explain what she views as the action structure of the thriller. “The genre I like is psychological mystery/suspense which I think is very true to life.” For her, this genre is written from the point of view of one person, sometimes a detective, and represents the position we are often in when confronted with something mysterious.

But the Rosamond Smith novel wasn’t the first time Oates used a pseudonym. In 1975 she was writing stories as “Rae-Jolene Smith” and sending them out to literary reviews as she would with works under her own name. As she wrote in her journal, this led to a brief moment of worry on her part:

A story written and sent out under a pseudonym wound up being accepted by a distinguished literary journal that had just, a few days before, accepted one of “my” stories, sent to the editors by Blanche [Gregory, Oates’ agent]. Had I known she sent them a story, I wouldn’t have sent them the other…! A coincidence; how interesting it would be if both appeared in the in the same issue.

No dice; a footnote in The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982 points out that while both stories appeared in the Yale Review, they didn’t appear in the same issue. But Oates would eventually get her interesting moment—sort of. The 1977 edition of The Best American Short Stories included an Oates story, “Gay”; tucked in the back, in the “Roll of Honor” listing other stories that fell under consideration for the book but which fell short for some reason or another, was a listing for story by Rae-Jolene Smith titled “The Buried Self.”