There is a story that has been developing rapidly in the romance world, about author Santino Hassell. Hassell has been accused of conspiring to hide their true identity and using their false persona to gaslight and catfish readers. People began to investigate the author’s personal life and background and making various information public, resulting in initial defenses of Hassell’s privacy. As more details have come to light, one publisher has canceled the author’s contracts after the allegations gained traction. This story is still unfolding, so I’m not going to try to explain everything going on. But I am going to write about some aspects of it in a post that has been a long time coming. Because Hassell isn’t the first to do this, and definitely won’t be the last.
Many of the repeat questions I get in the Big Damn Writers’ Question Box are about pseudonyms. Why do you need one, how do you pick one, how do you hide your tracks if you need to? It has never occurred to me to ask the question, “Where is the line with regards to an author persona, and a pseudonym?” So, I’m going to go ahead and lay out what should be common sense when building your author brand. Not all of these apply to the Hassell situation, and not all of these have happened within the romance genre, but they are things people have done and will probably continue to do until we as consumers and professionals make it clear that there is no room for this kind of behavior.
The Dos And Don’ts Of Pseudonyms:
Do: Use a pseudonym to protect your identity if you’re more comfortable doing so. If you don’t want your family or employer to find out about your writing career, a pseudonym is a perfectly ethical way to maintain your privacy.
Don’t: Use a pseudonym that will mislead publishers and readers into believing you’re a member of a marginalized group. For example, Marvel’s C.B. Cebulski fostering his early career under the name Akira Yoshida despite not…being…Japanese. Cebulski’s work as Yoshida leaned heavily on Japanese themes and style, leading many readers to believe they were supporting a Japanese writer and not, you know. A white guy hiding, branding himself as a Japanese man.
Exception: Many writers of color who find that their names are “too ethnic” use pseudonyms that sound “white”. Many women write in male-dominated genres under initials or with male-sounding pen names. This is not a case of appropriation, but a means of protective camouflage to help an author succeed in a sexist, racist industry. Cebulski could choose to be Akira Yoshida because he could become a white man again when an opportunity for advancement presented itself. Meanwhile, a Japanese author might find themselves forced to use a “whiter” sounding name to open those doors already flung wide for a white man like Cebulski. In a society where Cebulski can afford to be Yoshida but a Japanese person cannot, there is no equivalency between privileged writers hiding their privilege and marginalized authors hiding their marginalizations.
Do: Chose select details about your life to share with your readership on social media, within your own comfort zone. Maybe you don’t want to mention that you’re a teacher, but you have no qualms about publicizing your passion for building ships in bottles. It’s up to you what to reveal or not reveal about your private life.
Don’t: Fabricate details about your life to share with your readership on social media as a means of creating a “brand.” I knew an author once who talked about her cats nonstop on social media, even posting pictures of them. Then an author friend visited this person’s home and found no cats at all. No hair or scratches on the furniture, no food or water dishes, no litter boxes, no cats. Even though lying about having cats is harmless in comparison to, say, lying about being Japanese or having cancer, it’s still a lie. And it’s really creepy. It’s one thing to say, “I really love cats.” It’s another to make up imaginary cats and post status updates and pictures about them.
Exception: Some authors adopt personas which are clearly not based in fact. For example, Chuck Tingle, who writes parodies of M/M romances, is clearly not a widowed man whose ghostly wife torments him from beyond the frozen lake where she drowned. And Lemony Snicket is, unfortunately, not a shadowy figure investigating the many maudlin tragedies of a family of orphaned children, but is, in fact, a racist and serial sexual harasser. Both of these personas are clearly affectations to set a tone for the reader and are employed as such. Daniel Holder doesn’t deny being the man behind Snicket, and Tingle has built such an outlandish and muddled backstory for himself that he simply can’t be assumed to be real by any reasonable person.
Do: Feel free to use your author platform to speak about issues you are passionate about, even if you’re using a pseudonym.
Don’t: Use your pseudonym to Dolezal your way into conversations you don’t belong in. Whoever Hassell was not only presented themselves as a bisexual man within the book community, but they also gave interviews, quotes, and even wrote articles about living as a bisexual man. New details are emerging by the hour, so I’ll shift back over to C. B. Cebulski. If Cebulski had given interviews or written articles as Akira Yoshida, claiming to be a Japanese man and offering the perspective of a Japanese man on issues that affect Japanese people, it would have been a reprehensible action. It should go without saying that if you’re not a member of a marginalized group, be honest about it. You can be passionate about the rights of marginalized people. You can’t pretend to be a marginalized person.
