What’s in a Pen Name?

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In Act II, Scene II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers call into question the importance of our given prenomens, with Juliet questioning “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Now, although I hate to disagree with the Bard himself, I would argue that names are absolutely crucial to the craft in the literary world.

A great pen name can make the difference between a novel selling or not. Let’s face it, Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski is not as striking on a front cover as his chosen pseudonym, Joseph Conrad. As a name, “Joseph Conrad” packs a punch: it sounds masculine, tough, and well-suited to tales of mystery, murky adventures, and manly imperialism, such as Heart of Darkness.

A pseudonym can act as the final flourish on your story; just like a method actor, you’ve got to keep in character and in tone with your novel as a whole. For instance, Lawrence Block is a fitting moniker for the acclaimed American crime writer who writes about alcoholic ex-cops and gruesome misdoings. It is a name that would certainly stand out on the crowded Crime bookshelf, but for an author of erotic novels, the “Block” is all wrong. It makes me think of an unwieldy concrete slab, or worse, some sort of blockage, which is hardly synonymous with anything even vaguely sexy or arousing. This is probably one of the reasons why Block writes erotica under the pseudonym of Jill Emerson.

Jill Emerson vs Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block is not alone in swapping genders for different genres. In fact, many female authors choose to write under a male name to avoid being the victim of gender stereotyping. During the Victorian era, when writing was a vocation supposedly designated for men, Mary Ann Evans famously used the alias of George Eliot to ensure that her work was not only widely read by men and women alike but also that it was even published at all. Similarly, the Brontë sisters wrote under Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell in order to conceal their true identity and avoid their work from being disregarded as mere “feminine writing”. Even today, female authors are still disguising their gender by using pseudonyms or initialised versions of their names to attract wider audiences. J. K. Rowling is a perfect example, a gender-neutral name for fear that young boys wouldn’t want to read books written by a woman. More recently, Rowling has hinted that she may select an entirely new pseudonym for her work now that the Harry Potter series has come to an end, asserting that, for her, a “fake name is very attractive”, and would allow her to  “write any old thing I want”.

Pseudonyms certainly give writers some licence, allowing them to disassociate themselves from a previous style of writing and practice another. An author can be extremely cagey about his nom de plume, keeping it a secret and entirely separate part of his career. It’s easy to understand the allure of pseudonyms, if you are an established author looking for a change: you can be anybody you want to be, totally free from expectations about your work and maybe even easing the pressures of being a writer.

As readers, however, do we feel cheated by authors using pseudonyms? Many of us loyally follow our favourite authors, buying all their books and reading their interviews in the press. To then discover that they have an utterly different name under which they write feels a little akin to discovering your partner has a secret other family. It doesn’t seem fair to keep devoted readers like us in the dark. We want to celebrate the work of our favourite authors and often want to read anything they’ve written. Perhaps we may even be persuaded to read a genre we normally wouldn’t consider if we found out that our literary heroes were trying their hand at it. Some writers may have taken it too far: the great Donald Westlake, who is best known, under his own name, for the crime caper novels featuring the largely unsuccessful thief John Dortmunder, also wrote as Tucker Coe, Timothy J Culver, Curt Clark, Samuel Holt, Richard Stark, Allan Marshall and others. Furthermore, as a writer, surely writing under a different name prevents the pleasure of having something successful and creative being associated with you. I know my mother would be most put out if I wrote an award-winning novel, only to disguise my identity and give all the credit to an imaginary, faceless moniker called Jane Bloggs.

Whether you agree with the use of pen-names or not, undoubtedly they are here to stay. Often the pseudonym and the book become so interlinked that many of us aren’t even aware when a false title has been used. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Sam Clemens?  1984 by Eric Blair? The use of Mark Twain’s and George Orwell’s real names looks strange indeed, even as if they were imposters.

So what do you think? As a writer would you consider a pen name or would you rather keep the one you were born with? For those who are intrigued by the whole business of pseudonyms and nom de plumes, there is a fantastic website where you can use a random name generator to create possible combinations for your alias, even allowing you to choose the origin of the name, like Irish, English, African, or from mythology. I spent a good 20 minutes playing around with this generator and coming up with some great aliases. So, in a few years, when you see a best-seller by Eseld Sigrún, Mara Marquita or Indonea Lee, you’ll know it’s me.

Briony Wickes

One comment

  1. Rob says:

    “To me, ‘Block’ makes me think of an unwieldy concrete slab, or worse some sort of blockage, which is hardly synonymous with anything even vaguely sexy or arousing”

    So very true.

    It’s hard to imagine 1984 being published under Eric Blair’s name. With the book, in many ways, introducing themes and concepts that have been incredibly influential, still standing as a very individual book, it has helped literary critics somewhat that Orwell is a unique surname – ‘Orwellian’ is a much more distinctive term to describe a text than ‘Blairian’ would be.

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