Known Alias: How Stephen King Was Outed as Richard Bachman
July 19, 2017 6:57 AM   Subscribe

In 1984, Richard Bachman's fifth novel, Thinner, came out. It was Bachman's first hardcover release, and the author thought he was on the verge of breaking out (especially since he had recently sold the film rights to The Running Man, his fourth novel). But a clerk at a Washington DC bookstore suspected that Bachman was not who he claimed to be: that "Richard Bachman" was actually Stephen King.
posted by Etrigan (56 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
I hope I'm famous enough someday for someone to relentlessly ruin my pen name fun.
posted by Artw at 7:09 AM on July 19 [10 favorites]


“This is what Stephen King would write like if Stephen King could really write,”

Ouch.
posted by pharm at 7:18 AM on July 19 [9 favorites]


I remember, shortly before the reveal, standing in a second hand bookstore and picking up a copy of "The Long Walk" and reading the back cover. I thought it sounded interesting...but I didn't know the author and I wasn't going to use my limited pocket money (I was 13) to take a flyer.

Sigh.
posted by nubs at 7:20 AM on July 19 [2 favorites]


I was always most impressed with the way Salvatore Lombino handled this dilemma in Candyland.
posted by chavenet at 7:24 AM on July 19 [1 favorite]


On a related note: when JK Rowling tried the same thing. It's interesting that the idea both times was "Hey, am I actually a good writer? Let's see if I can make a hit under a pen name," and the answer boils down to "no, you can't." Then again, had either of their pseudonyms become a hit, would they have been able to maintain them? I don't think so--I think public demand and publishers wanting publicity would have had a problem had "Bachman" "not been able" to give interviews, but nobody cares about that if he's not a hit. (I haven't really paid much attention to Elena Ferrante, but I gather this hasn't been an issue for her though?)

In this case King kind of accidentally outed himself in some ways/was similar enough in his writing/subject matter, but in Rowling's case from what I recall, she got outed for the publicity/to boost sales.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:31 AM on July 19 [1 favorite]


Rowling was outed when someone at her lawyer's firm bragged to a dinner party about it, IIRC.

Outing people just because you're curious who they are (not because they've done something etc) is a supreme dick move.
posted by schadenfrau at 7:36 AM on July 19 [20 favorites]


Taking the The Bachman Books from my mom's nightstand was how I, as a completely weird AF 5th grader, got into Steven King...
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:44 AM on July 19 [5 favorites]


2 semi-related questions/comments:

- Does a highly famous author really think that their pen name will remain a secret? It seems like a tall order, given that the identity has to be tied back to their legal one in contracts, etc. I've read from writers like Lawrence Block that it's more of a strategy to avoid having too many books on the shelf from the same author and/or to avoid confusion when someone like Rowling, known for Harry Potter, tries a different genre: i.e. a marketing move as much as anything. But I don't know what their expectations were.

- I think it's a bit unfair to call Rowling's experiment an exercise in "am I a good writer?" and call the answer "no." Having a hit series for a writer or actor puts them in a very small minority. Not being able to do it again, every time, does not negate their success. One can certainly critique Rowling's writing style (he said, obliquely), but her failure in that experiment does not make her a bad writer nor predict whether she'll be successful with a different series in the future.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:48 AM on July 19 [12 favorites]


This of course led to his fun cameo on Sons of Anarchy.
posted by jonmc at 7:49 AM on July 19 [3 favorites]




Weird, I was just thinking about Thinner last night. It was my first King book ever; I think I was twelve. I was a scared, cover-your-eyes kid and was fascinated with why people read scary stuff. Thinner sounded like a safe one to explore. Dude loses weight? I can handle that.

It of course got a lot worse than that, and I got hooked. I barely read anyone else for the next couple of years.

It's interesting that the idea both times was "Hey, am I actually a good writer? Let's see if I can make a hit under a pen name," and the answer boils down to "no, you can't."

I'm sure you didn't mean that uncharitably, but I don't think that that's the right takeaway. Both King and Rowling have their weaknesses, and nobody's going to mistake them for Shakespeare, but both were unknowns who built literary careers from literal poverty and are now aped probably more than any other living writer.

It's not clear that they wouldn't have broken through under their pseudonyms, a process that can take many years. The article suggests that Bachman may have been on the verge of doing so when he was outed. Rowling's pseudonym seemed like it barely existed before she was outed. And lord knows that writing as a profession is littered with legions of very talented writers who just never found the right toehold in the market. I personally know a gorgeous and lyrical writer who has broken my heart many times over and who may well die laboring in obscurity at an alt weekly to pay the bills.

