Why do writers use pseudonyms – are they using a pen name to hide something?
There are many writers – myself included – who don’t write under their own names. I had more aliases than a Mafia hitman when I was freelancing as a journalist, and as an author I’ve had four.
Why do writers use another name?
Here’s five good reasons – and two that are maybe not quite as cool.
- 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.
- 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 as well as the respect and trust of many of his colleagues. Newsweek kept him on though, even though he’d shown his true colors.
- 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.
Then there’s Patricia Highsmith, 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. It was forty years before she finally admitted authorship.
- 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. These spirits, who wrote ‘through him’, as he said, contributed poems, plays, essays and novels to his earthly canon.
Among the authors he channelled 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 for him alone.
- 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
- Because you’re a woman:
Well today it’s a bad idea. Unfortunately, there was a time when women felt they had to adopt a man’s name if they wanted to succeed. 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 a romantic female novelist. In fact, just before her book was published, she wrote an essay called ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ that pilloried contemporary female writing.
She wrote ‘Adam Bede’ under a pseudonym, which you may have heard of before – 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.
Actually, her Harry Potter books catapulted in popularity after her gender was revealed.
- To make another writer’s life a misery
In 1708 an “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.
In fact, no one believed he wasn’t dead until six years later when he was dead and then they didn’t believe that either.
The culprit? Jonathan Swift, later famous for ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. It was all part of an elaborate April’s Fool hoax that tormented Partridge for the rest of his natural life.
And no, Colin Falconer is not my real name either. 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.