The Problem With Pen Names

There are a lot of reasons for using a pen name these days. From wanting to keep your writing a secret from friends or employers, wanting to keep two distinct writing styles separate so that readers from one genre aren’t turned off by the writing you do in another, or preferring a pen name which is less gender/racially specific than your legal name*, the reasons behind wanting a pen name are many and varied and for the most part, I don’t have a problem with any of them. However, I’ve run into a few people whose actions, enabled by the use of a false persona, are running dangerously close to unprofessional or even illegal.

Author Seanan McGuire also writes under the name Mira Grant. It is an open pseudonym, in that McGuire openly admits to using it. From her FAQ’s:

Q: Why are you Mira Grant?

A: I wanted a pseudonym for my science fiction because I wanted to create some “distance” between it and my urban fantasy work. Mostly, I wanted people to judge the Mira Grant books on their own merits, not based on how much they read like something they’d expect me to write. I believe this was the right decision, and I’ve been very happy with my life as Mira Grant.

Both websites use photographs which are actually of McGuire, and while the Grant site has a brief faux-bio blurb, the rest of the information is factual – release dates, book info, and the bio and the FAQs both end with pointing out she’s also McGuire. Author Joe Hill was born Joseph Hillstrom King, the son of author Stephen King, and felt a need to write under another name in order to be judged on the merits of his words instead of his father. His website and Twitter feed and books all say “Joe Hill”, but the pictures are actually of him, and when he talks about his children or his predilection for pie, he’s actually talking about his own life. These are just two examples of what I consider to be acceptable use of a pen name: you’re changing the name for the purposes of story submission, so you’ll be judged “fairly” when a publisher considers your work or a reader buys your novel, but the rest of your life as it’s presented under that name is close to 95% true.

Submitting stories under a pseudonym without informing your publisher that you have another, legal, name – or much worse, signing a contract under your pen name – can cause legal issues and certainly makes me less likely to want to work with you, but we’re still talking about just one mistake – not disclosing your legal name. I’ve had authors do that, and learn from it, and stop making that mistake, in which case, I’m happy to keep looking at their work. At what point does it go beyond acceptable use of a nom de plume for work purposes and pass into unacceptable, creepy, or disturbing? That point differs for everyone but for me it’s when the fiction becomes not just a mask but a lie. There are authors who use more than just a new name: they create a whole new life. Websites, Facebook pages, even in chatting online with others, they use not only another name, but false images and fake biographies. Posting pictures taken from the Internet, of people who are not you and don’t know you’ve stolen their image, to support your pen name is one example of going too far. Writing lengthy blog posts about the life you don’t actually have, with people who don’t exist, supported by pictures you didn’t take … unless you label the site as itself being fiction, you’re trying to convince your readers that you are someone who doesn’t exist. What’s the purpose of that? If it’s just to support your pen name with what you consider to be a reasonable back-story, then it’s possibly only poor judgment on your part.

What really makes me angry are the people who create this fictional life and use it to prey on others. Creating a persona that is (for example) a young, sex-hungry woman and then using it to flirt online, manipulate others, play games with their emotions … or use it to turn a profit, soliciting donations from others to support what is essentially a hardworking avatar … that’s cruel. It’s a lie, it’s wrong, and when I find out that authors are doing this I will never, ever, accept work from them.

Personally, I don’t use a pen name. I made a decision a long time ago to be read and judged and known for who I really am. I like knowing that my friends actually know me. I feel lucky that I’m not in a situation where I’d be forced to hide my writing, which is so much a part of who I am, in order to get a job or maintain peace with family members. I understand wearing a mask in this business, but you should ask yourself if you really need it. Do you think a white-washed name or a bio photo which is younger/thinner/prettier than you think you are is protecting yourself from being judged wrongly, or is selling more books? Are you honest about yourself within the confines of your persona, or is everything you present to the world a lie? And if it is … why?

