RIP Iain M. Banks (and some thoughts about nom de plumes)

After announcing he had terminal cancer earlier this year, Iain M. Banks has passed away.

Banks was a staggering talent, and one of the writers who completely captivated my imagination and twisted my developing brain. As a teenager, his novel “The Wasp Factory” was a favorite of mine. “The Wasp Factory” completed blew my mind with a “never saw it coming” ending that I wouldn’t dare cheapen by calling it a “twist.” In retrospect, I respect it even more: it was his debut novel, and it instantly cemented him as a talent (albeit a controversial one.)

Banks caught a lot of flak for his naming conventions. It’s generally reported that he used “Iain Banks” for more “literary work” and “Iain M. Banks” for Sci-Fi. The breakdown was never quite that black and white, but his use of two professional names really irked a lot of people. Why a single initial should matter so much has always baffled me.

I guess other authors have felt fan ire over their use of other names (Stephen King as Richard Bachman, Anne Rice as Anne Rampling or A .N. Roquelaire.) But the name “controversy” over how Banks used his middle initial always seemed silly to me. Why not write under more than one name? As an author, your name is sort of your brand: if you have the breadth of talent to write in more than one genre, with very difference audiences, it makes sense to distinguish those properties. It’s not a matter of trying to “fool” your readers.

As a woman with a masculine name, it’s been interesting trying to write using my real name. If I’m submitting to a women’s magazine or an anthology that’s targeting only female writers, I always make it a point to explain in my cover letter than my name may be masculine, but I am not. If I’m writing for a men’s mag, or don’t want people to consider my gender at all, then I say nothing and let people assume what they will. Though, of course, anyone could Google me and find pictures of my feminine face plastered on Twitter or this very blog.

I think I may have gotten away from the point here, which should be Banks. I guess I think his legacy should be his writing, and not some stupid quibbles about how he used that initial to convey meaning about the content of a book. We live in an age where anyone can get behind a “nom de plume” in about 45 seconds. Let’s stop talking about the name an author chooses to publish under, and talk about the content of the novels themselves. An author’s identity doesn’t change just because they used a different name on a book cover.


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