Pen Names & Anonymous Authors

The #challengeaccepted hashtag got me thinking about the power – and danger – of anonymity, and the prevalence of pen names. The idea, Belinda Jepsen at Mamamia reports, is for women “to upload a grey-scale selfie in an apparent show of solidarity”.

The challenge originated with Turkish women drawing attention to domestic violence and femicide. The black and white photographs, far from a mere aesthetic choice, are designed to mimic the sort that appear in reports about murdered women.

Yet, while the idea might be for ordinary and especially marginalised women to have their faces seen and their voices heard, the most successful (if we’re judging the accumulation of ‘likes’ as success) are those glamorous, often sexualised selfies posted by celebrities with vapid Hollywood sentiments.

While there’s nothing wrong with ‘spreading the love’ or ‘lifting each other’, (and heaven knows every person on the planet needs that right now), I wanted to do something a little different with the invitation.

A series with a twist

After becoming aware of the challenge, I began a series inspired by Hannah Jewell’s 100 Nasty Women of History, profiling (largely forgotten) women writers. And as I posted, I began to notice a pattern: So many of them wrote under pseudonyms.

As Virginia Wolfe wrote,

“Anonymous was a woman”.

Women authors today

Even though, as Rosie Cima reports, women authors are better represented on the bestseller lists in the 2000s than at any time in history, fiction is still hugely gendered.

Female authors dominate romance and domestic fiction (although this wasn’t always the case). Bestselling historical novels are also predominantly written by women these days. Meanwhile, suspense, fantasy/scifi, adventure, and spy/political genres are dominated by men.

Don’t believe me? Forty-seven of the top 50 bestsellers on Amazon’s Kindle Romance category this past month (94%) were written by authors with female first names. Two were attributed to authors who use initials, and just one was by an author with a male first name.

Thirty-eight of the top 50 bestsellers in Science Fiction (76%) were by authors with male first names. Four were by authors who use initials, and just eight were penned by authors with female names.

Women in Satire

Or take one of the genres I’ve published in – satire. Thirty-seven of the top 50 bestsellers in this category (74%) are by authors with male names. Two were by authors who use initials, and just eleven were written by authors with female names.

But even this figure likely over-inflates the number of women in satire. Very few if any of the ‘satire’ books authored by women really qualify as satire. Rather, they tend to be generic humor books incorrectly classified by publishers to improve rankings.

The effects of genre on name choice

Writing in the ostensibly ‘male’ domain of the adventures of politicians and spies in fantasy worlds, I thought a lot about using initials instead of my obviously ‘female’ first name.

And I’m far from the first person to do so.

For centuries, women have published under male names. More recently, women writing in ‘male’ genres often choose to use initials. And of course, it’s not just typically female names that can be problematic. Many writers and performers with ‘exotic’ or ‘foreign’ (ie. non-Anglo-Saxon) names have chosen anglicised stage names to avoid discrimination.

An experiment

To better understand the choices authors make when using pseudonyms, I examined the 505 names listed as pen names on Wikipedia at August, 2020.

I coded the pen and real names of authors as male, female, or other based on my own judgements, and in the case of names I was unfamiliar with, the use of the authors’ Wikipedia pages and the babynames.com website.

‘Other’ was used to code pen names that were initials or single word pseudonyms not readily ascribed to either gender. In the case of real names, groups comprising both male and female authors as well as instances where the real author is unknown were also coded as ‘other’.

Close to 40% of the 505 author-pen name pairs belonged to authors with a female real name, and almost 60% male. Just 2% were unknown or mixed groups.

(Note: authors’ individual gender identities are beyond the scope of this analysis. I am looking solely at whether authors chose pen names which matched the gender of the names they were generally known by in social and legal settings, or whether they published their literary efforts under a name with a different gender association.)

Authors’ use of gendered pen names

Authors with male names were much more likely to choose a pen name that reflected this gender identity. Fewer than two-thirds of the authors with female real names chose female pen names (62%). By contrast, almost three-quarters of the authors with male real names chose male pen names (74%).

Initials as a quasi-gender neutral option

Pen names not obviously of either gender, including initials, were used by authors with male and female real names at approximately the same rates (21% and 22% respectively).

But it is important to remember that often times, an author using initials is likely to be perceived as male. (J.K. Rowling’s use of initials is an example of this – technically a pen name since her birth name does not contain a middle name).

Women using male names

What is more interesting is the fact that 32 of the authors with female real names (or close to 1 in 5) chose male pen names, but only 10 of the authors with male real names (or around 1 in 30) chose female pen names.

Importantly, four of those ten were all the same guy – Benjamin Franklin. He’s listed ten times in the corpus under various (often intentionally fake-sounding) names.

An Abundance of Benjamins

It is clear that while most writers displayed a preference for pen names of the same gender as their real names, authors with female names are far more likely to choose a male-sounding pen name than authors with male names are to choose a female-sounding pen name.

