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Family Fun with Fake Names for Fame and Fortune.

I tried to put more F’s in the title.

I’ve always been intrigued by pseudonyms.  They seem like an interesting way to become someone else.  In modern publishing, there are a few reasons for use of a pen name, some more reasonable than others, including: to avoid publishing too many books per year, to determine if a novel stands on its own merits rather than on the author’s name, to break into new markets without jeopardizing current readership, or because the author wishes to set a more serious or humorous tone for their works with their name (eg. Mark Twain).  There’s a further category: authors whose names aren’t considered suitable for publication.  Somehow publishers, and often authors, don’t think a name like Erasmus Q. Fishmonger will sell books, and so the unfortunate Fishmonger would opt, either by choice, or from publisher pressure, for a more ‘reader friendly’ nom de plume.  I always dislike this use of a pen name.  Frankly, just once, I’d like to read a book by someone named Fishmonger.

Many successful authors use pseudonyms at some point in their career.  Stephen King used Richard Bachman due to an older publishing view that the public wouldn’t stand for author that published multiple novels per year.  This was insane, but the marketing behind the publishing industry usually is.  Bachman was used as an experiment by King to determine if it was talent or name recognition that sold his works.  He went all out, even going so far as using a fake author photo to try to create the ‘real’ Bachman.  Reportedly, he never came up with a satisfactory answer to his question.  Nora Roberts (which is also a pen name), uses J.D. Robb for her thrillers, specifically because her publisher didn’t want to harm her primary audience of general romance readers.  Unlike King, however, Roberts’ work as J.D. Robb managed to stand very well on its own merits for long enough that no one cared when it was revealed that Roberts was the author. 

Roberts and King represent an example of the modern usage of pseudonyms, but pen names are hardly a new thing.  They were used by female authors for hundreds of years, as they attempted to get their works published in the male dominated literary circles.  In the 19th Century and early 20th Century, women often published under male pseudonyms because it was difficult for women to be taken seriously as writers of anything other than inane romance novels.  With time, however, women began to create genres in which they could safely publish under their own names.  Most of these, however, were related to ‘women’s areas,’ mainly filled with works on housekeeping and etiquette.  This wasn’t good enough for many, and male pen names continued to be common.  Although many are known by their real names now, for example the Brontë sisters, George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) has remained as George Eliot in all modern editions of her work.  Eliot adopted her pen name to ensure she would be taken seriously while she criticized the political and social conventions of the day, and to avoid being relegated to the legions of romance novelists.  She was also quick to use the anonymity her pen name gave her to attack the state of the female literati of her time, namely the aforementioned authors of romance novelists. 

Eliot’s concern about public response to a serious female writer would not be limited to works of social commentary. During the formative years of the genre, female pioneers of science fiction were forced to publish under pen names, as their publishers felt that the male dominated audiences would balk at a woman writing their science fiction.  Generally this took the form of using their initials, as opposed to their full names, such as pioneer C.L. Moore, but some, like James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), used male names to make their fiction more palatable to the public.  As science fiction evolved, and WWII challenged standard gender roles, the belief began to be serious challenged in the post war era, and female authors are generally no longer forced to use such pen names in most genres to be taken seriously or to achieve a wide audience.  Although there continues to be a general view, mainly for ridiculous marketing reasons, that westerns and romances authors should be men, or women, respectively, and most male romance novelists or female western novelists continue to use names of the other gender.  Hopefully with time, this forced need will disappear.

I think I’ll conclude my rather limited pseudonym discussion here.  But I’ll leave you with a fun exercise.  Find an author you like that has written under multiple names, and see if the style matches.  The best authors make it very difficult to figure this out.