Why do writers use pseudonyms? Are they using a pen name to hide something?
Many writers don’t write under their own names. I had more pseudonymns than I can count when I was freelancing as a journalist, and as an author I’ve had four. Here’s some reasons why you might consider one:
1. BECAUSE YOU’RE BANGED UP IN PRISON
When William Sydney Porter was released from prison in 1901, his criminal past – he had been jailed for bank fraud – was an impediment to a career in literature (unlike today when it’s a fantastic advantage.) So he became O. Henry, a name taken, ironically, from one of his prison guards in Ohio Pen – Orrin Henry. Porter became one of the most popular short-story writers in America in the early part of the last century and sold millions. He carried the secret of his imprisonment to his grave.
2. BECAUSE YOU WANT TO KEEP YOUR JOB
When Newsweek columnist Joe Klein wrote Primary Colours, a no holds barred portrayal of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, he wrote it as “Anonymous”, aware he was breaching a journalistic code of ethics. When he was outed – and if you write anything as Anonymous, you will be, guaranteed – he made things worse by initially denying it. When the truth came out, he lost his job at CBS News- and the respect and trust of many of his colleagues. Newsweek kept him on though, even though he’d shown his true colors.
3. BECAUSE YOUR MUM WOULDN’T LIKE YOUR BOOK
Sylvia Plath apparently had a close and intimate relationship with her mother but that didn’t stop her having homicidal thoughts about her. “The Bell Jar”, published by ‘Victoria Lucas’, was the story of a brilliant but troubled woman called Esther Greenwood, a failed suicide whose needy and controlling mother was the cause of many of her problems. Much like her own mother, in fact. Unlike Greenwood, Plath successfully suicided soon after publication.
Patricia Highsmith is best known for “The Talented Mister Ripley” but less well known for “The Price of Salt” which she wrote as ‘Carol Morgan.’ She used a pen name because she was worried what her grandmother might think about a book that so graphically described a lesbian love affair. In short, she didn’t want granny to know she batted for the other team. It was forty years before she finally admitted authorship.
4. BECAUSE A WEIRD VOICE IN YOUR HEAD TELLS YOU TO
Fernando Pessoa is considered one of Portugal’s towering literary figures; or at least one of the top 80, because that’s how many different writing identities he had. They variously wrote poems, plays, essays and novels. Among the authors he channeled was a bisexual opium-smoking naval engineer, a hunchback dying of tuberculosis, and a suicidal baron. If he was alive today Amazon would have run out of sub categories just on one author.
5. BECAUSE IT WOULD RUIN YOUR CREDIBILITY
Eric Blair described himself as “lower upper-middle-class” – which is like a Kennedy describing themselves as blue collar Cape Cod. He attended Eton, England’s most prestigious private school, and as a child was forbidden to play with the plumber’s children because they were `common’. When he wrote “Down and Out in Paris and London,” he didn’t want to embarrass his lower upper-middle class family – or betray his privileged roots while railing against the injustices of poverty. He told his publisher that “if the book has any kind of success I can always use the same pseudonym again.” The pseudonym? George Orwell.
AND TWO REALLY BAD REASONS
1. BECAUSE YOU’RE A WOMAN:
It may be a bad idea now but it was a good idea once; for example, when Mary Ann Evans wrote a book called “Adam Bede” she didn’t want her work to be perceived as the work of just another romantic female novelist. She even preceded publication of her book by publishing an essay called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ blasting contemporary female writing. She wrote it under her pseudonym – George Eliot.
The Bronte sisters first published as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell because as Charlotte said:
“… I had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice,”
But gender bias in publishing is not totally consigned to the past. Joanna Rowling’s publisher thought her Harry Potter series wouldn’t be as popular among boys if it was known to be penned by a woman. So JK used initials instead of her christian name. The “K” doesn’t stand for anything because she has no middle name. Perhaps she should have used MD Rowling – for Misunderstood Demographic.
Her Harry Potter books catapulted in popularity even after her gender was revealed. Sigh.
2. TO MAKE ANOTHER WRITER’S LIFE A MISERY
In 1708 one “Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.” published his “Predictions for the Year 1708,” prophesying the death of a famous astrologist and fortune teller called Samuel Partridge. He followed this up with another article two months later – under a different pen name – claiming the prophesy had come true.
Partridge woke one night to find his fans crying outside his bedroom window. He was forced to make a public statement insisting he was alive after an undertaker arrived, an elegy was published, and a gravestone was prepared. No one believed he was not dead until he was dead and then they didn’t believe that either.
The culprit? Jonathan Swift, later famous for Gulliver’s Travels.
So there you have it. You heard it first from Colin Falconer. Which incidentally is not my real name. It was the name of the prison guard at the mental facility where one of the poets I channel was incarcerated for impersonating a woman on Bill Clinton’s campaign staff.
And doesn’t he/she have a story to tell.