Of Pen Names and Pseudonyms

28 Sep

In the age of new media, how do we value anonymity? Does using a pen name devalue journalism? The recent publication of a review written by a critic using a pen name ignited a debate between critics and performers on the need for pseudonyms in criticism. Some said that anonymous reviews “…completely negate the credibility of your magazine”, whilst others dismissed the practice as “cowardly”.

So, are anonymous reviews ever okay? Yes. I believe that using a false name does not mean a writer is peddling false information or an untruthful review, and using an assumed name doesn’t mean that a writer doesn’t stand by their work. In fact, I have two writers that use pen names as a way to separate their reviewing lives from their everyday lives and future careers. I understand why they do this, and I’ve always been very open with venues and editors about their assumed names.

A professional writer’s reasons for choosing anonymity over a recognisable byline aren’t due to nefarious reasons or ulterior motives. Pen names have long been part of the journalism industry; in the 18th and 19th century, it was very common for journalists to produce pieces under a different name. In fact, George Bernard Shaw began his career working as a music critic for The Star, using the pseudonym, Corno di Bassetto. Similarly, as a young student, Arthur Miller wrote criticism under the name Matt Wayne and Anthony Burgess was a pseudonym based on the writer’s birth name, John Anthony Burgess Wilson.

Obviously the growth of the internet has made anonymous critics, whether they are existing critics or the public, commonplace However, those that choose not to reveal their names when writing reviews aren’t trolling. Their lack of identity doesn’t mean that they lack morals or basic journalism training; their reasons for staying anonymous are many and are often very personal.

For example, a writer might choose to write under another name because an established journalist already uses their name. I’ve never used a pen name, however, in the future, I might have to use one, because there is already a journalist called Amy Taylor, and using another name, or simply using my initials might end any confusion between the two of us.

Another reason would be that the writer has a name that is hard to pronounce or spell, so simplifying it would make them easier to search for online, and also make their name much easier for editors and readers alike to remember. Or a writer may want to give themselves a new name in order to improve or make their birth name more suitable to their vocation. After all, would you rather read an essay by an author called Thomas Lanier Williams III or Tennessee Williams?

Some writers choose a pen name to end the limitations of their name, or begin to write pieces in a different style, or about a different subject. In 1977, Steven King, fearing he would oversaturate the horror novel market by publishing too many books in one year, began writing  under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. His alter ego was ‘killed off’ very suddenly in 1985, when an intrepid book store clerk uncovered Bachman’s real identity.

Similarly, Iain Banks, who wrote the horror novels The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road, uses the name Iain M. Banks for his science fiction novels, in order to define his separate writing identities.

Anonymity might be part of their work, such as if the writer regularly writes about real life stories. For example, Gizmodo UK’s police blogger uses the pseudonym Matt Delito when writing about his job in the police force. While he never names his colleagues or the people he arrests in his work, his position has to be anonymous in order to protect him and the cases he works on. If he were to be ‘unmasked’ his job, his livelihood, his cases and perhaps even his life could be put in danger. Gizmodo informs the reader that Delito is a pseudonym via a disclaimer, as do most publications that carry this type of content.

In the world of criticism, content is king. But are we putting too much emphasis on bylines? Are we putting author credit above the quality of our own content? Producing a review that is rich, readable and above all authoritative, is what every critic strives for, and indeed, it’s what every reader wants to see. Consistency, like writing high-quality and engaging content is also vital. If a writer uses just one pseudonym regularly throughout their career, their pen name will be established, and that name will become a familiar feature in the industry that they write about.

Some writers choose to be transparent about their pen names, such as the novelist Nora Roberts, has also written novels under the name J.D. Robb. Her tactic of being open about her pen name makes her seem more versatile to her readers. But for some critics and other writers, transparency is not something that they can commit to, for various reasons. Anonymity can be and is a very valuable tool for some critics, for some it is a way of getting noticed, and for others, it’s simply a way of keeping a part of their lives personal.

So do anonymous reviews ruin a magazine’s reputation? It depends on the content, and the writer’s reasons for being anonymous. But in terms of theatre criticism, it would take a very, very poorly written review written by a critic under a pseudonym to do that. As for them being cowardly, with journalism becoming tougher to get into, more and more writers may take on part-time, or perhaps even full-time work in order to make ends meet. Are they cowardly, or a fact of life as a writer? Are writers truly aware of how prevalent pen names are in the creative industries? Perhaps we should all start being more transparent about the use of pen names in journalism, in order to end the stigma that seems to surround them in the 21st century? We are, as a species, naturally suspicious of secrecy, but we need to embrace the pseudonym once again, especially in journalism, because pen names aren’t just part of the industry, they’re one of the many reasons that journalism has thrived.

4 Responses to “Of Pen Names and Pseudonyms”

  1. Owen Garth September 15, 2013 at 1:18 am #

    I myself use a pen name, a derivative of my real name, for my online dealings. It just seems natural. Name are just labels anyway, easily changed to meet our needs.

    • trashtaylor September 15, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

      Hi Owen,

      Thanks for your comment!

      I’ve never used a pen name, but I understand why people use them, and you never know, I may have to use one at some point!

      • Owen Garth September 16, 2013 at 10:46 pm #

        Owen is my actual middle name (and what I prefer being called), and Garth is a nickname. I just don’t like the idea of what’s on my driver’s license and birth certificate being splayed all over the internet, but maybe I’m just paranoid.

      • trashtaylor September 16, 2013 at 11:09 pm #

        No, that’s fair enough, many writers use their middle name or just their initials. I’ve thought about it as well, because there is another journalist with my name, and I may have to write under a different name if my career takes off. If.

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