Calling Authors Names

April 15, 2010 at 12:00 am 9 comments

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!



Entry filed under: Musings and Essays. Tags: , , , , , .

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  April 15, 2010 at 10:45 am

    I almost always use full names in speech, but last names when writing more formally (Austen, Fadiman, Dickens, Collins).

    Then again, I have been known to refer to Charles Dickens as “Ol’ Chuck Dick” from time to time, so I guess it’s a matter of context. ;)

  • 2. Eva  |  April 15, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    When I’m writing on my blog, I always refer to authors by their last name. But that DEFINITELY feels weird sometimes, because I totally think of Austen as Jane and Collins as Wilkie in my head! ;)

    I think for me, part of it is contemporary v. older…if an author is still alive, I think of them by their last name, because it feels too intimate to think of them as just their first name. And if they have a common last name, then I think of them by their whole name. Also, if their last name is only one syllable, I think of them by their whole name.

    For dead authors, I refer to my very favourites by their first name, because they’re almost friends to me. :) Others, it depends on whether their writing has a more formal feel to it (like Frederick Douglass…I can’t imagine calling him Freddie, lol) or not. And if I don’t like an author, it’s last name only!

    What a fun topic to think about. :)

    • 3. KT  |  April 15, 2010 at 8:35 pm

      Oooh, I do the same with authors I don’t like (i.e., Faulkner, never William Faulkner). Strange, I never realized it before you mentioned it!

      • 4. Eva  |  April 20, 2010 at 8:36 am

        heehee I love how much we can nerd out over the minutae of reading. :D And that I’m not the only one who keeps disliked authors at a distance!

  • 5. Aishwarya  |  April 20, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    I tend to refer to Christopher Marlowe as “Kit”. I’ve never thought about why – it’s just obvious to me that that is what he is.

    Apart from him, though,I find there are very few authors I refer to by their first names. however much I like them. The only others I can think of are people who are alive and have a reasonably amount of interaction online with their fans (Tamora Pierce is “tammypierce” in my head). I think I’m just more formal with authors than you are!

    • 6. Corey  |  April 20, 2010 at 1:48 pm

      Re: Kit Marlowe: Me, too! It would be weird to call him anything else for some reason.

      This post all relates to how I refer to authors when I’m more or less talking to myself about them. In papers and on this blog, I always do last name!

      • 7. Aishwarya  |  April 23, 2010 at 3:40 am

        Oh I know – I merely meant I’m more formal with them in my head. (Though I can easily see myself slipping up and referring to “Kit” in a paper)

  • 8. jake Gest  |  August 10, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    I actually think calling authors by their first name is rare.

    I’ve always heard Jane Austen referred to as Austen or “Jane Austen”, never Jane. I’ve only heard Agatha Christie called by her full name. I assume you mean Zelda Fitzgerald, who undoubtedly was called by her first or full name to avoid confusion with her husband (to be fair he was often just Fitzgerald), and still, there are a few other Zeldas out there now.

    Wilkie Collins first name is actually William, so he actually falls into another category entirely.

    • 9. Joan  |  January 31, 2013 at 9:02 am

      I agree. I teach high school English, and I believe that it is best, and more widely accepted ,to use full name or last name only in formal writing. I think this affords the author a certain respect for being a published writer, and if we are taking the time to read a particular work, it is most often from a master craftsman who has earned that respect. Using a first name implies an intimacy that students should avoid, especially if they are unsure of their professor’s opinion on the matter!

      Of course, occasional use of a widely-accepted moniker such as the bard or Billy Shakes has a place as well.


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