My son and I were reading a book called The Name of This Book is Secret. It’s by turns amusing and annoying, but pretty clever. The author of the book is one Pseudonymous Bosch.
My son had a hard time reading that name. I explained that it’s sort of a play on words, that “pseudonym” is a fake name a writer uses to disguise his or her identity, while Hieronymous Bosch was a Dutch artist who made odd and disturbing paintings and probably wanted to hide his identity because his neighbors thought he was nuts. He asked me why someone would make up such a weird name, and I said, “Lemony Snicket.” Then I had a craving for some lemon bars.
Certainly, writers have been using fake names for as long as history has recorded their writing. Socrates was probably a pen name, something the author came up with on the fly while watching his son play European futbol in short-sleeved cotton casual wear. (I know that joke is probably not worth it. Ignore it or figure it out, I don’t care which.) Shakespeare? Right. Does that sound like a real name to you? More like, “Hey, Will, ya ain’t got enough coppers to shake a spear at! We’re going to kick your arse out of London, you welcher!” (See “shake a stick at,” Ohio colloquialism).
Lots of classic writers used pseudonyms, you know. Lewis Carroll, Currer Bell, Ellis Bell, Acton Bell, Richard Bachman, Silence Dogood, Isaac Asimov, C.S. Lewis, Pablo Neruda, George Orwell, Ayn Rand, J.K. Rowling, an Dr. Seuss, all faked. People we’ve loved and admired for years as literary stars were simply common folks hiding behind more interesting monikers. (Okay, so Eric Arthur Blair just doesn’t sound as imposing as George Orwell, does it? Orwellian is a much better adjective than Blairian. Blech.)
In more recent years, we’ve seen many authors using pseudonyms for various reasons. Nora Roberts, the romance novelist, has about five hundred pseudonyms, including J.D. Robb, Danielle Steele, Linda Howard, and Stephen King. In fact, she has written every book that is on the New York Times best-seller list. (This is not true. It is a statement pretending to be true.) In children’s books, it seems to be even more prevalent. We have the two mentioned above, plus Avi (real name: Edward Irving Wortis. Seriously.) Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), R. L. Stine (Robert Lawrence Stine, ho hum) and Sue Denim (Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants moniker before he went public with his obsessions with tighty whities.)
Why would writers, who work so hard to get published, hide behind pen names? The reasons are as varied as the names themselves. O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), was serving jail time and didn’t want his writing career to be derailed by his other hobby, embezzlement. Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll, wrote serious mathematical books for a living, not the fanciful old school LSD trip that Alice undertook. And poor old Eric Blair? He didn’t want to shame his parents by having a writer in the family.
Women like the Bronte sisters (pseudonyms Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell for Anne, Charlotte, and Emily), used male names in order to have careers at all. Some writers choose to write in more than one genre, and feel the doltish general reading public wouldn’t understand the crossover. If Nora Roberts wrote a deep philosophical book on infinity, would the reading world be shaken to its core? It could happen.
I’ve thought about using a pen name if I write outside my given genre. But then I think “Hey, I worked hard for even a little recognition! I don’t want to start all over with somebody else’s name!” Plus, if you take you check to the bank, how do you convince the teller that you ARE J.K. Rowling, even if your driver’s license says Joanne?
I wish to have such troubles. For now, I just keep on with the name I was born with. I didn’t even change it when I got married. Are married names pseudonyms? Maybe my sisters who changed their names have been faking their marriages all these years!
If you were to have a pen name, what would it be?