Pen Names: Why Authors Choose Pseudonyms
Last night, I had a dream. I stood in a transport truck full of stuff that people were slowly taking. While some items I gladly gifted to visitors, others were sneaking in and taking things clandestinely. Like I wouldn’t notice. But I did. I was trying to shut the door, but people still kept sneaking in.
What did it mean? Were the items in the truck pieces of me that I freely gave? Or not, but was powerless to stop without standing stronger against the pilferers.
I could stay there and ponder the slow emptying of me, but at that point a tall woman walked up to me.
“Why do people use Pen names?” she asked.
I suspect it was a distraction against what was going on in the backdrop of my life, but I couldn’t help getting pulled in. Pen names?
Why do people use Pen names? That is a good question.
Historically, many women writers opted to use pen names to increase their chances of not only getting published, but also read by a wider audience. Some chose masculine sounding names, like George Sand (1804-1876)—a popular French novelist and memoirist who used the name to sow confusion and establish her voice regardless of lower status of women during the Romantic period. George Eliot (1819-1880) is another: an English poet, novelist and translator, best known for the novel Middlemarch. Other female authors went back and forth between pen names and their given names, including the Brontë sisters, Louisa May Alcott, and Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen).
Another way to increase the odds of women getting published, is to make the name ambiguous. Using initials deletes the given name entirely and the subsequent preconceptions. What gender is given away from a moniker like J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter series), S.E. Hinton (American novelist of The Outsiders, Rumble Fish), or D.C. Fontana (American Script Writer best known for her work on Star Trek series).
The Name Game
Not everyone choses a Pen name to hide behind their gender though. Some writers prefer to use a pen name to distinguish a section of their writing from other genres they are more well known for. Stephen King has also written under the names Richard Bachman, John Swithen, and Beryl Evans. Part of his reasoning was to see if his writing would be as well received as the horror books he is renowned for. Likewise, most people know that Agatha Christie wrote a huge number of crime detective mysteries, but she also penned several romances under the name Mary Westmacott. The two genres are quite distinct in their own right, and it is understandable that the author chose two different names to publish under.
We cannot forget pen names that represent a collection of authors too. Quinn Fawcett (mystery author) is written by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Bill Fawcett. Lewis Padgett is a husband and wife team that write science fiction novels. Erin Hunter actually has three authors behind the fantasy Warriors series. And it’s a mystery why Ellery Queen has two authors writing their detective novels. Even Ann Landers has two writers behind her name, while Alice Campion has five. The pen names make a lot more sense when looked at from that angle.
Of course, for some authors, they just straight out don’t like their given names. JRR Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) wasn’t a fan of John Ronald Revel: friends knew him by Ronald. Many of C.S. Lewis’, friends knew him by the nickname Jack. The Chronicles of Narnia author chose C.S. for formality and because Clive Stapleton just didn’t have the ring to it that he was looking for. L.M. Montgomery felt similar. You might know that the Anne of Green Gables author was otherwise known as Lucy Maud, but Maud was her preferred moniker.
What’s in a Name Anyway?
Does it really matter what authors choose to use as a name though? For a lot of reasons it does. Whether authors opt for the anonymity garnered by a pen name, or personal preference, is up to them. And sometimes their publishers. You would be surprised by how many publishers make the suggestion of using a pen name as well, for one reason or another.
The question then becomes, before you publish anything, what name should you choose to write under? Would initials give you wider authority or hide a name you would rather not have people know? Would a variety of pen names allow you to publish different styles of writing under unique pseudonyms? Are you proud of your name and want the world to see your byline for your minute of fame?
And should I maybe stop giving away more pieces of myself, so that dreamland isn’t so hard on myself? This author (minus any pseudonyms so far) wants to know!