* For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not using the phrase “real name”. What that is can be very different depending on who you’re talking to, and no one has any right to decide what’s your real name but you. I’m only interested in the distinction between “legal” (often but not always “birth name”) and “pen name”, a fake name under which you write and publish, which is not the same as your legal name.

7 thoughts on “The Problem With Pen Names

  1. Yeah I totally agree with… all of this. And I say this as someone who has two pen names. One because writing as “Katey Taylor” is a google nightmare, and the other because writing Happily Ever Afters and Horror — uh, yeah. Talk about pissing off both your potential audiences — not to mention that people who read the one don’t want to hear me go on and on about the other. You can do it if you have an established name. Me? Nuh-uh.

    But I’m still me. The invention of a persona to try and sell yourself and your fiction? It seems tantamount to the fake autobiographical stuff that always makes headlines. Or even, to quote a funny little band called Art Brut:

    So many bands are just putting it on
    Why can’t they be the same as their songs?
    I can’t help it. I’m so naive
    Another record with my heart on the sleeve
    Is he as cool as he writes them?

    Talk about disappointing your potential audience, man. Like you said: that’s cruel. It’s a lie, it’s wrong.

    • I think people assume they’ll never get caught, or they’re not hurting anyone. Or they don’t care, I suppose.

    • I take offense to the “white wash” point as it is dangling out of context.

      In many ways, as subaltern people, minorities need to make choices that will level the playing field. It is easy for a person to judge from a privileged perspective. “Just be you!”

      When “you” just might not get you published/selling copies – you might need to market yourself and if the privileged person screaming “Just be you!” is not willing to devote all of their writerly time and energy on trying to get the public to buy more books from writers with non-white washed names then please don’t judge writers with publicly unpopular surnames for trying to level a playing field. If we accept that JK Rowling has to go up against gender norms….we need to accept this.

      Please do not assume that all minority writers in the U.S. really possess “exotic” names, ie. African Americans, Chinese Americans, Native Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans.

      Please do not assume that all minority writers in the U.S. are ashamed of their heritage because they use a conventionally accepted pen name in American society (read: the name is not owned by whiteness, because race is a social construction. names are currency.).

      Also, I introduce the concept that many white writers cognizantly exoticize their names for reasons that I cannot actually see as boosting sales and…if they do…it only worsens the damaging, generalizing idea of the “exotic” as “other” that plagues many minority writers.

      Some minorities, like African Americans, due to slavery (which is part of their heritage) will not have the “expected” homeland surname, ie. the easily traceable Irish “O’Hare” or “McGuire” and many O’Hares and McGuires are now Muhammads and Changs (through marriage, adoption, pen names). Many of these names with white origins have taken on significance as evidence of American family’s struggles and triumphs – family names.

      Any name you claim is yours (unless you are stealing an identity on purpose).

      Finally, I think that many people really should write under a pen name, because human resources and the general public are sharks that don’t like provocative writing from professionals.

      Not everyone is lucky to be in an environment where he/she is free to speak without giving up serving the general public.

      It is sad that public servants suffer most from this (writing maturely and expressively should be a given). Teachers, politicians, and business people need to think it over big time.

  2. Very good points. So far as I know, the authors I’ve published with pen names have been forthcoming with that information in their submissions and their contracts.
    I do use an alternative name for all my fiction and fiction-related publishing purposes just to keep a little distance from my science career and publications. But it is just my middle name and I’m open about that whenever it is necessary. Same persona, same legal name and signature on documents, just different marketing strategies.

  3. Well I definitely look thinner in my photo than I do in real life, but then I’m only half a head on the internet. I don’t understand why someone would create a fake persona ie job/family/a stranger’s photo. I may use a pseudonym if I ever have an MG novel published, but I’d probably only have a basic website rather than a blog and the bio and photo would still be me (if only a tenth of me).

    • I think using a pen name so your granny doesn’t google your side work in erotica is perfectly fine, and as long as you’re still using your photos and talking about your life (if you talk “in character”), then as far as I’m concerned you’re doing nothing wrong.

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