Calling Authors Names
I read my first Agatha Christie story recently and found myself referring to her as “Agatha.” Normally, I wouldn’t think twice about this but I also happened to be reading a book about Oscar Wilde, someone who I would never refer to as anything but “Oscar Wilde.” Just “Oscar” seemed far too informal and anyway not nearly precise enough and “Wilde” was too stiff for someone so flamboyant. The more I thought about it, the more puzzled I became at how we refer to authors. Charles Dickens was undeniably “Dickens,” Jane Austen is always “Jane,” Arthur Conan Doyle is forever “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle” (as is “Sir Walter Scott”), and Wilkie Collins is simply “Wilkie.” Why is this? Shouldn’t they all just go by their full or last name if we’re being proper about it?
At first I thought perhaps it is a gender thing. It seemed like all the authors I referred to by first name were female (Agatha, Jane, Louisa, and Zelda among them). They were like pop stars who don’t need any identifying second name and they were also, perhaps, more comforting and friendly as members of my own gender. And of course I would refer to friends by their first names. (If there are any male readers out there who feel a similar bond to male authors and find themselves referring to Dickens as “Charles” or “ole Chuckster,” please do chime in.) But then I realized that “Wilkie” is definitely male (although, to me, pretty non-threatening), so perhaps I was needlessly involving gender.
My second thought on the matter was that how I refer to authors depends on my familiarity and comfort with them. This again explained Jane and Wilkie nicely as well as Shakespeare who since high school has been saddled with such varied nicknames as “Billy Shakes” and “Shakey,” but not Alexandre Dumas (who I always call “Dumas”) or Elizabeth Peters and Anne Fadiman (both of whom I always call by their full names). It also didn’t explain why on earth I would call Agatha Christie “Agatha” after only a few pages of literary acquaintance.
I then toyed with ideas of social rank, time period, or how much the author is respected in literary canon, but none of them really stood up. Social rank would explain “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” but not Dickens, who was also knighted but whom I never refer to as “Sir Charles Dickens.” It also doesn’t explain the numerous courtly female authors (Dame Agatha Christie!), none of whom I refer to by rank (except perhaps Lady Caro, but I refer to her so infrequently that the point is fairly moot). Time period was useless since Jane is from the 19th century, Shakespeare is a Tudor fellow, Elizabeth Peters is totally modern, and F. Scott Fitzgerald is early 20th century. And if it were up to respect in the canon, Billy Shakes would never be anything but “Mr. William Shakespeare.”
In the end, all I could come up with is that is a fairly subjective process, but one which probably does have something to do with gender. I would greatly appreciate any male readers to share their thoughts since I’m only seeing this from the female perspective. Aside from that, there does not seem to be any hard or fast rule that explains how we refer to authors. What do you think? Do you have a rule that works? And do you call these authors the same things I do? Let’s talk subjectivity!