Initial success : J. R. Hartley and other authors who use initials

In 1983 the best-known author in Britain was not a bestseller like Jeffrey Archer, Roald Dahl, or Fay Weldon but J.R. Hartley the author of “Fly fishing”. The book was featured in an advert promoting the Yellow Pages telephone directory. “Fly fishing” was the object of a quest round second-hand bookshops by an elderly gentleman. In each shop he would ask if they had a copy of “Fly fishing” by J.R. Hartley only to get the answer no, and with each no he became a more dejected figure. His daughter suggests instead of trudging round bookshops he phones them using Yellow Pages. The advert ends with him on the phone to a bookseller who has a copy. “You do, that’s wonderful. My name … J.R. Hartley.” Mission accomplished and he was looking for his own book!

J.R. Hartley and his elusive book did not exist of course and were created by an advertising agency. Copy for an advert is endlessly revised and it is no accident they decided on an author’s name featuring initials. They knew that using initials can do many things including add a touch of mystery, a patina of literary authority, even a little magic. It places an author in a tradition that includes many of the most celebrated authors of all time including D. H. Lawrence, J. D. Salinger, T. S. Eliot, J. R. R. Tolkien and E.M. Forster. Among the many contemporary writers who have chosen to publish under initials are J.K. Rowling and E.L. James . We researched writers who published under initials whilst working on the Library’s exhibition ‘Pen Name” and discovered that authors had a variety of reasons for choosing to use initials.

Trinidadian-born brothers V.S. and Shiva Naipaul both became successful writers after emigrating to Britain. V.S. Naipaul chose to use initials rather than his full name Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul. As well as being difficult to fit on a book cover his full name would likely have been frequently misspelled and mispronounced. His older brother already having dibs on the use of initials, Shivadhar Srinivasa Naipaul published under a shortened version of his first given name.

The classic children’s novel “Anne of Green Gables” was published as by L.M. Montgomery, not the author’s full name Lucy Maud Montgomery. The author strongly disliked her first name Lucy and was generally called Maud by family and friends. The best way to remove the hated Lucy from her book covers was to use initials. Authors who hate their names are in a minority, but some prefer to use initials simply because it looks better. Clive Staples Lewis published his Narnia stories and other books as C.S. Lewis and Jerome David Salinger author of “The Catcher in the Rye” is known as J.D. Salinger. Clive Lewis and Jerome Salinger are simply not as pleasing to the eye or the tongue as C.S. Lewis and J.D. Salinger.

George Raymond Richard Martin is the author of a fantasy series which was adapted into the television series “Game of thrones”. He publishes as George R.R. Martin and has said that for an author your name is your brand, so making it striking and unique is important. It also usefully differentiates him from another famous George Martin, the Beatles producer. The double R.R. recalls J.R.R Tolkien the most celebrated and influential fantasy author of the 20th century and so acts both as a homage and a signal to readers that Martin is working in the same literary tradition.

Alistair MacLean’s niece Shona MacLean is the author of a series of successful historical thrillers, including the recent “The Bookseller of Inverness”. Her first three novels were published as Shona MacLean, but she published her fourth and subsequent books as S.G. MacLean. This was at the suggestion of her publisher who thought her name was too soft and feminine and might put male readers off. Market research has shown that men (and boys) can be reluctant to read books by women, and this explains in part why some women authors including J.K. Rowling choose to use initials when they publish.

Alison Louise Kennedy publishes as A.L. Kennedy which she regards as a pen name. She believes using her initials provides a necessary mental place of safety from which to write. Using initials neatly differentiates between Alison and the prize-winning literary novelist A.L.

The magical English nanny Mary Poppins is the creation of an Australian who was born Helen Lyndon Goff, but published as P.L. Travers. Goff took the name Pamela Travers when she acted with a touring theatrical company that performed Shakespeare in Australia and New Zealand. She continued to use Pamela Travers when she moved to England and became a prolific journalist and poet. Goff wanted her first book “Mary Poppins” published as by anonymous, but her publisher was not happy with this, so P.L. Travers was used. The form chosen as “it seemed to me at the time that all children’s book were written by women, and I didn’t want to feel that there was a woman or a man behind it, but a human being.”

In 1991 J.R. Hartley became a real author, or at least a book called “Fly fishing: memories of angling days” by J.R. Hartley was published. The book was in fact written by Michael Russell and became a bestseller. Russell would use J.R. Hartley as a pen name for two follow up fishing books. J.R. Hartley had caught the public’s imagination, in part because of the copy writer’s wise decision to use initials when naming their fictional author.

Authors use of initials is explored in the National Library of Scotland’s exhibition Pen Names which explores a range of writers working in Britain from the 1800s to the present day who use pen names. The exhibition runs from 8 July 2022 to 29 April 2023. Learn more about Pen Names on our website.