For centuries, authors have been assuming pseudonyms under which to publish their works, and for this week’s Tuesday Talks discussion we’re talking about our own opinions on pen names.
I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot, trying to decide which side I come down on, but there are so many different reasons authors’ choose to write under pen names, I’ve found that it’s quite difficult to have a clear cut opinion either way.
So let’s take a look at some of the more well-known authors who’ve assumed pseudonyms, and the reasonings behind their decisions.
Perhaps the most famous author of recent times to assume a pen name (that we know of!) is JK Rowling, who, in 2013, was revealed to be Robert Galbraith, author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first in the Cormoran Strike series. When asked why she made the decision to assume the identity of Galbraith, Rowling said she ‘was yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre, to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback’. An understandable reason, to be fair; after the worldwide phenomenon that was Harry Potter, it’s unlikely Rowling will ever again be able to publish a new book without comparisons to her first series.
One must not forget, however, that said series itself was also written under a pen name. After guidance from her publishers, Bloomsbury, Rowling was advised that the books would not sell well to boys if they knew the author was a woman, thus the use of JK instead of Joanne. We’ll never know whether the series would’ve achieved such a level of success if she had used her full name, one would like to hope so, but either way, Rowling is hardly the first female author to assume a pseudonym to hide her gender.
Arguably, the most well-known of these were the Brontë sisters. Charlotte, Emily and Anne all assumed the identities of the brothers Bell when first publishing their novels, after the eldest received a letter from poet laureate of the time, Robert Southey, informing her that, ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: and it ought not to be.‘ (Source)
It’s regrettably easy to understand how, in 1897, a women’s writing might have been better accepted under the guise of a man, but not all of history’s greatest female writers took such a stance. Jane Austen chose simply to publish her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, with the phrase, ‘By a Lady’, adorning the title page. In doing so, Austen managed to acknowledge her gender as well as conceal her identity, and, furthermore, cemented herself as a feminist icon.
Even in this day and age, female authors continue to write under pen names, or hide their gender through the use of initials. Sadly, even though we like to believe the playing field is somewhat more levelled than it used to be, one only has to wander into a local bookshop to see, clear as day, that gender is still very much a dividing factor in the publishing world. Maureen Johnson, author of 13 Little Blue Envelopes, put it perfectly when she said, ‘A man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality, and that woman is simple more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it.’
Ultimately pseudonyms make me sad. The thought that an author can spend years of their life writing a book, only to be forced into releasing it under a false name, seems incredibly unfair. Of course, there are times when authors choose themselves to take on a pseudonym, even Stephen King once wrote under a pseudonym: Richard Bachman, purportedly to infiltrate the fanbase of Bachman-Turner Overdrive!
Despite this however, I still can’t, in this day and age, fully understand any author’s decision to publish a book under anything other than their own name. Of course, I’ve never personally had aspirations to be an author, but I do aspire to be an actor, and this whole discussion has reminded me of an interview I once saw with The Greatest President There Never Was, Martin Sheen. In the interview, he talked about the first time he was given top billing in a Broadway play, and saw, at last, his name up in lights. It’s a moment every actor dreams of, but Sheen described how numb he felt at that moment, because it was not his real name he saw up in lights, it was his stage name*.
I imagine the same must be felt by authors who take on pseudonyms, and see, for the first time, their book in a bookshop, but without their real name on the cover; I long for the day when no author has to experience that.
*Martin Sheen’s birth name is, in fact, Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez.
Tuesday Talks is a weekly discussion group for bloggers and vloggers. Visit the Goodreads group to find out more.