Pseudonyms are a long tradition in writing. Originally, they were used to protect the author from social or religious persecution. Science was largely seen as witchcraft for the latter half of the Dark Ages and one could find themselves in iron just for contradicting common beliefs.
Later, when fiction was all the rage, pseudonyms were used to help female authors reach a wider audience. (Many people don’t know, for instance, that Jane Eyre was first published under a pseudonym).
Now-a-days, there are many reasons why writers use pen names. Stephen King did it with a half dozen books just because he didn’t want to saturate the market with his work; and JK Rowling recently did it because she wanted to get a more honest reaction to her new fiction. Others use pseudonyms because they already have successful careers elsewhere and don’t want the two worlds to tango. Hell, I’ve written things on this very site that I hope to God my parents never find. (I speak of course of the raunch-fest known as Pirate’s Booty).
Think about this … isn’t almost everyone you know using a social media account that doesn’t use their real name? How about you? That anonymity is liberating while simultaneously acting as a kind of safety net. If you feel more comfortable using a pseudonym just for a hundred and forty characters, imagine writing a hundred thousand word book.
Having said all that, it never occurred to me to do either. My handle online is my handle in life and I have no regrets. However, I think that using a pen name can be the best solution to a lot of problems authors face.
So what’s in a name? Frankly, I like to let the work speak for itself. What does it matter if the bloke writing it calls himself Harry online and Gary at home? Using a pen name requires a certain amount of braveness and strength of character when you think about how an author will never be able to celebrate their successes to the fullest extent. Sure, they’ll still get the money, but none of the perks that fame brings. (And believe me, that translates into a lot more money).
As a stage actor and director, I am quite used to the idea of playing someone else, but pen names are more than that, they’re an extension of the person. You can even think of them as nicknames, and we all seem to just love nicknames.
If a pen name allows a genius to find the courage to share her imagination, or afford a brilliant new talent a way to be a tough army captain and an erotica writer at the same time, then I’m all for it. And just think, I could have picked a doozy of a pseudonym/alias. (Unfortunately, Benedict Cumberbatch took mine).
Have you ever noticed that we still refer to Samuel Clemons by his pen name, Mark Twain? Even the remarkable Issac Asimov wrote sci-fi adventure books under the name Paul French. Later, he grew tired of it and began leaving clues in his books hoping to be discovered.
Other authors who have used pseudonyms may surprise you. Michael Crichton has done it; and so has Dr. Seuss, who published a book called I Wish I Had Duck Feet under the name, Theo LeSieg. I mentioned that women embraced the practice early on so it should be noted that Anne Rice, Agatha Christie, and Nora Roberts have all published under pseudonyms.
I wonder if making oneself over with a writing persona wouldn’t help combat some types of writer’s block? It would certainly make for an interesting experiment.
I would like to end by acknowledging all the monks that wrote most of the Bible between 900 and 1300 AD. Those guys got to use the best pseudonym of all and they didn’t get paid a dime. Not only that, but most of what they wrote, (along with the eight other apostles’ writings) didn’t even make the final edit.
Write under any name you want I say, just write. No one said that sharing talent requires full personal disclosure. You are already sharing your soul, what more could we ask?