Weekly Musing: What’s In a Name?

Pen names. The official definition of a pen name is a pseudonym adopted by an author. Reasons for doing this vary; some authors choose them for pragmatic reasons, some due to societal or cultural standards, and sometimes just for the fun of it.

The history of the pen name is fascinating. In some cultures it is considered egotistical to sign a piece of work with your own name so either you don’t or you create another name. This may make it difficult to trace the original author, but in a way it’s a great idea. It draws attention to the work rather than to the author. Might also make it easier to deal with criticism if no one knows you really wrote it.

For other cultures it is standard to assume a different identity. For example, Japanese haiku writers adopt a haigo (pen name) which can change over time. In other parts of the world, an author’s pen name is added to the end of their real name so that when they publish it is a distinction between the person as an author vs. the person in their everyday life.

Below are more common reasons why a person may choose, or be forced to choose, a pseudonym.

Job restrictions: Sometimes an author has the kind of job that if he or she were to publish a story under their own name they could face being fired. Say you work for the government and want to write fictionalized accounts of corruption and decide to use people you work with as the basis for characters. Others, by the nature of their jobs, are simply flat out restricted from publishing a book regardless of subject matter.

Gender: Unfortunately, this mainly applies to women. For a long time women were barred from publishing under their own name as it was felt no one would buy books written by a woman. Something about not having the intellectual capacity or that it would be wrong for a woman to earn money on her own. A few examples include Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters who all used Bell as a last name and more masculine versions of their first names.

For other female authors the choice to use a pen name comes down to genre and subject matter. S.E. Hinton, author of The Outsiders, probably would not have been taken seriously if a book about a group of teenage boys and their rough upbringing had been published under Susan Eloise Hinton. D.C. Fontana, one of the writers for the original Star Trek series, as well as other shows, wrote science fiction, a world that was and still is, male-dominated. J.K. Rowling was convinced to use her initials because it was felt the Harry Potter books would sell better if readers weren’t aware a woman had written stories with a young male as the protagonist.

Yet occasionally a woman is allowed to publish and succeed using her own name. Mary Shelley’s name was attached to Frankenstein in the second edition published in France in 1823. Granted, when it originally came out it in 1818 it was published anonymously although Shelley and her husband had written an introduction for the book.

Multiple genres: In an effort to not be pigeon holed or affect sales of other works, an author sometimes will choose a pen name for each genre they publish in. Usually this is a decision made ahead of time between the publisher and the author for fear if the author’s new genre doesn’t sell well it could negatively impact sales of the author’s other, more successful genre. For example, Henry Turtledove writes science fiction but for his historical novels, he writes under H.N. Turtletaub.

Or the author simply wants to try something new. C.S. Lewis used Clive Hamilton to publish his poetry and N.W. Clerk to publish a book dealing with bereavement.

Misc. reasons: Unbeknownst to some parents, there already exists an author with the same or a similar name to the one you just bestowed on your future scribe. Not your fault; how were you supposed to know? In order to avoid confusion a writer can simply pick another name. The great Prime Minister of England, Winston Churchill, wrote under Winston S. Churchill because at the time, there was already a well-known American novelist of the same name. Amazing. I bet most people didn’t even realize there was an author named Winston Churchill.

Other writers decide to use a pen name because their regular name doesn’t sound appropriate for their chosen genre. Western writer Zane Grey’s real first name is Pearl but he knew no one would buy a western written by Pearl Grey hence the manlier sounding Zane.

Some writers, a small group, like to have multiple names because they wish to get published more within the same genre but don’t want to appear to be greedy taking up all the available space even if the reality is they are doing just that.

Then there are those cheeky people, like Benjamin Franklin, who just seem to like to publish under a variety of names. Franklin alone had 9 pseudonyms including 3 female ones. Not to be outdone by a founding father, Dean Koontz has 10 pen names in addition to publishing under his own.

Finally, some just choose a pen name just because. In my case I chose the name DH Hanni because my actual name is really long. Danielle Huffman-Hanni on a book cover would probably pose a lot of problems for a publisher; it limits title length and perhaps even the cover art. Plus, some people might view my name as pretentious and assume I write like that (which I don’t). Lastly, should I ever obtain the kind of level of success where I’m asked to sign books, DH Hanni is so much easier and faster for me to write and make moderately legible.

I will leave you all with this existential question: Is it the author that makes the name or the name that makes the author?


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