Pen Names

By Glenn Boothe, Assistant Editor

Pen names, or pseudonyms…why do writers choose to use them?  As a newbie writer in an MFA program, I had not thought about the importance of considering whether or not to use a pen name.  I had thought that using a pen name was just a way to remain anonymous, to hide behind the pseudonym.  But why would an author wish to remain anonymous?  I have learned that there are many reasons—reasons that never occurred to me, yet make sense and, in some ways, seem obvious.

Many writers throughout history have used pen names to hide their gender.  George Elliot was a female using a pen name to suggest that she was a male.  Other writers (J.K. Rowling, for example) used initials in order to make gender ambiguous.  Male contributors to the romance genre may wish to be perceived as female, while women appealing to a male audience in the science fiction or action genre may adopt a male pen name, or use initials.

Other writers have used pen names either to hide or convey a particular ethnicity.  For example, a story about Irish castles and the ghosts that haunt them may seem more credible if written by a writer with an Irish name. Then there have been writers who want to write in different genres, and/or send work out to different types of journals for publication.  In this manner, a writer may submit their best works to only the best, most prestigious journals; other works are sent to other types of journals under different names.  Other reasons include the desire to make as much money as possible by writing in many different genres and/or sending in several different works to the same publication.  A writer may use one pen name per work to increase the likelihood of having multiple works published in the same publication.

Of course, this practice begs the question, “Isn’t this somewhat dishonest?”  One writer I talked to believes that one shouldn’t use a pen name; she feels that it is dishonest in some way.  Yet she also told me that she knew a writer who was trying to make a living in the literary world by writing erotic material.  This leads to another consideration for using pen names; writers may want to separate their writing life from their family and/or their professional life.  Writers who write erotic works may not want family to find out.  An engineer, a salesperson, or a manager may not want co-workers, HR, or bosses to read writings that may not align with their company’s ethics.

As I researched the reasons behind using pen names, I gained a new perspective and found that there are many more reasons than what I have touched on here.  I have also come to the conclusion that using a pen name is much like having multiple email addresses, and/or having multiple account names, multiple blogs, multiple social media sites, multiple gamer tags, and so on. Thought of in this way, it is my opinion that using pen names is not dishonest in any way; it has, in a lot of ways, become a necessity for writers who want to make a living, who write prolifically and in many different genres, who may use gender purposefully, or hide gender for various reasons.  Or perhaps they just want to portray a neutral image, unbiased from race, religion, or political affiliation.

As I conclude, I wondered how much consideration I give to reading something by looking at the author’s name.  I wondered if I should seriously consider using a pen name or names myself.  As I considered this, I realized that I do judge a book by its cover, and I do judge a name that is written on that cover.  I think most of us do, even if we don’t realize we are doing it.  At least it gives me pause now, and the next time I pick a book off the shelf or flip through a literary journal trying to decide what works I want to read, I’ll look at the name and smile and wonder who is hiding behind that name.