It's nigh impossible to know that they wouldn't have broken through on their own, given enough time, and it's equally impossible to say that, if they never did break through, it was because they weren't good enough.
posted by middleclasstool at 8:05 AM on July 19 [19 favorites]


Stephen King's pen name fun seems like just that—a bit of fun, a lark. He wasn't trying anything new under the Bachman name except disassociating himself from his fame. The first four Bachman books were books he couldn't get published before he broke out with Carrie, and the next two (Thinner and Misery, if this story is true) were exactly the same kind of thing he'd write under his own name. If anything, I'd say he's having more fun using the Bachman name now in a meta-fictional way than he would have if he'd never been outed!
posted by ejs at 8:11 AM on July 19


damn all this time I thought it was Wanda Tinasky
posted by supermedusa at 8:12 AM on July 19 [4 favorites]


Does a highly famous author really think that their pen name will remain a secret?

Some background on this FPP: the link was FB-messaged to me a coupla days ago with only the word "Amateur." appended to it. It was from a highly famous author I know who has three pen names, one of which provides a pretty comfortable middle-class income all by itself. Outside of the publishing world (and a couple of other people who've known this author IRL for decades), no one has the slightest idea of any of this, because these days, you can be a fairly popular author with a social media presence that is a total lie.
posted by Etrigan at 8:18 AM on July 19 [37 favorites]


“This is what Stephen King would write like if Stephen King could really write”

I know I beat this horse every time King comes up, but this is pretty much how I feel about King's work. The Bachman stuff is most of what I love about his writing without the cruft and digressions and needless repetition of the rest of it (with exceptions, of course).

Maybe I'll give Thinner a read one of these days and see how I feel about it.
posted by uncleozzy at 8:18 AM on July 19 [1 favorite]


So much of modern publishing success rests on author promotion that it's hard to imagine a pseudonym being truly successful. Maybe it would be sufficient that they be charming on Twitter and not make in-person appearances, but even that seems doubtful. The authors I follow are always doing in-person tours and book trailers and yadda yadda.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:20 AM on July 19


Does a highly famous author really think that their pen name will remain a secret?

Sometimes, yeah, especially if they're working in a genre or style that they're not associated with. Two of the four original Bachman books were science fiction (The Long Walk is set in an alternate history, and The Running Man in a near-future dystopia) and the other two, Rage and Roadwork, are present day thrillers with no fantastical elements. In the foreword to the original Bachman Books collection, King said that he wanted to see if his success as an author was a fluke, or if the unpublished novels in what he called "the Trunk" would succeed without his brand behind them. (He also relates the anecdote of how Paul McCartney had tried to get the other Beatles to go on tour as a bar band, wearing disguises, and that someone told him that their voices and musical style would be recognized halfway through the first stanza; King thought, based on his experience with Bachman, that they wouldn't even get past George's introductory guitar licks before being outed.)

As for whether they're better than King's usual stuff, well, de gustibus non est disputandum and whatnot; one of the things that strikes me about the first four Bachman books is how deeply angry most of the protagonists are. The only arguable exception is the main character in The Long Walk, and even there he (and the other Walkers who last the longest) are motivated in part by their mutual dislike of a particular Walker, who has a secret or two of his own. That's not unknown in other King protagonists, of course (see Carrie, for example), but it's really striking in these books. (This is already well known, but bears repeating: Rage is the only one of King's books that he will not allow to stay in print, because it involves a school shooting before they became common.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:00 AM on July 19 [4 favorites]


Outside of the publishing world (and a couple of other people who've known this author IRL for decades), no one has the slightest idea of any of this, because these days, you can be a fairly popular author with a social media presence that is a total lie.

I knew there was something fishy about this "scalzi" character.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:05 AM on July 19 [22 favorites]


Is "highly famous author" even a thing anymore, outside of the three or four names on airport paperbacks?
posted by uncleozzy at 9:09 AM on July 19 [2 favorites]


Doris Lessing published a couple of novels under a pseudonym, Jane Somers. Robert Gottlieb, her editor at Knopf (Random House), is said to have recognized the work as Lessing's but agreed to publish it under the pseudonym.

Rage is the only one of King's books that he will not allow to stay in print, because it involves a school shooting before they became common. One of the things I enjoy about King is that he is a deeply moral writer, or at least was, I had to stop reading his books after Pet Sematary; too suspenseful, too close to home when I became a parent.

