This month’s It’s Lit! discusses author names and why they are often pseudonyms.

One of the things not discussed in the video is just how ancient the idea of pen names are and how they are/have been used to denote multiple authors.

Homer’s works were probably written by many people, making Homer a pen name. Lao Tzu was also likely to be an attribution for the Taoist collection Tao Te Ching, based upon a semi-mythical founder of the philosophy and religion. The author favoured by business and military leaders, and people with aspirations to being serial killers, Sun Tzu, is believed to have never existed. Instead, decades or centuries of knowledge was collected under the name.

More recently, we see pen names being taken for collaborations. James SA Corey of The Expanse fame is the pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Grant Naylor of Red Dwarf fame is actually Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. Ilona Gordon and Andrew Gordon write under the name Ilona Andrews for their adventures in urban fantasy. And Tom Clancy is famously half-a-dozen homicidal monkeys taped together.

In all these instances, you can see why a pen name was utilised. Having two authors on the cover of a book is reserved for franchises, like James Paterson and Clive Cussler. The name that will sell the book is at the top in bold, and the flunky who actually wrote it is attributed somewhere they’ll be missed. So writing teams need a pen name. The more historical examples appear to be about attribution to a progenitor or (semi) mythical figure, either to honour the inspiration for later works (particularly from more oral traditions), or to collect work under one banner.

This makes pen names very interesting. Particularly as knowledge of the author/s fades into history. The art outlives the artist. Yet we still try to figure out who they were and how they came to entertain and influence us long after their passing.

Maybe one day our descendants will be arguing whether James Paterson was a real author or just a marketing brand for blooding new authors. Maybe by then the Clancy monkeys might have mellowed out a bit.

To some people, the idea of a pen name seems kind of weird. If I, a writer, am going to put countless hours of hard work and thought into my masterpiece, why wouldn’t I want to put my own name underneath the title?

But from Stephen King to Ben Franklin to …., who had their own secret aliases, to Mark Twain and Dr. Seuss, whose pseudonyms became so famous that they are remembered by their pen names and not their actual names, the nom de plume has a long and proud history in the literary world.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

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