Nom de plume. Pseudonym. Pen name.
Why have authors throughout history gone to such lengths to hide their names, mask their identities, or create alternative personas for themselves?
It turns out there are multiple reasons, ranging from the personal to the political.
When we speak of pseudonyms, we normally think of female authors choosing to write under male pen names for their books to be accepted for publishing and to find a readership for their work. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, we have prominent examples such as the Bronte sisters: Charlotte, Emily and Anne writing as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Or George Eliot, famous for writing Middlemarch. Although the Bronte sisters regained their identities posthumously, very few recognise Eliot’s real name, Mary Anne Evans, and her books continue to be published under the pseudonym.
While the bias against female writers is not what it used to be and, in fact, as the majority of the readers in the world now tend to be women, in a strange reversal of fate, being a female author may even gain you more readers. The reality is a bit more complex and the gender mix varies across genres. Depending on the genre, and to appeal to a wider demographic, both male and female writers — from SJ Watson, KJ Howe, JP Delaney, to AJ Finn — may choose a pseudonym or initials to disguise their gender.
This dynamic is also apparent in children’s books, especially authors writing for ‘middle grade’ ages of 8-12 where boys don’t want to be seen reading anything ‘girly’. JK Rowling’s publisher advised her to publish Harry Potter under her initials to appeal to both boys and girls. Other famous children’s writers using their initials are MG Leonard, RJ Palacio and RL Stine, to name a few.
Interestingly, JK Rowling also chose a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, when she branched off into the world of adult fiction. However, the pen name did not stay anonymous for long.
On the Robert Galbraith website, she shares the reasons for wanting to do this. “I really wanted 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.” While answering why she chose a male pseudonym, JK Rowling says, “I certainly wanted to take my writing persona as far away as possible from me, so a male pseudonym seemed a good idea.”
The use of pen names has also been widely prevalent in the Arab world, especially where writers fear political persecution or social stigma. Literary critic Abdul Razzaq Al Qash’ami has identified 450 authors writing under pen names in his book The Pseudonyms of Saudi Writers.
An interesting case of an Arab male writer taking on a female nom de plume is that of Yasmina Khadra. For many years, the world did not know who Khadra was until it was revealed that it was Mohammed Moulessehoul — a veteran Algerian army officer who used his wife’s name, at her insistence, for most of his career. He has admitted that it was to avoid military censorship of his work until he left the army and moved to France.
In current times, it has become extremely difficult for writers to remain anonymous. Due to the proliferation of information on the internet and IP tracking, identities are exposed easily. A case in point is the Italian bestselling writer Elena Ferrante, famous for her four-book series of Neapolitan novels, and one of the few authors in the world who remains anonymous. There has been relentless interest in exposing her identity and multiple investigative attempts and claims.
Additionally, authors face remarkable pressure to build their online personas as ‘brands’ and remaining anonymous seems more difficult than ever. Some publishers will not even sign on new authors who do not agree to book tours, speaking engagements or social media marketing to promote their books. Writers are forced to become more than a writing talent and influencers and celebrities are able to sell books (mostly written by ghost writers) simply by virtue of their famous names.
Maybe it is time to bring back pseudonyms, take the pressure off writers, especially debut writers, and let the writing speak for itself.