I was working as a bookseller when both of these authors & their pseudonyms published. Books, authors and editors were more prominent in the news. Authors, not just super bestselling ones, used to be on the Tonight Show, usually at the very end, but still. Dick Cavett's show was genuinely oriented to intellectuals. I understand that people love sports, music, and media celebrities. (I don't understand why people care about celebrities like the Kardashians.) News shows and late night shows are owned by media giants who want the publicity for movies, albums, etc., but I really miss those shows with writers. Fallon and Colbert are so manic. I would watch the hell out of a late night show that was interesting. I am, however, entering geezerhood and have no allure to marketers.
posted by theora55 at 9:11 AM on July 19 [4 favorites]


I typed that, then realized I just bought the 1st 3 Gunslinger book ostensibly for my son, knowing full well I am the one likely to be reading them. I have wanted to re-read The Stand, and just picked up an unabridged copy yesterday, so that's coming up, as well.
posted by theora55 at 9:15 AM on July 19


Stephen King's pen name fun seems like just that—a bit of fun, a lark. He wasn't trying anything new under the Bachman name except disassociating himself from his fame.

Well, yes and no - at the time the Bachman books were far more psychological horror (Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork) and dystopian SF (The Running Man) than the supernatural horror that had been King's identity to that point (the Different Seasons collection being the first real "different" think that King had done in 1982, and I have no idea how that was received at the time). Thinner is arguably the most (for the time) King-like Bachman novel - the mix of the supernatural and psychological horror.

In the larger context of his career, I agree that the Bachman books aren't really a break from his other writing, but I think at the time, they kind of were.

I have wanted to re-read The Stand, and just picked up an unabridged copy yesterday, so that's coming up, as well.

I'd be interested to hear how you find it; I know the last time I re-read it - about 10 years ago I think - I found it (the unabridged copy) hadn't aged well for me.
posted by nubs at 9:32 AM on July 19 [4 favorites]


You know, the more I read of Chuck Tingle's work, it all sounds so... familiar...
posted by delfin at 9:33 AM on July 19 [6 favorites]


It's nigh impossible to know that they wouldn't have broken through on their own, given enough time, and it's equally impossible to say that, if they never did break through, it was because they weren't good enough.

There's also the point that there are many talented people in creative fields who never break through. Unrecognized creative talent is almost a cliché. If that's really the way of things, then there's also an element of fortune in breakouts, and depending on how big a role that plays, one might expect that even a talented writer might not get the same breaks that made them famous twice.

If King was approaching that second success, that's very interesting.
posted by wildblueyonder at 9:45 AM on July 19 [3 favorites]


... a highly famous author I know who has three pen names

That's nothing - I have a whole box of crayons, and I've given them ALL names: Bluey, Pinky, Red, Old Yella ... sure, I'm not a "highly famous author," but maybe if I had a pen as well, then - uh ... I'd call her Penny, I guess? Or Penfold? NO WAIT - Pendragon Inkstaff!!! Or just "Inky" - ? Bic?? Bicky Smudgealot??? Ballpoint McPointyballs????

Oh man I'm gonna have so many pens named, I'll be so famous when they write a book for me!!!

But, uh ... where do they get their ideas from? I'm just asking for the crayons.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:46 AM on July 19 [8 favorites]


On a related note: when JK Rowling tried the same thing. It's interesting that the idea both times was "Hey, am I actually a good writer? Let's see if I can make a hit under a pen name," and the answer boils down to "no, you can't."

This is a weird way to frame it, because your post literally links to a MF discussion about how the first book she wrote as Robert Galbraith had excellent reviews from critics, and was in the top 1% of sales for first time "unknown" writers. (Which is to say: not huge, but far from terrible). The fact that it didn't meet Harry Potter levels of stratospheric success doesn't mean it failed.

Also, I think for Rowling specifically, some of it may have been an attempt to distance the grimdarkness of the novels from her name for the sake of her young fans. The Galbraith novels have a LOT of dark sexual content, and publishing it other another name makes it less likely that a young reader would find it on the same shelf and think "this must be like Harry Potter, yayyy!" (Full disclosure: I read the first one without knowing Rowling wrote it, and liked it enough to read the next two.)

Oh, and one of the Galbraith books is about an absolute hellhole of a publishing agency, where everyone is out for metaphorical blood and would throw their famous authors under the bus for the slightest advantage. (And lots of jaundiced takes on authors trying to break out of their genres, too.)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:51 AM on July 19 [20 favorites]


But, uh ... where do they get their ideas from?

I'm just going to leave this here (PDF)
posted by nubs at 9:55 AM on July 19 [1 favorite]



I'm sure all of this came as a surprise to William Atheling, Jr., Cordwainer Bird, and Paul French.

And both Kilgore Trouts.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:56 AM on July 19 [3 favorites]


> "It's interesting that the idea both times was 'Hey, am I actually a good writer? Let's see if I can make a hit under a pen name,' and the answer boils down to 'no, you can't.'"

