What’s In a (Pen) Name?

pen name tagAt this week’s meeting, as a number of writers have recently completed first drafts of their novels, our leader Greg Smith was gathering official titles and author names with which to update our website (agilewriters.org).

This mere housekeeping activity opened into an organic discussion by the group of the decisions surrounding Pen Names. Of course there is strong historic precedent for writing under one or more pseudonyms. (Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King as Richard Bachman, to name a few.) The reasons for adopting a Pen Name are numerous, and the issues surrounding these reasons are varied. Some of the most common reasons are as follows:

• To protect one’s privacy.
• To avoid confusion with another author of the same or similar name.
• To differentiate between an author’s work across several genres.
• To conceal the gender of the author.
• To provide cohesion when multiple authors work collectively on one work or a series of works.

But we live in the era of the internet, of social media platforms created to funnel in readers. I wonder if the game has changed?

The author’s photograph on the back jacket or “About the Author” page has become standard practice. Most contemporary writers maintain a presence through a website, blog, facebook, twitter, or other media outlets in order to support and facilitate the sale of their books.

We, even as private individuals, share more of our lives and selves in public spaces—that is, figurative online “spaces”—than ever before. We expect to have nearly unlimited access to and information about those in public life through twenty-four hour news outlets and other, similar mediums. Will our readers have that same expectation? Are they buying more than just the book? Are they buying into a persona? And how does that effect the decision to use a Pen Name?

For one thing, I think it is much more difficult to maintain a completely private identity in the modern world. If your book(s) garner any following at all, someone is likely to figure out who you are and share that information publicly. After all, Richard Bachman was exposed as Stephen King. And all we need to do is google J.K. Rowling to learn that she was born Joanne Rowling on July 31, 1965.
I suppose we could put that into the category of “A Nice Problem to Have” and one that we will worry about once we get a call to accept our Pulitzer Prize and thus have to reveal our true identities.
As for the reasons behind wanting a Pen Name, are they all still relevant in light of our super-connected societies? I think most of them still hold weight for new authors. There is one that unsettles me, though: the category of female authors writing under male pseudonyms, and similarly replacing “ethnic” names into more mainstream Pen Names.

I’m not denying that there is some tension here between the reality of our society and the way I might wish it to be. That is an unavoidable truth. The considerations of prejudice and its effect on the salability of one’s work are real and necessary. I won’t speak ill of authors who have chosen, many under good professional counsel, to adopt a Pen Name for these reasons. I will say that personally I hope this reason for concealing one’s identity becomes a thing of the past.

I, for one, intend to publish under my own name. Maybe it’s the least I can do to further the cause of normalizing the presence of a female author in any genre? Maybe I will switch genres and use a Pen Name one day? I can’t definitively say that I won’t.

I do appreciate having a group of Agile Writers with whom to have these open discussions. I’m curious about your take on this complex, personal choice.

Are you writing under your own name or a Pen Name? What shaped your decision?
Please share in the comments below!

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