July 29, 2011 14 Comments
In her fascinating new book, Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms*, Carmela Ciuraru provides biographical information about sixteen famous writers who lived during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She makes it clear that these authors chose to write with pen names for several reasons:
1) To protect his or her identity.
An author renounces a piece of his or her anonymity as soon as he or she reveals his or her work to the public. Using a pseudonym is an easy way an author can hold on to some, if not all, of his or her privacy. It is also an easy way for an author to partition and manage all the aspects of his or her life. Charles Dodgson, for example, was a well-respected mathematician who published numerous scholarly essays in the middle of the nineteenth century. He chose to publish his quirky childrens’ books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, under the name Lewis Carroll in order to preserve his reputation as a serious academic.
2) To become the person he or she wants to be and to express his or her innermost thoughts.
Writing and identity once again go hand in hand. Most, if not all, of the authors Ciuraru features in her book struggled to find their places in society and, more importantly, to accept themselves. Sylvia Plath, for example, was severely depressed throughout her short life. She published her semi-autobiographical work of fiction, The Bell Jar, under the name Victoria Lucas in 1963. Writing asVictoria allowed her to be open about her dysfunctional relationship with her mother (who always insisted she and her daughter didn’t have problems) and also gave others—her readers—a glimpse into her inner turmoil.
3) To defy societal norms.
Back in the nineteenth century, female writers simply were not taken seriously. It was, after all, a man’s world. So, when Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Brontë published their novels, they assumed the names Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell, respectively. The public speculated that the works of these men were actually written by women, yet only their editor firmly knew the truth. Had these sisters not adopted male guises, the world might never have received Agnes Grey, Jane Eyre, or Wuthering Heights.
4) To establish him- or herself as a brand.
Certain books and authors conjure very specific images in readers’ minds. The name J.K. Rowling, makes me think of magic and adventure. Branding is an essential tactic authors use to draw a distinct readership. For example, most science-fiction writers are male, as are most science-fiction consumers. This was especially true during the 1970s, when Alice Sheldon started writing. She published her stories as James Tiptree Jr., a name that was perceived as more credible as a sci-fi writer than Alice Sheldon would have been simply because it’s a male name. By branding herself as a man, Sheldon gave her work a better chance to do well in a commercial arena.
While I was reading Nom de Plume, I couldn’t help but wonder what the role of pen names is in today’s romance genre. I know that lots of romance writers still use pen names even though the trend has, for the most part, gone out of fashion for writers in other genres.
I decided to seek answers from a couple of our own pseudonymous authors, since they know first-hand what the experience of writing with a pen name is like.
For author Mia Marlowe, writing under not one, but three names allowed her to venture into multiple sub-genres of romance:
“I started under my real name with Maidensong, my debut title with Leisure Books in 2006. After three dark, angsty viking romances, I turned in a light-hearted Regency called Distracting the Duchess. My editor at the time, Leah Hultenschmidt, said I was likely to give my readers whiplash because the style was so different, so Emily Bryan was born. Later, when my agent sold one of my proposals to Kensington Publishing, my new editor asked that I take a new pen name since I added paranormal elements to my Mia Marlowe historicals.”
“In my other life I consult for government clients, and I publish and speak and negotiate sometimes under that name. I wanted a hermetic separation between my two worlds. Initially, I was worried that my counterparts in my male-dominated field…wouldn’t take me seriously if they knew I wrote these steamy romances.”
Both authors assured me they did not use pen names as a means of distancing themselves from their potentially embarrassing content.
Laura said, “…I was a bit self-conscious to think about my male colleagues reading [my books]. But the veil has become pretty transparent at this point. My colleagues on both sides of the table have always been interested and supportive of my writing, and many of them end up buying my books! I’ve kind of gotten over the self-conscious thing.”
Mia said, “I’m very proud of what I write. The themes of love, betrayal, revenge, and reward are universals that have been dealt with in literature since before stories were written down. Everyone who knows me knows this is how I make a living so the decision to use a pen name is not based on trying to distance myself from my work. Using a pen name has always been a matter of publishing expediency, nothing more.”
I began wondering what pseudonym I would use if I ever wrote a romance novel. Don’t get me wrong; I like my name. However, my last name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue or stick in people’s minds (see, I would use a pseudonym solely for branding purposes).
I thought it would be easy to come up with a pen name…it turns out it isn’t! I actually sat down and tried. Mia browsed through the most popular names on the Social Security website and picked hers from that list. Laura kept her real first name, but “chose Navarrein honor of Rutger Hauer’s embittered hero Etienne of Navarre in the old fantasy film Ladyhawke.” (“I would LOVE to have written that story! And who could resist the guy?,” she added.)
So, I still haven’t found my perfect nom de plume. But I want to know: what would yours be? Would you use a pen name at all if you were to write a romance novel?
For a chance to win a Dorchester tote filled with an assortment of our books—worth over $40—answer this question in the comment section below. Don’t forget to tell us why you chose what you did!
(This is my real name. Honestly.)
A big thank you to Mia and Laura for taking the time to answer my questions!
*”Nom de plume” means “name of the feather” in French. The term was coined back in the days when writers used quills.