Have you ever been tempted to publish your work anonymously or take a pseudonym? If yes, you’d be following in the footsteps of some of the literary greats, such as the Brontë sisters (Ellis, Acton, and Currer Bell), Cecil Day-Lewis (Nicholas Blake), Jane Austen (A Lady) and Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), who all decided for one reason or another to mask their true identity. Voltaire is thought to have used at least 178 pen names during his lifetime. But what is the difference between writing anonymously and taking a nom de plume, you might ask? Using a consistent pseudonym allows readers to group together your body of work. Publishing your work anonymously means that the reader has no context at all about the author, other than what is within the pages of that particular text.
So why do authors, often a vain breed (is it not presumptuous to believe that our ideas are worth reading?!), decide to take a pen name or remain anonymous?
- If you have a name that is too similar to another writer’s, or if your birth name is Angelina Jolie, for example, you may wish to use a pseudonym to ensure there are no mix-ups and to create your own unique brand. Sometimes authors choose a name that is easier to pronounce or spell, or just sounds better than their own. American romance novelist Julie Woodcock (Angela Knight) writes under her nom de plume because her actual name is suggestive within the context of her genre.
- Writers living under an oppressive regime may feel they have no choice but to hide their true identity if they intend to be critical. For example, Chinese writer, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, who has been imprisoned for dissident activities and whose writing is banned and considered subversive by the Chinese Communist Party, published many of his works abroad, and chose to take the pseudonym Lao Xiao when publishing in mainland China. Another example is the pen name Ibn Warraq, which has been adopted by various dissident writers critical of Islam.
- History has been littered with examples of female authors taking male pseudonyms such as Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Nelle Harper Lee (Harper Lee) and Louisa May Alcott (A. M. Barnard), who opted for male pen names to ensure their work would be taken seriously.
- Some authors want to branch out into other genres without jeopardising their reputations. Take J.K. Rowling (Robert Galbraith), for example, who decided to use a a pen name for her 2013 work ’The Cuckoo’s Calling’, when she was branching into the crime genre. On her website, she writes that she wanted to ‘go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre, to work without hype or expectation.’ In fact, Rowling chose to use her initials rather than full name for her Harry Potter novels because her publisher insisted that they would be more appealing to young boys if it was not evident that she was a female writer. Last year it was revealed that Russian crime author, Grigory Chkhartishvili (Boris Akunin), had taken additional pseudonyms, including the female one Anna Borisova, as he did not want to be confined to the crime genre. He even photoshopped an author photo of his female pen name by mixing his own picture with that of his wife’s.
- If you have been tempted to write about workplace scenarios you may fall foul of your colleagues or employment contract if you divulge secrets. Remaining anonymous can be a better route but does not necessarily protect you from legal proceedings. Take David John Moore Cornwell (John Le Carré), for example, who began his work as a spy novelist while he himself was an MI6 agent. Or The London Paper’s City Boy column, which ran under a cloak of mystery for two years from 2006 until the author was unmasked as Geraint Anderson.
- Series fiction, such as the Nancy Drew series, is sometimes published under one pen name although a collective of writers have ghost-written the books.
- Sometimes, like for Stephen King (Richard Bachman), using a pseudonym is a way for writers to find out whether their work is successful on its own merit or because of their fame.
- Some Indian authors used to publish works using a pseudonym or under the name of a deity because they believed it to be egotistical to publish under their own name. To this day, many early works by Indian writers are untraceable because of this practice.
- And then there’s authors who choose anonymity or a pen name because it gives them the freedom they need to write without worrying about what friends, family or the world will think of their work. Perhaps they want to be free to recycle family history or let their characters be violent, deviants, or whoever they need to be for the story, without any raised eyebrows or backlash.
I used to wonder about taking a pen name. Mostly because it took me a while to take my dreams of writing fiction seriously, and it seemed too soon to share them with anyone but my closest friends and family. I wanted to hug that part of me close, like a secret, because it is fragile and special, and I’m not sure how it would stand up against the weight of their expectations. I wondered whether anyone reading my stories would assume that they are grounded in reality, that a part of the author must be in every character. I was afraid that anticipating their opinions would make me less free as a writer. It is sometimes easier to be yourself with strangers than with friends. The risk of personal judgement is higher with those who are in your daily life. But I am not willing to censor myself. So a pseudonym sounded like a brilliant idea. It sounded like freedom.
I’ve changed my mind though. My journey so far as a writer has taught me that I am stronger than I expected. Not everyone will like my work. And as long as I am true to myself, that’s okay. And actually, it’s quite freeing to finally be able to peel back the layers and let the real me breathe. The air was getting thin while I was wearing all that armour. I feel so much lighter now. And my name is just fine, thank you. Have you ever considered taking a pen name?
‘We live in an age where anonymity is growing in magnitude like a bomb going off.’ Jock Sturges