That's not really true in either case. King-as-Bachman had just sold the movie rights to The Running Man before the reveal, and The Cuckoo's Calling was a well-reviewed mystery novel doing perfectly well on the midlist before anyone knew it was written by Rowling. No, neither of them had produced another massive worldwide bestseller under their alternate names, but I'm not at all sure that was the goal and by any reasonable standard both of their pen-names were doing quite well.

Anyway, moving right along, put me down for HATING the practice of finding out the real names behind pen-names when there's no particular reason to do so other than curiosity. In the best case it's kind of mean and in the worst case it can be actively harmful.
posted by kyrademon at 10:13 AM on July 19 [13 favorites]


It's kind of related. Early on, The Beatles wrote songs for other bands, including The Rolling Stones. (Whatever happened to them?)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:29 AM on July 19


"The Galbraith novels have a LOT of dark sexual content, and publishing it other another name makes it less likely that a young reader would find it on the same shelf and think "this must be like Harry Potter, yayyy!"

This is pretty much exactly what happened when I came across Piers Anthony 'Bio of A Space Tyrant'. In retrospect, those books weren't just for adults, it should have been ready by anybody. On the plus side, those books told me that I should quit reading Piers Anthony altogether.
posted by el io at 10:29 AM on July 19 [1 favorite]


And of course there's all the Anne Rice porn. Though in that case there's got to be a huge Venn diagram overlap between fans of baroque vampire stories and fans of literary smut.
posted by middleclasstool at 11:04 AM on July 19


I'm sure all of this came as a surprise to William Atheling, Jr., Cordwainer Bird, and Paul French.

And both Kilgore Trouts.

posted by Herodios


God dammit, it's Kilgores Trout.
posted by the phlegmatic king at 11:18 AM on July 19 [15 favorites]


There's a high-end 'clothiers' locally called, inexplicably, "Kilgore Trout". I know about 'em mainly because they underwrite public broadcasting and advertise on our commercial classical FM station. Since they mainly sell suits, I've always thought they missed the mark by not going with "Kilgore Trou".

I don't wear a lot of bespoke suits, but I'd've definitely paid up to wear a pair of kilgore trousers.

As you were.
 
posted by Herodios at 11:54 AM on July 19 [10 favorites]


So the other day when I fell into a late night youtube hole (I'm not proud) I discovered the 'J K Rowling does not exist' conspiracy theory... all her novels are written by a team of ad-men and pr people. The women who goes out to sign books and get interviewed...? It's a paid actress, sheeple!

Whilst this is delightfully nuts there's definitely cases where famous writers are being / were ghost-written either from the start (the case of a certain ex-MP sprints to mind) or because their creative juices were sadly drying up.

And then there's situations like JT Leroy which are frankly crazy in every sense.

Elena Ferrante is, I think, may be, the most famous writer to successfully keep a pseudonym going... and even she was 'outed' last year, though I'm not sure if that's been confirmed as her identity.

It's not writing but Banksy still just about manages to remain hidden (various names have come up over the years without the whole thing collapsing but I suspect that because it's mostly likely that 'Banksy' is an art collective)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 11:58 AM on July 19


J K Rowling does not exist' conspiracy theory... all her novels are written by a team of ad-men and pr people.

"I heard they were all written by Victoria Appleton IV", Tom speculated roundly.
 
posted by Herodios at 12:06 PM on July 19 [5 favorites]


Does a highly famous author really think that their pen name will remain a secret?

It happened with Romain Gary, a French writer - and occasional Hollywood screenwriter - who had a successful career spanning 4 decades post WW2 and was something of a celebrity. He won France's Prix Goncourt twice, which was forbidden by the Prix's rules, once as Romain Gary in 1956 and a second time as Emile Ajar in 1975. For 8 years, the best-selling, critically praised "Emile Ajar" was impersonated by Gary's cousin Paul Pavlowitch, who gave interviews to the press (there were other crazy shenanigans told here). Pavlowitch and Gary had a falling out and Gary eventually accepted to give Pavlowitch 40% of Ajar's royalties in exchange for his silence. It's probable that a few lawyers knew about the deception, but the secret was well kept: in the late 1970s, a literature student (allegedly) wrote a dissertation claiming that Gary and Ajar were the same person but she failed to convince her professors. It didn't end well: the hoax took its toll on both men, and possibly contributed to Romain Gary's suicide in 1980. All was revealed a few months later, first by Pavlowitch (on live TV!) and then by the publication of Gary's posthumous confession. The critics, who felt that they had been taken for a ride, were really pissed.
posted by elgilito at 12:12 PM on July 19 [3 favorites]


J K Rowling does not exist' conspiracy theory... all her novels are written by a team of ad-men and pr people.

