Pen names have been a part of the literary landscape for almost as long as there have been pens. They can be playful, opaque, bizarre, calculated, and sometimes downright disheartening. The following are seven of the most notable. By Betsy Z. Butterball…OK, OK, fine, by Kevin Daniels.

Stephen King/Richard bachman 

Stephen King is Richard Bachman

In the late 1970s the publishing industry held as a commandment that book-buyers wouldn’t read more than one novel per year from a genre writer. One such writer was Stephen King. He had stories emerging at an almost absurdly prolific rate. To get these to the public King proposed to his publishers that he could publish under a separate pen name. Forced to think of one on the spot, the first pseudonym that popped into King’s head was a bizarre amalgamation of crime writer Richard Stark and the band Bachman-Turner Overdrive (whose music King was listening to a lot at the time). For almost a decade he wrote as Richard Bachman, but immediately declared him dead when the secret was uncovered. King announced that Bachman had passed away from ‘Cancer of the Pseudonym,’ and dedicated his 1989 book The Dark Half to his late double.

 

Iain Banks/Iain M Banks

Iain Banks is Iain M Banks

Iain Banks added an ‘M’ between forename and surname to serve as a point of differentiation between his more grounded literary fiction and the high-blown space operatics of his sci-fi writing (most notably the Culture series). You might think that so transparent a pseudonym ought barely to qualify for a list such as this, but you’d be surprised. On the day of Banks’ tragically early death in 2013, social media was clogged with readers sincerely mortified that two great authors had died on the same day, and with such similar names. The clink of pennies dropping nationwide must have been audible from space.

 

Stan Lee/Stanley Martin Lieber

Stan Lee is Stanley Marin Leiber

Stanley Martin Lieber started writing for comic books in the late 1930s, but, as a man with greater literary pretensions, he kept his real name in reserve, publishing under the pen name Stan Lee. He has since admitted that “I felt someday I'd write the Great American Novel and I didn't want to use my real name on these silly little comics." However, Lieber never would get around to writing that novel, as the comic book thing kind of rather took off. Anyone who has been to a newsagent or cinema in the past 10 years will recognise the names of superheroes such as the X-Men, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, and Spiderman, and Lieber had a hand in creating them all. In a really rather pleasing slice of irony, Lieber has become so famous as his nom de plume that he has legally changed his name to Stan Lee.

 

William Makepeace Thackeray

Although his masterpiece Vanity Fair was always attributed to the man himself, William Makepeace Thackeray wrote vast quantities of novellas and articles under a series of pseudonyms, a decision borne more from mischievous flippancy than any real commercial sensibility. Examples include, but are far from limited to, Charles Yellowplush, Ikey Solomons, Michael Angelo Titmarsh, Folkstone Canterbury, Launcelot Wagstaffe, and (my personal favourite) George Fitzboodle.

 

Anne Rice/Allen Frances O'Brien

Anne Rice Interview with a Vampire

As later entrants on this list will show, it’s often been the case that women writers have been forced to conceal their femininity in order for publishers to deem them commercially viable. Given this, it’s quite refreshing to know that author Anne Rice was actually born Howard Allen Frances O’Brien. Her mother (“a bit of a mad woman,” according to Rice) felt it would be character building if she were to share the same name as her father Howard, but this was something Rice would always be self-conscious about. On her first day at Catholic school a nun asked her name, she answered that it was ‘Anne’ and, mercifully, you’d have to say, it stuck. Rice’s series of books about vampire Lestat de Lioncourt have sold millions of copies.

 

J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith

J K Rowling is Robert Galbraith

In the run up to the release of the Harry Potter series, Joanne Rowling’s publishers thought it would be best if she were to amend her name to something a little less gender specific (see also E. Nesbitt and even E.L. James). Rowling dropped from Joanne to J, and, as she had no real middle name, drew the K from her grandmother Kathleen. JK Rowling was born and, apparently, adolescent boys were undeterred from reading Harry Potter.

Following the boy wizard's runaway popularity Rowling decided to shift genres and wrote a crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the name Robert Galbraith; liberating her from a fan base accustomed to owls and wands on every page, and guaranteeing critical neutrality. The book was tremendously well received (and selling very nicely indeed) but when the author’s real identity was leaked by a newspaper its sales on Amazon rose by 507,000%.

 

The Brontë Sisters

The Bronte Sisters as the Bell Brothers

Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë published their masterworks (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall respectively) under the pseudonyms of three brothers, Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Rather than suspecting the wool was being pulled over their eyes regarding the Bells’ gender, readers instead alleged they were actually one and the same (inevitably male) author. To disprove this, Charlotte and Anne travelled to London in July 1848, revealing their identities to publisher George Smith for the first time. In hindsight, an entirely absurd set of events. The last word on this whole subject must go to Anne Brontë, who wrote: “I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.” Amen to that.

Read more articles by Kevin Daniels here

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