I brought three books with me when I moved to Paris on a £14 Megabus: one of them was The Story of O. I’d squirrel away in the predictably unheated top-floor bedroom-cum-kitchen-cum-occasional bathroom (I would say “garret”, but it’ll make me sound even more of a nob) and read it, while I waited for Ab Fab to stream. Published in France in 1954 by the appropriately monikered Jean-Jacques Pauvert, it’s a dirty great romp of chains, castles, masks and leather, and its author was a 47-year-old editorial secretary, whose boyfriend had mouthed off that no woman was capable of writing an erotic novel. Anne Desclos, noted variously as ‘prudish’ and ‘nun-like’, wrote under a pen-name at Gallimard Publishers but invented a new one – Pauline Réage – for O, which became an immediate success, was banned in court, and whose author only revealed herself 40 years post-publication. I believe the phrase is “slam dunk”.
So what’s in a name, and why have so many writers – particularly of erotica – chosen to adopt one? The problem, as is so often the case for novelists, lies in the criticism. In the past 20 years, prize-winning authors have been systematically discouraged from writing truly great sex. Too often it is brushed aside – possibly unconsciously – as a ‘low brow’ insertion into an otherwise literary work. There’s the dreaded ‘after…’ as protagonists gently tiptoe away from the bedroom and resume the narrative. The Bad Sex Awards, though hilarious, is certainly a contributing factor. Now, in the midst of a generally well-received work of fiction, sex scenes – when they do exist – have a beam thrust sharply upon them. Is this credible? Is it sexy? Have they used the words ‘heaving’, ‘squelch’ or ‘orgasmic’? Less sex is written for fear of ridicule, and therefore less sex is written well. But – as any fule know – sex is about the hardest thing to get right. Bloody conundrum, I tell you.
In terms of reception, then. The last thing anyone wants, when meekly presenting their work to the world, is hordes of friends crowing that it’s offered a glimpse into the authors’ own bedroom. We’re told to write about what we know. But if what we’ve written happens to use not the feather but the whole chicken, it becomes much more difficult to present.
And people love intrigue, whilst loathing anonymity. Who, we cried, is Belle du Jour? Who, they cried, are Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell? We’re so keen to celebritise those who impress or shock us that we often forget there may be a very good reason for a writer’s anonymity. In Japan there’s a nifty little concept called a gō – a pseudonym used by artists, which can change many times in a life. It isn’t questioned and it isn’t prodded – in many ways, assuming a separate identity for the purposes of creating separate identities seems natural. In the 19th century, it would have been nigh-on impossible for Mary Ann Evans to be taken seriously, but George Eliot was a storm. And what did she need to cover up, after all, in a novel subtitled A Story of Provincial Life? There’s not a lazy metaphor for shagging or a butt-plug in sight. It was gender then and it’s too often gender now that necessitates the drive to call a person or thing by a name that isn’t theirs.
Genre can play a large part in the decision to adopt a different name. When PD James broke into crime writing it was assumed her intricate, tightly woven thrillers would find more fellowship with the enigmatic PD than with Phyllis Dorothy. JK Rowling’s Robert Galbraith is another recent example. In erotica, noms de plume tend to run along the ‘name-of-first-pet, mother’s maiden name’ route, or something delicately feminine, complete with a pink-and-black striped front cover (for the laydees). There are few books marketed for men, by men, in the erotic sphere, which leads to the amusing conclusion that a handful of the ‘Trixy Monroe’s on Amazon might be dudes, bashing the keyboard and giggling.
Charlotte Brontë, writing in 1850, noted the “vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice” – now we have the prejudice of Bad Sex writing, gender-specific genres, and fewer writers than ever starting out as equals on the page. It may be easier to say what we mean under a hidden identity, but it’s pigeon-holing the erotic market to its detriment. A call to writers of sexy fiction – pick up your pens and drop your scruples. I can guarantee you we’ve seen far, far worse.