In fact, if we accept the notion that there is a default assumption that a writer will be assumed male unless otherwise signaled (which has certainly been true throughout history) then female authors choose names that will be or will potentially be seen as male 38% of the time, but male authors choose names that will be seen or potentially be seen as female just 3% of the time.

And a third of those men are Benjamin Franklin in various guises.

The Outliers

As always, there are some interesting observations to be made by examining the outliers, so let’s take a closer look at this 3%.

Aside from Benjamin Franklin, who largely used names to write ‘womanly protests’ to the newspaper, we have:

  • American poet, playwright, and Japanese art expert Arthur Davison Fick, who used the alias Anne Knish to author a spoof volume of poetry of the sort he derided (which unexpectedly caused a sensation)
  • David ‘Dav’ Pilkey, the author of multiple children’s series, including Dumb Bunnies, which he wrote as Sue Denim
  • Dean Koontz has written under a number of pen names over his career, including the female version of his name, Deanna Dwyer. All of his books written under this name (mostly described as pulp Gothic Horror on Goodreads) feature women, often with children, on their covers.
  • L. Frank Baum also made use of several pseudonyms for his non-Oz books, including several female ones – Edith Van Dyne (for the Aunt Jane’s Nieces series), Laura Bancroft (for The Twinkle Tales and Policeman Bluejay) and Suzanne Metcalf (for Annabel).
  • Peter O’Donnell was a writer of mysteries and comic strips, who also wrote Gothic historical romances under the female pseudonym Madeline Brent.
  • Sir William Neil Conner was a journalist for The Daily Mirror who write under the pseudonym Cassandra, which he took from Greek mythology. Cassandra was a tragic character given the gift of prophecy but was then cursed so no one would ever believe her. The popular column comprised simply written slice-of-life, and later, diary-style pieces aimed at a working class readership.

While this sample is too small to draw any definitive conclusions, it appears authors with male names occasionally write under women’s names in order to:

  1. appeal to a female audience, e.g. when writing romance
  2. appeal to very young children
  3. pretend to be women when they are sending up some goody-goody or artsy-fartsy type
  4. distance their real names from their more serious work or image.

In short, male authors use female names for the very opposite reasons that female authors use male names:

Genre

Like women who use men’s names or initials to break into genres traditionally considered ‘masculine’, authors with male names use women’s names to get a chance in genres like romance.

Audience

Like women who use men’s names or initials to appeal to older children (like J.K. Rowling) some authors with male names use women’s names to appeal to younger children.

(For what it’s worth, I think there’s limited evidence that this works, at least these days. Neither the recommended reading for children website I checked, nor Amazon’s bestseller lists showed any patterns according to age of reader. Female authors were slightly more common in books for children in every age group)

Seriousness

The final two reasons, however, illustrate how, although women may (particularly historically) have often used men’s names in a bid to be taken more seriously, men may use women’s names in an attempt to achieve the opposite effect – to intentionally draw mocking derision of a genre they despise.

A few more observations…

One of the female authors who also used a female pen name, Anne Rice, was born with a decidedly masculine name: Howard Allen Frances O’Brien. She explains that her mother

“thought it was a good idea to name me Howard. My father’s name was Howard, she wanted to name me after Howard, and she thought it was a very interesting thing to do. She was a bit of a Bohemian, a bit of a mad woman, a bit of a genius, and a great deal of a great teacher. And she had the idea that naming a woman Howard was going to give that woman an unusual advantage in the world.”

When a nun asked Howard her name on the first day of school, she chose the name ‘Anne’, a name she considered pretty. Her mother, who knew her daughter was self-conscious of her real name, did not correct her, and her name was later legally changed.

There were also multiple instances of authors anglicising their names, or adopting names from the culture about which they were writing.

Names and titles

Eight authors used a pen name which included ‘Mrs’. As was often customary, all except two used their husband’s name, making the title ‘Mrs’ necessary to distinguish the women from their husbands.

Only one author used a pen name that included ‘Mr’ – Mr. Blackwell, the pseudonym for Richard Sylvan Selzer, creator of the Ten Worst Dressed Women List.

Five authors used pen names that included ‘Aunt’. Only one followed this with her real name, and all wrote columns for periodicals. (Think ‘agony aunts’).

Writers have various reasons for adopting pen names. Sometimes, as we have seen, it is to gain acceptance in a genre they may not otherwise. Other times, it can be because they want to distance themselves from their work – either because they fear it will negatively impact the reception of their more ‘important’ work, or because it may be dangerous.

And of course, when we look at pen names, we’re still looking at a subset of authors who felt confident enough to have some sort of identifier associated with their work.

Others simply wrote under ‘anonymous’.

Anonymous was often a woman.

But Anonymous was also the politically marginalised, the ethnically targeted, the religiously vilified, and the sexually maligned writer.

As readers and writers, we owe it to one another to ensure that everyone is safe to step out into the light if they so choose.

It is often said that we should judge books, like people, by their content, and not by their covers. And that goes for everything on the cover: including our perceptions of an author’s name.

If you’d like to read more about the importance of names, check out You Stole My Heart… Do I Have to Take Your Name?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *