Do you know what Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Louis de Conte, and Mark Twain have in common? You may well do, because they’re all the same man. Samuel Clemens, writer and wit, was a prodigious user of pen names, but have you ever thought why? In fact, why do any authors spend years of their life crafting their novels, only to slap another name on them?
Nom de plume, alias, pseudonym, literary double…there are a lot of synonyms out there for the act of writing under a different name, and just as many reasons for using one. Back in the days of tall hats, gaslights, and institutionalised sexism there was a reason for women like Charlotte Bronte and Mary Ann Evans to assume a pen name, but these days such bars to entry don’t exist. Anyone, male or female, can write a book, so by all rights pen names should be a historical hangover. Yet writers of both sexes still love to use them.
Let’s look at just some of the many reasons why…
All in a Name
If your name is Thelonius Q. Hornswaggle you may not like the way your name looks on the top of a manuscript. Or if your name is one shared by thousands and thousands of others, like John Smith, you might think you need something less normal so that you stand out. But you don’t want a name to stand out too much: if you happen to share the same name as a celebrity or another author it’s probably best to assume a nom de plume, otherwise you run the risk of being overshadowed or misleading people – that’s why there aren’t any authors called Brad Pitt.
Type of Book
If you’re writing fantasy or a period book having an appropriate pen name may help to the tone of the whole book. Western novelist Zane Gray felt ‘Zane’ was more in keeping with the style of his genre than with his real name, Pearl. Let’s say you’ve written a crime drama set in the dank and fetid backstreets of Elizabethan London. Using a name like Erasmus Olimander not only looks cool on a manuscript/dust jacket, but adds to the atmosphere and mystery of the book. Going even further, the name can actually be a part of the story, for example if you’re writing a fictional biography or autobiography, like Lemony Snicket.
On the topic of style, while anyone of any sex can write any style of book, a trip to your bookshop will show you that certain styles are dominated by certain genders. Books about war and spying and fighting off crocodiles with a machete are mostly written by male authors, while female authors dominate the expansive romance section (I refuse to use the modern term ‘chick-lit’ – no one comes off well in that description). So if you’re a chap who’s written a great romance story you might feel a little conspicuous putting a male name on it. There’s no reason you should of course, however you might feel that a male name atop ‘The Ladies of Lily Cottage’ will adversely affect your chances of it being picked up by a publisher or a reader.
It’s a Marketing Thing
If you write across a wide range of genres or write both fiction and non-fiction then you or your publisher may decide it’s best to employ a pen name for some of the things you write. This is especially important with an author who writes both fiction and non-fiction. Charles Dodgson, author of mathematics textbooks such as ‘A Syllabus of Plane Algebraic Geometry’, wrote some distinctly algebra-free books that you might have heard of under the name Lewis Carroll.
Sci-fi novelist Iain M. Banks is probably the most famous modern day example of an author writing under two names, keeping the ‘M’ in his name for all his sci-fi novels, and dropping it to become just Iain Banks for his ‘mainstream’ works. Incidentally, the only reason he had to drop the ‘M’ from his name in the first place was because unbelievably his publishers thought it ‘too fussy’ for his first novel. Once he started selling books that soon changed. It’s not the only time a publisher has asked an author to use a pen name for reasons that smack of profit rather than clarity. Believe it or not, Stephen King was forced to write under the pen name Richard Bachmann by his publishers, because they felt the public would not buy more than one novel from an author in a single year. They were soon proved very, very wrong.
Perhaps the book you’re writing is an expose that would get you into trouble. Maybe you feel that writing under a pseudonym will make receiving rejection letters that little bit less hard to take personally because it’s your literary alter-ego taking the criticism/rejection and not your name atop the dreaded ‘thanks for your interest’ boilerplate. Both are really good reasons.
A handful of writers use a nom de plume because they feel being a writer will affect their chances of employment when going for a job. They think that if a prospective boss looks up your name on line and sees you’re a writer then they may think you’ll just pack in the job and leave should your career take-off. Personally I find this completely unlikely, and if you think this has ever happened to you then you probably need a better CV, not a nom de plume. C.S. Lewis did publish poetry under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton in order to avoid damaging his reputation as an Oxford don, although I still really don’t know why he felt the need to when he had made his career writing about a talking magic Lion.
Everyone likes to have a secret, and the idea of having a hidden literary identity is about as close to being Batman as you’ll ever get. Plus it’s fun coming up with your own alias, especially if you manage to conceal it in an ana form. “Rory Bleedstem”. See? I just did it there, and what fun it was. Go on, give it a go. You don’t have to use it, but coming up with cool new names is a good exercise for a budding author, and you can always put them in your novel. That’s assuming you want people to know it’s your novel…
If you use or have ever used a pen name I’d love to hear why you used one and whether you felt it helped/hindered you in any way. Get in touch in the comments below!
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Robert Smedley is a TV Reviewer and Writer. When not staring at moving images or being creative with ink, he can be found at any bar that serves a good martini.