What are pen names?:
A pen name, also known as a pseudonym, is a fake name that is used by an author when publishing their work. The result is that the author’s identity remains unknown until they decide to let the public know who they are. There are many authors who are more well known by their pen name than their actual name. In fact, some of the most famous author names are actually pen names, such as: Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, George Orwell, and Dr. Seuss.
Why use a pen name?:
There are many reasons why an author may choose to use a pseudonym rather than their real name. The most common reasons I’ve identified are related to social inequalities related to gender, marketability and racial bias, fame and anonymity, and simply personal choice.
Though less common now, historically, many female writers published their work under masculine or more gender neutral names. The Brontë sisters are a well known example of writers who published their books under male names. Charlotte published as Currer Bell, Emily as Ellis Bell, and Anne as Action Bell. The majority of their most popular works, including Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, were originally published under these names.
This is because there was a disparity between the amount of respect that a woman could gain as an author versus a male author. These women didn’t want to be considered good woman writers, but simply good writers.
Luckily, this is less of a problem in today’s market. However there are still some assumptions made based on gender, such as the idea that women write romance novels and children’s books, whereas men write novels with mystery and heavy plot. This is an unfortunate assumption which doesn’t hold, but may cause an author to consider using a pen name. This leads us to the next common reason for using a pen name.
If an author fears being pigeonholed into one genre, they may choose to publish their next book under another name to avoid the assumption that the books will only appeal to one audience. For example, a young adult fiction author who is trying to raise the average age demographic of their audience may try this.
Reaching a larger audience is a very common reason why an author may pick a new name. This often has to do with race and ethnicity. A lot of authors will pick a more “white” sounding name. The white market is a large demographic to target and a more “white” sounding name will have a spelling and pronunciation which is more familiar and easier to remember. And, unfortunately, this market is more likely to read a book by Joseph Conrad than by Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski.
Fame and Anonymity:
Another reason an author may use a pen name is to avoid the ties that are already associated with their actual name. During the time of the American Revolution, is was the norm to have essays published under pseudonyms. The founding fathers had many. The Federalist Papers were published under the name Publius and in response one of the authors of The Anti-Federalist Papers assumed the name Brutus.
More recently, J.K. Rowling published a new book series under the alias Robert Galbraith. When the truth came out she explained that the reason for the pen name was so that the books would be judged on their own merit, rather than riding on the coattails of her fame.
Lastly, an author may simply choose to use another name. This could be a personal choice or a professional choice or a creative choice. Author of the Mortal Instruments Series, Cassandra Claire’s real name is Judith Rumelt. She got the name Cassandra from an earlier piece she wrote based on the Jane Austen short story, “The Beautiful Cassandra.” The name Cassandra Claire was the pen name she used online for publishing her fanfiction (where almost no one uses their given name) and she simply chose to carry it over to her published works.
One of the more popular examples of a pen name, which was a creative choice, is Lemony Snicket, author of A Series of Unfortunate Events. The name Lemony Snicket became, in this series, more than just a pseudonym, but a character in his own right. The depressing, pragmatic, and sarcastic narrator, Lemony Snicket threaded the series together with a complicated meta-story of his own (left largely to the reader to decipher on their own from clues in the books and other related media). This character’s existence as the author gives the series the same feel that one gets when viewing a found footage film.
In the new Netflix adaptation of the series, Lemony Snicket is played by Patrick Warburton, while the actual author Daniel Handler remains largely unrecognizable as the face of Lemony Snicket to those who read the series as young teens.
Whether to use a pen name:
Ultimately it is up to the author whether they feel that they wish to use a pseudonym. If they feel a particular attachment to a name already or have a strong desire to stay largely anonymous then perhaps a pen name is the choice for them.
However, I would like to offer up for consideration another similar option, initials.
The use of initials rather than a full name actually does a lot of the same things that a pen name does. In cases of gender, there is no way to tell what the letters in an author’s initials stand for, unless the author chooses to attach their full name to their novel.
It also helps to separate the author’s public life from their private life. There aren’t any Harry Potter fans walking up to J.K. Rowling and calling her Joanne or Jo. Her real first name is reserved for friends and family.
Initials can also be used for effect in the same way that pen names are. Take for example, author of the Goosebumps series, R. L. Stine. Robert Lawrence Stine is a fine name, but does not match the tone of a horror novel as well as the truncation of his name to just his last name and first initials. Stine is associated with Frankenstein, Robert isn’t.
Additionally, initials come with an added level of professionalism since this is the way that scientific journals are published. There is also a strong association with previous well-known authors. George R. R. Martin was certainly aware that his Game of Thrones books were in the same genre as JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
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Kim Batchelor is a recent graduate of University of Michigan and avid consumer of media. She is the Buzz Intern at BookHive and is working on creating her own blog.