Nom de Plume: Literary History and the Curatorial Principle

June 20, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 19 4 min read

A friend alerted me to the fact that “curate,” a verb formerly evoking museums and archives, a verb with family ties to assistant priests in country parishes, is enjoying a hip renaissance.  My friend is more in the swim of things than I. These days, he tells me, curators abound and curate all manner of material: playlists, the news, cheese, porn movies (link questionable for work), blogs, and, according to one New York Times piece my friend curated especially for me, a stable of food trucks.  I realized how long the trend must have been building when I saw a facetious Facebook status update about curating an Oz viewing marathon.

I won’t curate them for you here, but many of the contemporary uses of the verb make the heart yearn for a simpler time–tumbrils instead of tumblrs.  Still, to deny the import of this word in its new iterations is to deny the real anxieties of our information-saturated age. How will I know all the new songs, and the best memes, and the craft beers and oozing cheeses, if they are not curated for my edification? Moreover, in this age of curatorial ubiquity we must not forget the older and arguably indispensable function of the curator–without curators, art would make no sense at all.

coverOut last week, Nom de Plume is Carmela Ciuraru‘s admirable application of the curatorial principle to a phenomenon that is neither new nor hip. Writers have always found it expedient to conceal their real names, and bibliographies of pseudonymous writing abound (Cushing; Halkett & Laing; Stonehill & Block & Winthrop). Even in 1690, when Adrien Baillet came out with Auteurs Deguisez, his 1700-name index was only a preliminary effort.  So many masked authors!  How to classify them?  Whom to choose?

Ciuraru chooses, curating 18 of these pseudonymous authors in 16 tidy sketches that shed light on the many and various motivations for pseudonymous writing. The book is a good exhibit across space, time, and material, combining the old standards (Blair/Orwell, Brontë/Bell) with some less well-known names (Sheldon/Tiptree, Pessoa/Campos et al.). Ciuraru sifted through biographies and autobiographies and published works, and here she synthesizes her research nicely. She has a gift for organizing and presenting information and an ear for the money quote from a novel or letter. I finished this book feeling armed for a book fair or an evening among highbrows: “Ah yes, Patricia Highsmith, an anti-semite with snails under her breasts,” I might say, and dazzle my interlocutor.

Ciuraru has done a fine job with her considerable research and final product, but there are some troubling aspects. Ideally, the lacunae that inevitably result from synthesizing oceans of data about 18 writers would be rendered moot by the book’s theme, since, ostensibly, Nom de Plume is meant to focus on the particulars of each author’s pseudonymity, rather than provide the entirety of their various life stories. However, since the wherefores of an author’s pseudonym are often inextricable from his or her biography, and since Nom de Plume is rather long on biography, it matters that George Orwell is suddenly absent from the Spanish Civil War, the bullet never entering his saturnine neck.

I think the rest of my complaints are traceable, like so many things, to the invisible hand of the markets. It is gratifying to see that a major publishing house was willing to make an offer on a book dealing with the arty dead, but the struggle for marketability is perceptible in the text, and the effects of the struggle ultimately diminish Ciuraru’s prose. On the inside flap, we are assured that the book is “grounded by research yet highly accessible,” and as I came across the author’s jarring comparisons of bygone novelties and institutions to iPads, The Onion, Michael Jackson, and, of all things, Seinfeld, I understood them to be awkward gestures toward the promised accessibility.

Likewise, kicky phrasing (“But wait, there’s more”), superfluous instances of telling over showing, some questionable pseudo-criticism (“That single-minded devotion to process–the ardor for writing itself, rather than the vanity of having written–is, or course, the mark of a true writer”), and the references to what the reader does and does not know (“There was his affinity for taking photos of nude girls, of course” or “We know how well she came to terms with that loss; those who don’t should read her notorious poem ‘Daddy,’ which says it all”)–these reveal a struggle to define for whom precisely this book was written. The writing feels anxious in its effort to do the impossible and include a little something or everyone, literary types and the great unwashed alike.

