The Stories Behind Famous Pen Names
A few years ago, J.K. Rowling drew attention when she revealed that she had published a book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Authors publishing under pen names is, of course, nothing new in the literature world, but the practice has no set source of inspiration. In Rowling’s case, she wanted to publish her first novel after Harry Potter without the intense pressure that would follow the beloved series. However, many other circumstances have brought writers to hide their true identities. Here are a few well-known examples that I think have particularly interesting reasoning attached to them.
1. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë: Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell
The works we now know to be written by the Brontë sisters were originally published as the works of the Bell brothers. Preserving their initials, Charlotte published her work as Currer Bell, Emily published as Ellis Bell, and Anne published as Acton Bell. Their pen names were used out of necessity in an academic environment where women’s published work was controversial and largely overlooked. After originally publishing under these pseudonyms, they eventually dropped the pen names and became well-known and respected women writers while they were still alive.
2. Agatha Christie: Mary Westmacott
With works such as And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie is one of the most famous mystery writers of all time. Apparently, she wanted to keep it that way, because she used her pseudonym Mary Westmacott to publish several romance novels. It raises the interesting question about the importance of an author’s persona. Was she embarrassed to be writing such novels? Was it a matter of separating work and play? Or did she simply want to maintain her persona as a mystery writer so that writing another genre would not affect the way her other work was read?
3. Stephen King: Richard Bachman
If Stephen King’s writing is anything, it’s prolific. Novels and short stories combined, he has published a few hundred pieces. The man seems to be an endless source of content, and it is for this reason alone that he created his pen name alter ego. When he first started writing, publishing companies were reluctant to let authors publish more than once a year, but King was producing work at a faster pace than this. His loophole? Publish the extra books under another name, of course.
4. Daniel Handler: Lemony Snicket
This is an example of an author who is known better by their pen name than by their real identity. Lemony Snicket is credited as the writer of the children’s series A Series of Unfortunate Events. What’s interesting here is that Daniel Handler’s creation of this pen name is relevant to the story itself. Throughout the series, we come to learn that Lemony Snicket is mysteriously connected with all of the adventures of the Baudelaire children. Therefore, the narrator, who is the accredited author but not the real one, becomes a character who is not quite in the main action but not quite completely subjective. I think that this is great because it exposes kids to a nonconventional narrative technique.
5. Ben Franklin: Silence Dogood and others
Throughout his life, Ben Franklin published under several pen names, most of which had elaborate backstories. Usually his purpose was to strengthen the points or arguments he was making in his writing, but there was definitely also an element of fun as well. His most well-known pseudonym is Silence Dogood, a widowed middle-aged woman whom he wrote as when he was a teenager after his writing under his own name was rejected for publication.