Ronbledore is a way cooler theory tbh
posted by middleclasstool at 12:19 PM on July 19 [5 favorites]


I am very partial to the books Joyce Carol Oates wrote under the names Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly. The publisher of the first Rosamond Smith book had no idea. She had hoped her cover would not be blown, but went on using pseudonymns.
posted by BibiRose at 12:19 PM on July 19


> "God dammit, it's Kilgores Trout."

There's only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you've got to say Kilgores Trout.
posted by kyrademon at 1:13 PM on July 19 [4 favorites]


theora55: " (I don't understand why people care about celebrities like the Kardashians.)"

People living vicariously.

randomkeystrike: "Does a highly famous author really think that their pen name will remain a secret?"

There is no way of knowing how often or if ever this happens. By definition we only hear about the people who fail.
posted by Mitheral at 1:32 PM on July 19 [4 favorites]


There was a time in the 80s where the majority of comics in British newsstands were written by various pen-names of John Wagner and Alan Grant, who worked together in a shed.
posted by Artw at 1:34 PM on July 19 [3 favorites]


The flip side of this was a couple years ago when A Crown of Cold Silver came out and there was a clear effort to build up some mystery around "you know, Alex Marshall is actually someone already terribly established and aren't you intrigued?" And then basically no one was.

(Turned out to be Jesse Bullington, BTW)
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 1:46 PM on July 19 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: you can be a fairly popular author with a social media presence that is a total lie.
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:51 PM on July 19


There is no way of knowing how often or if ever this happens. By definition we only hear about the people who fail.

True that.
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:52 PM on July 19


Ronbledore is a way cooler theory discovery tbh

ftfy
posted by No-sword at 2:14 PM on July 19 [3 favorites]


Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) is one example I can think of of a writer who's been successful under both his pen name and his real name -- in fact, he was more successful under the name where he was unknown. He doesn't try to make any secret of his identity, but the "Series of Unfortunate Events" books pretty clearly were successful totally independent of his established identity and work as Daniel Handler.
posted by phoenixy at 2:44 PM on July 19


Lemony M. Snicket.
posted by Artw at 3:06 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]


It worked for James Triptree Jr. for ten years.

I'm not a big King Fan. The only books I've been able to make it through are The Stand (which I love), Carrie, The Langoliers, Christine, and Joyland (which I had to read for a class). Oh, and On Writing, which I also love. The rest of his stuff... well, I just lose interest after a chapter or two.
posted by lhauser at 4:35 PM on July 19


I like him best at short story and novella length. Anyone can write a doorstop, to execute a shorter work takes art.
posted by Artw at 5:21 PM on July 19 [4 favorites]


Indeed, his shorter fiction is the best - Full Dark, No Stars was the most enjoyable book of King's in recent years IMO. When his shit is tight, it be right.
posted by nubs at 5:27 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]


In the foreword to Blaze he says that if his publisher had picked Blaze as the next book to publish he'd not been typecast as horror writer, but alas the picked 'Salem's Lot.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 5:37 PM on July 19


> I like him best at short story and novella length. Anyone can write a doorstop, to execute a shorter work takes art.

>When his shit is tight, it be right.


There's a thing that happens where a writer becomes so successful that their editor appears to become increasingly reluctant to edit them. That's how it looks from the outside, anyway. Almost like it's a superstitious fear of handling the golden goose too roughly. It happened to King and it happened to Rowling (that camping scene was almost as interminable as the endless desert in Blood Meridian). It happened most notoriously when Anne Rice demanded that her publisher stop editing her completely because the delicate filigree of her paragraphs would be destroyed by their manhandling, and they agreed.

The best art operates within constraining limits. A 14-line sonnet, an eight-panel grid, a shoestring budget. CGI was the worst thing to happen to George Lucas. You give an artist too much free rein, they don't create exciting cities. They build sprawling suburbs.
posted by middleclasstool at 5:24 AM on July 20 [8 favorites]


Of the doorsteps one of my favorites is The Dark Half, rather appropriately: King does his author insertion thing - twice.
posted by Artw at 5:43 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Iain Banks didn't really put his heart into this game, did he?
posted by Devonian at 7:58 AM on July 20 [7 favorites]


So hey, I just finished reading Thinner because of this post! It really is how King would write if he knew how to write. Which I guess maybe he does. Sometimes.

But if I never read the phrase "coltish legs" again (after this and It), it would still be too soon.
posted by uncleozzy at 4:55 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


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