Pulling a Rabbit Out of a Glass Hat


Arts & Culture

Richard Price and the evolving role of pseudonyms.


From the cover of The Whites.

Richard Price’s new novel, The Whites, isn’t by Richard Price, except that it is. It’s by Harry Brandt, Price’s pseudonym, but it’s also not really by Brandt—Price’s name is on the cover, too, and so Price is Brandt, obviously, and it follows then that Brandt is Price, and thus, uh …

Let’s start over.

Richard Price’s new novel, The Whites, is by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt. It says so right there on the cover. Big deal, you might say; another author slumming it in genre fiction by creating a false identity for himself. But by publishing both his name and his pseudonym on the cover, Price has parted with centuries of pseudonymous convention. He hasn’t just pulled back the curtain. He’s brought up the house lights and waved to the audience. And he did it all, according to the New York Times, because he got sort of annoyed.

Price wanted to adopt a pseudonym, the Times reports, “with the aim of writing a fast-paced, plot-driven crime novel”:

He wanted to inoculate himself against literary critics who might sneer at him for writing a slicker, more commercial book. He was already late on delivering a separate novel … and hoped to hide the fact that he was moonlighting. And he wanted to see if he could write a stripped-down, heavily plotted best seller, without sacrificing his literary credentials.

Price may have yearned for this kind of escape for a while. “When you write your first book you’re just a writer,” he told The Paris Review in 1996. “Then you become an author … the whole thing changes. You have a track record. You have a public. A certain literary persona. You can become very self-conscious and start to compete with yourself. No fun at all.”

And so Harry Brandt was born—prematurely, it turns out. Price couldn’t bring him to life, or inhabit his skin, or do whatever creepy metaphorical thing it is that one does with one’s pseudo-selves. This Brandt fellow, supposedly speedier and seedier, was no more than a body double for Price himself.

“It seemed like a good idea in the beginning, and now I wish I hadn’t done it,” he said. “This pen name is like pulling a rabbit out of a glass hat.”

After a tussle with his publisher and editor, who argued that the pen name would result in “commercial suicide,” Mr. Price agreed to reveal his identity by using a transparent pseudonym. The result is a somewhat awkward double identity on the book’s cover: “Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt.”

“Somewhat awkward” as it may be, the double identity sets a fascinating new precedent—I can’t think of another book that’s been attributed this way*. Writers have gone under false names, sometimes even more than one at once; they’ve added fake coauthors or ghost writers to their covers; and they’ve given writers posthumous life by assuming their identities (“Eric Van Lustbader writing as Robert Ludlum”). But have they ever invented a pseudonym only to draw attention to its hollowness? As an alter ego, Harry Brandt is such a uniquely malformed specimen that scientists should hold him for closer study.

Price as Brandt ramifies in strange ways. Reviewing The Whites in The New Yorker, Joyce Carol Oates seems willing to ascribe the conventional benefits of the pseudonym to it; she describes it as “more of a policier than Price’s previous fiction—more plot-driven and less deeply engaged by the anthropology of its urban communities.”

Michiko Kakutani, on the other hand, treats the book as a Richard Price novel, using his name and Brandt’s interchangeably and drawing attention to the ruse: “Mr. Brandt immerses us so fully in his characters’ lives that the larger contrivances almost completely fall away. No one has a better ear for street language than he (er, Richard Price) does.”

That’s the tack Price’s cohort has taken, too. “I think he’s wrong,” Dennis Lehane told the Times. “This is another Richard Price book; it’s not a supermarket book.” But Lehane misses, I think, the true shrewdness of the Price-as-Brandt tactic, which asks, Why should Richard Price books and supermarket books be mutually exclusive?

Writing as himself and Brandt gives Price the benefit of the doubt from everyone. Readers who want to find evidence of Price’s literary talents are invited to see them in The Whites. Readers who’d prefer to regard this as a lark—and thus to disregard any lapses in style or taste—can do that, too. Price isn’t the first author in history to have it both ways, but he may well be the first to have it both ways at once.

Other authors have indulged in this kind of winking play-acting—most obviously John Banville, who, as the Times points out, has written a series of crime novels as Benjamin Black. Banville is more effusive about his pseudonym, though, and far more willing to give the other guy a life of his own. In his Art of Fiction interview with The Paris Review in 2009, Banville went so far as to refer to Black as his “dark brother”:

I sat down at nine o’clock on a Monday morning, and by lunchtime I had written more than fifteen hundred words. It was a scandal! I thought, John Banville, you slut. But then I remembered it was Black, not Banville, who was writing … Everyone tried to persuade me not to use the pseudonym, but I wanted people to realize that this wasn’t an elaborate postmodernist literary joke, but the genuine article, a noir novel from Banville’s dark brother Benjamin Black. It was pure play when I invented Benjamin Black. It was a frolic of my own …

For Black, character matters, plot matters, dialogue matters to a much greater degree than they do in my Banville books … What you get in Banville is concentration, what you get from Black is spontaneity … I have always been two people, professionally. Going back and forth between John Banville and Benjamin Black is just an extension of that.

That claim for authenticity confuses me—if Banville wanted Black to be “the genuine article,” wouldn’t he have tried to hide his identity as Black’s creator, thus ensuring that Black would have an unadulterated life of his own? Or would that only make this more of a literary prank? Pseudonyms come with so much po-mo, self-referential baggage that it can feel impossible to don one without living out a Paul Auster plot.

In any case, as transparent as Banville has been, he’s never gone so far as to put his own name on the cover of Black’s novels. That, too, would risk undermining Black’s separate identity. The more you think about it, the less Banville and Price have in common: Price has far less patience for the games of selfhood involved in constructing a new name for yourself. Put differently, Benjamin Black is a nom de plume—Price as Brandt is a nom de guerre.

John Wray, who has written all his books under that quiet pseudonym, defended the practice last year by recalling the sense of wonder it gave him growing up:

Mark Twain and George Orwell and Isak Dinesen were something more than they would have been without their pseudonyms, or so it seemed to me. Their desire to reconfigure their real, lived experience was so great that it had broken the constraints of their fiction and bled, if only ever so slightly, into the actual world … They were taking something foisted on them, the identities they’d been assigned, and refashioning them to suit their own designs. They existed as authors and as characters simultaneously. How could that be tolerated?

Very easily, I think Richard Price would say—you just have to remember that it’s all pretend, and in the Information Age it’s never been easier to remember that. “Many books were published anonymously or under noms de plume in that first great age of the novel,” Wray writes, “and determined sport was made of exposing the persons behind them.” Price has made it clearer than ever that the sport is over. Short of changing his legal name to Richard Price Writing As Harry Brandt, there’s no more radical step he could have taken to signal the thrilling new vacuousness that lives behind our pseudonyms.

*Update: a reader points out that Ian Rankin did the very same thing with his Jack Harvey novels. For more on “transparent pseudonyms,” see this 2010 piece from The Washington Post, which I ought to have found before writing this one.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.