Exception: I’m not talking here about being closeted in some way and wanting to speak your truth without revealing yourself. That’s a tricky area that a lot of us navigate constantly. But we need to be careful that when we do that, we’re not adopting a persona that harms other people. As a bisexual woman, it wouldn’t be okay for me to present myself as a bisexual man, write nonfiction articles about being a bisexual man, give interviews about what it’s like to be a bisexual man because I’m not a bisexual man and all genders experience prejudice and biphobia differently. It would be okay for me to be Erin Stevens, bisexual woman. It would not be okay for me to be Aaron Stevens, bisexual man.
Do: Be transparent about your pseudonym or author persona with readers, authors, and publishers you befriend in real life. That doesn’t mean you have to reveal your real name to them, but they should know what is and isn’t real about you.
Don’t: Maintain your author persona in private conversations where people are revealing real life, personal details to you. Be honest that you can’t reciprocate on that level. Saying, “Oh, I write under a pseudonym to protect my job,” isn’t something an author or a reader or a publisher is going to look askance at, and people learn to form personal relationships within boundaries all the time. Bonding with someone over your difficult childhoods while they think you’re their good friend Leslie from Pawnee but you’re really Derek in Cincinnati (who had a lovely childhood, thanks for asking) is dishonest, creepy gaslighting. You’re presenting a false reality that will cause irreversible psychological damage should that illusion shatter. Hassell engaged in this type of manipulation more than once with their readers. Another particularly terrible author I knew was outspokenly anti-LGBTQA+ in her private life (up to and including suggesting conversion attempts on a mutual friend’s sister, attending a church that preached anti-gay rhetoric, and voting for politicians who supported anti-gay legislation), but who had no qualms about writing as a M/M author, attending LGBTQA+ literature conferences, and befriending queer authors and readers under the guise of being an ally. These people trusted her when she was actually a threat to and actively working against their rights and safety.
Do: Ask for help from readers and friends should financial or personal catastrophe occur. If I found out tomorrow that I donated to an author’s GoFundMe for their cancer treatment but I didn’t realize they were using a pseudonym, I probably wouldn’t care. They still have cancer. Likewise, when a popular blogger who received financial support during a lawsuit was revealed to be a bestselling author, some of us weren’t angry that we’d made donations to her fund. The woman was still being sued, and the lawsuit still affected the romance community at large (although it should be noted that she also catfished some readers).
Don’t: Falsify a financial or personal catastrophe as part of your author persona to bolster sales or solicit donations. This is another big issue in the current revelations about Hassell, who claimed to be a single father struggling to pay for cancer treatments. Readers not only supported Hassell by buying books and encouraging others to do so, but they sent direct financial donations, which the person or people behind the Hassell identity accepted. Now, someone behind this persona has made a statement to say that they did, indeed, have medical bills, but they did not confirm that they had cancer. Cancer survivors especially are saying they feel cheated and manipulated.
Do: Form friendships with readers, if you want to! In this day and age, it’s not unusual to have online friends and not know their legal names. I was friends with one author for years before I found out that he was writing under a pseudonym. He didn’t hide it, he just thought I knew. But I don’t need to know his real name. I’m not buying him a plane ticket, and he’s not lying about his life. He just can’t have his employer knowing what he writes.
Don’t: Form friendships with readers under a false persona in order to research your books. Another accusation against Hassell is that the person or people behind the persona used the Hassell character to court long-distance friendships and even romantic relationships with readers, then later used private information about these readers’ pasts and sex lives in Santino Hassell novels.
Do I really need to elaborate on that one? These people are psychologically wounded now because someone used their personal struggles and experiences for financial gain.
There’s a lot more tied up in this debacle and I’d wager more will be forthcoming. But as the several examples here show (as well as prior controversies that I didn’t touch on), this isn’t a new phenomenon. Yet when another of these situations arise, the conversation will once again prioritize author privacy over the safety of readers and authors. Hopefully, this has been a helpful primer on how you, too, can maintain your privacy as an author without causing massive amounts of psychological damage on the people around you.
Unless you just don’t give a shit. Which is probably what’s happening in every single one of these incidents. Because people are gross.