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What’s in a Name? The Case for Pseudonyms

Authors have used pseudonyms, or pen-names, since the beginning of well, authorship. It’s fairly likely ‘Homer’ wasn’t the real name of the poet who wrote the Odyssey and the Iliad—but nobody knows for sure! Famous authors as varied as Mary Anne Evans (George Sand), Eric Blair (George Orwell), Theodore Geisel (Dr Seuss), David Cornwell (John le Carre) and JK Rowling (Robert Galbraith) have all adopted pen-names, for various reasons. But it’s not just the famous and exalted who adopt pen-names; many of us writers have used pseudonyms at one time or another. I myself have used two—Isabelle Merlin [1] and Jenna Austen [2]. Each pen-name was used for very particular kinds of books: the Isabelle one for a quartet of YA romantic thrillers set in France (published between 2008—2010) the Jenna one for a duo of middle-grade/tween romantic comedies, the Romance Diaries, inspired by Jane Austen novels (both published in 2013). Each worked well within its genre, despite the fact no-one knew I was Isabelle, and it stayed that way for at least the third book, when my publisher revealed it was me; whereas neither I nor my publisher ever hid the fact I was Jenna. And nobody seemed to mind either way, though people who knew my writing under my own name were, surprisingly but gratifyingly, generally very surprised to discover Isabelle was me, as they felt the style was so different. Jenna’s style was different too, but because everyone knew it was me from the start, they adjusted to it quicker than they did than to the Isabelle style—because that name, and the enigmatic biography [1] (which was all true, by the way, just not precise!) and ‘glamorous’ author pic (see above–and yes, it’s really me!) gave them a different experience, in keeping with the tone of the books. At least that’s my theory.

Anyway, I enjoyed the experience both times but went happily back to using my own name for my later books. But recently I started thinking about the whole question again, after reading an interesting post [3] on a blog which argued that in the digital age it’s a silly idea to use a pen-name, especially more than one pen-name, as in these days of social media saturation you are likely to be found out, and people would be annoyed with you for tricking them. Besides, the author [4] went on, there was much more understanding these days that writers can flit between genres, and so that reason for adopting the pen-name is no longer valid. So, was that right? Have we really gone past the time when pen-names are useful—are they more of a hindrance these days?

I don’t think so. Why not?

Because first of all, when I used those pen-names, and especially the Isabelle Merlin one which people didn’t tumble to for quite a while, not only was social media very much up and running, but Isabelle had a blog/website [5] and Facebook pages, and the books used it for creative purposes as well. For instance, the main character in Three Wishes, the first Isabelle Merlin book, had a blog (also called Three Wishes [6]), which I created and which was linked to the novel in important ways. Young readers loved this—and what’s more many thought it was real. In fact, one reader emailed  ‘Isabelle’ to ask if the book had been inspired by the author finding the blog on the Internet. Other characters in the other books maintained (real) You Tube channels or website/blogs or Facebook accounts, all of which I created and maintained. These gave the books, as well as the author persona, a very rich texture—and nobody seemed to mind when all was revealed.

What the pen-names gave me, however, was not so much a way to flit between genres–as I’ve always done that under my own name–but a freedom to experiment with a different style—something that I think was also the reason for Rowling adopting that Galbraith pen-name. Even if she was outed not long after publication, the very fact of using a pen-name meant that the writing process itself could be different—at least that’s what I imagine happened, not having asked J.K. herself.  It certainly was the case for me, especially with the Isabelle books. It got me a whole different audience, what’s more—and they’re the reason why I kept the persona of Isabelle, even afterwards. I still get emails addressed to Isabelle in her email inbox and Facebook pages. Writing as Isabelle, weirdly, made me write quite differently: an act of spooky, and enjoyable magic. For Jenna, it was different. I made a Facebook page for The Romance Diaries, not Jenna Austen; there was never any real question of Jenna being a separate persona, and though the books had a different tone to much of my other writing, it wasn’t that same immersive experience as with Isabelle.

It’s this experience that makes me feel, now, that the time for pen-names is definitely not over. It just depends how you approach it, and for what reason you adopt it. Not as an act of desperation or as an act of trickery; but for the sheer enjoyment of it, the joy of discovering another aspect to your writing that you had never unlocked before: unlocked with the silver key of a new name.

Over to you—do you think pen-names have passed their use-by date? Or are they still relevant as another spell in the writer’s box of magic?

About Sophie Masson [7]

Sophie Masson [8] has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors [9].