Of Name-Dropping and Neologisms


A mere handful of novelists have attained nounhood. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch begat masochism. The Marquis de Sade lent his name to sadism. A humorous, four-line biographical verse, or clerihew, is named after Edmund Clerihew Bentley. And if you are a promiscuous and unscrupulous lover like Giacomo Casanova, then you, sir, are a Casanova.

Far more common are the adjectives. Why, anyone can form a modifier from an author’s names: Add an –ian or –esque and BINGO! But what if you want to rise above the ranks and show that you really understand not just a writer’s particular linguistic flair but also the quirks and oddities that define his or her personal behavior? This new breed of name-dropping relies on the slangy structure “to pull a . . .”

The best known usage may be “to pull a Frey.” As the LA Times succintly described it, it’s “the act of embellishing or otherwise making the truth more interesting than it really is, especially when it comes to relating autobiographical events in a so-called memoir.”

Along those lines, we have “to pull a James Patterson,” which involves putting your name on a book someone else has essentially written. (Usage here. Story details here.)

One of my favorites is Richard Powers’s contribution, which achieves its effect through bulk association. From Galatea 2.2 (page 195, if you’re curious): “Now, for some reason, my low-level structures, blinded by the harsh light that life’s interrogation used to extract its confessions, decided to pull an Aschenbach. A Humbert Humbert. One of those old fools in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Restoration comedy, nineteenth-century epistolary vicarage farces. I meant to make an idiot of myself.” [italics mine]

Though reprehensible acts work best, sheer persistence also pays off. To wit, “pulling a Roth,” or proving, after a string of mediocre books, that you still have what it takes to be an Important Novelist. (See The Guardian.)

Sometimes the opposite is true; sometimes, despite success, you “pull a Brodkey” and disappear for a time from the literary scene. (This isn’t akin to “pulling a Salinger”; J.D. Salinger, unlike Harold Brodkey, never returned to public view.)

Sometimes, a little bad attitude goes a long way. When Richard Bernstein responded to a negative review of his book on Slate, Bookslut averred that he had “pulled a de Botton”—a reference to Alain de Botton’s notorious reaction to a New York Times review of his book, “You have now killed my book in the United States… I will hate you till the day I die.”

Poets get in on this action, too. How else would we get “pulling a Larkin”? As James Wolcott tell us, Larkin “was known to complain about not being invited to parties he claimed he wouldn’t have gone to in the first place, but still, how dare they!”

And in very rare instances, the formation and application of such a phrase is positively ouroboric. When Hallmark marketed the made-for-TV version of Orwell’s Animal Farm as kid-friendly banyard fun, nimbly disguising the author’s anti-Communist allegory behind the notion of animation magic, “capitalism,” Slate reported, “[pulled] an Orwell on Orwell himself.”

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