There have been many writers throughout history who use pen names to disguise their true identity. Charlotte Bronte published her pieces under the name Currer Bell, while her sister Anne went by Acton Bell and Emily went by Ellis Bell. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson wrote under the name Lewis Carroll, and Theodor Seuss Geisel is known to children everywhere as Dr. Seuss. The list keeps going.
But what’s the point of these pen names? A pen name is useful for a few different reasons. If the topic you are writing about is controversial or if characters in the piece resemble friends and family (or even yourself), then a pen name can remove the anxiety of having your own life looked at through a magnifying glass.
Some authors use their real name and a pen name, depending on the piece. A historical writer interested in dabbling into fantasy or science fiction writing may use a pen name for the latter so that fans aren’t confused by the different style and focus. A writer may even decide to create a pen name that appeals to their chosen audience, like J.K. Rowling, whose name is actually Joanne Rowling; Rowling changed the name on the cover of Harry Potter after her publisher explained that their target audience–young boys–would be more prone to grab it off the shelves if a girl didn’t write it.
Interestingly enough, Rowling’s most recent book was written under another pen name, Robert Galbraith, which she used to write The Cuckoo’s Calling, a mystery novel. In the Sunday Times, Rowling admitted:
Being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype and expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.
Galbraith’s novel has been on the bestseller list since April, earning reviews calling the book a brilliant debut, while The Casual Vacancy, a novel also recently written by Rowling, was a bit of a dud. Personally, I haven’t read the book. I don’t think I really want to if we’re being honest. Going in to it, the name J.K. Rowling makes me expect too much. I want magic, and I think this preconception is why many readers weren’t successful at entering the world of The Casual Vacancy. Rowling’s secret identity was revealed by a family friend of her lawyer, but the revelation proves how privacy can help authors write freely and lose their inhibitions.
Other authors, like George Orwell, whose real name is Eric Arthur Blair, have discovered this as well. Blair wrote under his pen name so he wouldn’t have to worry about embarrassing his parents. Which to me, is probably the most basic and obvious reason to use a pen name.
Pen names are just one more way for a creative writer to get creative. Create a fake you. Liberate yourself.
– Melanie Figueroa