Marketing, too, explains the cute subtitle: “A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.” This subtitle only highlights the fact that this is not really a (secret) history; it publishes no new letters or journals, it reveals nothing hitherto unknown about its subjects.  This is curatorship–engaging and impressive curatorship to be sure–but taken alone, none of its chapters are revelatory.  The writing at some moments has that quality of desperation, familiar to anyone who has written a research paper, to finagle all the necessary paraphrasing of someone else’s work; hence sentences like “Sylvia was always driven to be the best, and often was” or “Henry came from fancy stock.”

I admire Ciuraru’s effort–I admire the considerable research she patently did, I admire her feeling for a great quotation, and I am glad that she was able to sell this idea and get the book published. I was unlikely to seek out and read the collected biographical material of Fernando Pessoa, and I am grateful that Ciuraru has done it for me. But I see it as a book for these times and no other. Our particular moment is all about managing data rather than producing it; a theme is assigned, the material assiduously curated. No conclusions can be drawn other than that writers choose aliases for a variety of reasons, and that great writers are usually outlandish people.

As blog after blog of funny photos gets picked up and published, I should be grateful there was room for this bookish offering. I think, though, that I shall always prefer my novelists straight, without even the most competent mediation of a market-conscious curator.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. This is one of the most idiotic and condescending reviews I have ever read. As a longtime critic (and National Book Critics Circle member), I have written plenty of “negative” reviews over the years, but none (I hope) with such laziness of thought or insensitivity.

    That the reviewer is a graduate student says plenty.

    That she presumes a “struggle for marketability” in the text is laughable. The rigorousness and ambition of my project is evident, I think, and there are bound to be lacunae in dealing with this topic–as I state myself in the book’s Introduction. I am disappointed that this reviewer completely missed the point of the book (not to mention, my sense of humor).

    Others who read this book may have a more thoughtful response.

    Carmela Ciuraru
    author of Nom de Plume

  2. “I am disappointed that this reviewer completely missed the point of the book (not to mention, my sense of humor).”

    Any time a writer finds that readers “completely missed the point,” the first thing she needs to ask herself is whether she succeeded in communicating that point. It takes two sides—author and reader—to create a reading experience.

  3. Carmela, I really can’t believe you would attack this fairly positive review of your work as ‘condescending’ and then go on to say, ‘That the reviewer is a graduate student says plenty.’ I am not sure you could be more condescending yourself.
    Additionally, your critiques of the review are ‘laughable.’ You could at least prove that you are free from your own ‘laziness of thought’ and supply some actual defense other than ‘this reviewer completely missed the point of the book.’

  4. It’s not only quite unprofessional, but considerably disconcerting to have an author attack a reviewer. I also found this review to be reasonable and I hope that people will continue to feel safe to write negative reviews without fear of distasteful backlash from authors.

  5. It is the height of narcissim for a writer to defend herself from what is (from this reader’s perspective) a balanced (and overall quite positive) review, not to mention making ad hominem attacks on the reviewer. It’s also a sure way to chase curious readers away–very few of whom might have been discouraged from reading her book by this review.

  6. The bulk of comments that accrue here will no doubt fault the author for responding on a public forum (one of the great modern sins), and not the reviewer for her belabored commentary on the notion of curation and her fascination with book marketing and the mere fact that ‘Nom de Plume’ was even published.

    I’m not sure what this piece is, but it’s not a book review. I read it and leave knowing virtually nothing about the book itself.

  7. As someone how has appreciated Lydia Kiesling’s contributions to The Millions, I must express my surprise that Carmela Ciuraru, who levels the boorish and entirely unfounded accusation of “laziness of thought and insensitivity” against a very passionate and considered reader (one who is wisely working her way through the Modern Library canon, no less), would be guilty of an even graver affront against thought and sensitivity. Ciuraru clearly does not comprehend the present publishing marketplace as manifested in her own compromised offering. The examples that Kiesling uses (“highly accessible,” as if anything even remotely inaccessible was as loathsome as Lima beans) are perfectly reasonable. And Kiesling is especially generous to Ciuraru even after presenting these plaints. Instead of shaking Kiesling’s mostly peaceful hand, Ciuraru has bared her teeth like an ungrateful mongrel denied her carefully diced fillet mignon. It is unbecoming behavior from a published author and rude from any human being.

  8. I find the suggestion that Lydia Kiesling is anything less than thoughtful in her reading or in her work to be quite startling. I’ve read and enjoyed a great many of Lydia’s pieces, and find her work — this review included — to be consistently considered and intelligent. I think we should all be so lucky as to have our books reviewed by a reader of Lydia’s caliber.

  9. Fascinating, on a number of psychological levels. I agree with Brandon that the piece isn’t entirely a review, but it is a thoughtful, intelligently written article about Ciuraru’s book. The reviewer’s disappointment (following her praise) seems to come from treating this work as a serious literary contribution. The book author is certainly entitled to her reaction, but for me, it doesn’t jibe with the article I read, above.

  10. Yeah, I really hate it when people tell me I’ve done a fine job with my considerable research. I’m all like, “Oh, yeah? Well, *you* have a fine feeling for quotation, JERKFACE.”

    Seriously, Marx lied. We’ve seen this little drama repeat itself at least a half-dozen times in the past few years: Writer A does a lukewarm but not all that harsh piece on Writer B’s book; Writer B responds with whining invective, ad hominem nonsense, and condescending accusations of condescension (“grad student”). And it never becomes farcical. It keeps getting sadder.

  11. The vehemence of the author’s response to the subject of being conscious of accessibility/audience is quite telling.

    It must be a sensitive subject for pure artistes. You know, letting concerns about success affect the creative process in any way.

    But I wouldn’t know about that, I’m just a graduate student.

  12. Carmela Ciuraru should know that complaining about a review–any review–is a doomed exercise. But if she was going to post a rebuttal, it would have helped to have provided concrete examples and maybe a few suggestions. A generalized denunciation just makes her sound like a crank.

    On the other hand, I understand how crazy you can get during the weeks after your book comes out. So, she got a little pissy. Yawn.

    And, actually, I agree that this is a sort of a mess of a review. It IS really condescending: “Oh how wonderful that someone agreed to publish something so obviously unprofitable.” And, Lydia Keisling spends half of the review trying (in vain) to support her cutesly lead about curating instead of just dealing with the book. And she writes with a fusty faux-intellectual tone, describing, for instance, Orwell’s neck as “saturnine,” for no good reason at all, and using, you see, way too many commas, just like this, to fit in, words like tumbril, that unwittingly say more about the reviewer’s desire to parade their intellect, than the text in question.

    So, Carmela does have a point. Even if she should have kept it to herself.

  13. A friend once criticized a piece I wrote by asking, “Did you write this for an audience or your own entertainment?” Cutting, but the quintessential question any author must confront.

  14. Ugh: “A friend alerted me to the fact that “curate” . . . is enjoying a hip renaissance. My friend is more in the swim of things than I. . . . the lacunae that inevitably result from synthesizing oceans . . . ”
    What hideous writing.
    “Curate” is having a “renaissance”? When was it’s classical era? And it’s middle ages? “More in the swim of things than I”–such numbskull pseudo-twenties diction I cannot believe.
    If you want to read someone really dissecting “curate,” read bikesnobnyc.
    The author’s reply is, of course, just as obnoxious as the review. But at least it’s better written.

  15. I bought the book but just started reading, so I can’t comment on merit. But in my opinion the review doesn’t give you knowledge of the material. Lydia Kielsing has her own snark agenda from the first line, and that’s a turn off. She’s also saying that reading biography is mostly a waste of time, which I don’t agree with (but might have misunderstood her point). As a wannabe/aspiring fiction writer, this piece is distasteful, and keep in mind I got plenty of less than positive, but constructive, feedback in my MFA program. This is not really a review, a stated by Brandon. and as a writer I would react strongly too. It’s obvious that her friends try to make her case for her with the negative/defensive comments. I love reading The Millions, just not this crap. Most of the time I find the criticism type content to be pretty good – often great – not to mention the other stuff on the site. [Recent good interview with David Bezmozgis.] I’d say keep the bar raised, better than this.

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