Writing is a peculiar field, and one of its oddities is that its practitioners are permitted - even expected, in some cases - to present false identities to the world in the form of ‘pen names’.
There are, I think, certain advantages to this. I can think of four:
1. Avoiding Negative Feedback
This may be the one that many think of. If you’ve exposed your heart and soul in a piece of work, pouring out emotions which you have perhaps never shared with anyone and making them public in the form of a story or book, then surely it makes sense to step behind the screen of a false name, to protect your innermost self from the critics?
Even if your story isn’t that sensitive, but just an expression of an artistic thought, or perhaps even merely a thing you have created which reveals your own tastes, then isn’t it wise to seek shelter from negativity? ‘Sylvester Marinade obviously can’t write for toffee,’ writes one reader in a comment thread. The fact that that reader doesn’t know who ‘Sylvester Marinade’ really is does help a little. Through him, you are holding such feedback at arm’s length, and not placing yourself in the front line. Though the criticism still stings, the pen name shields you from its worst effects.
In fact, it can lead to the next advantage:
2. Creating a Persona
Apart from just being a defensive manoeuvre, using a pen name can produce a positive effect.
You have probably read about the need for an author to project a ‘persona’, particularly in these times of fast-moving social media: an image, designed especially to attract a particular audience, with the right looks, the right sense of fashion, the right ‘identity’ to appeal to the readers of a particular genre or sub-genre. Then, having read about how vital this is - and it really can be very useful to a writer - you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and realise how far you are from the image that you’d like to present, perhaps mentally and emotionally as well as physically.
Well, you don’t have to be ‘You’. You can invent a whole persona - you’re a writer, that’s what you do - and mould him or her into the desirable figure required by the PR machine that you are building around your book. ‘Sylvester Marinade’ might be that suave, elegant, humorous figure that you think your readers would love to interact with. You don’t have to present a full biography with a photo, you just have to drop enough hints and give enough data in passing for readers to be drawn towards your (or ‘Sylvester’s’) work.
Isn’t this fakery? I’d see it more as ‘extra-fictive creativity’, by which I mean extending the fiction of your novel outward in a meta-fictional sort of way, so that in effect you create an author too. It can be fantastic fun, though you can take it too far. Authenticity is required to sell books too. The advantage to having a ‘Sylvester’ is that he acts as an even more powerful shield if a bad review comes in: you can console and consult with ‘him’ - without getting too schizophrenic about it.
If this appeals to you - and it doesn’t to everyone - you can use it to develop advantage 3.
3. Different Names for Different Styles
You might be a writer who stolidly stays within a particular favourite genre and is happy about it. Or you might be a writer who has a wide range of different writing styles, who likes to experiment, or who finds that they can happily write in a number of genres. If you like, you can invent a pen name for each broad category of writing that you do. This can have the first two advantages above for whatever you’ve put out there, but it can also help you creatively: as you switch genres, you will learn to ‘switch identities’ too, which some writers find to be energising and clarifying. I know of one writer who uses at least four different ‘identities’, depending on what she is penning at any given moment. I myself have used four different pen names, but we’ll come back to that in a moment.
Of course, using a pen name in any of these ways gives you anonymity. But you may have a particular purpose for wanting to be anonymous - maybe you have a reputation in another field that you want to protect. Maybe you’re a famous writer and want to try your hand in another genre without giving anything away or feeling that a publisher has to be obliged to publish you. J. K. Rowling, for example, wrote four books for adult readers: The Casual Vacancy (2012) and - under the pseudonym 'Robert Galbraith' - the crime fiction novels The Cuckoo's Calling, The Silkworm and Career of Evil, partly for this reason and partly to indicate clearly that her pseudonym’s books were for adults.
I have used my pen names for anonymity too, for a peculiar reason: I’ve written a book called How Stories Really Work under my own name. I know that the principles in the book are ‘true’, because apart from the 40 years of research I undertook to confirm them, I have yet to meet a piece of fiction anywhere which doesn’t apply (or disastrously fail to apply) those principles in a way which can be fairly easily delineated. But that won’t stop readers from being particularly critical of any fiction I might choose to write. ‘Why hasn’t it become a best-seller, then, Mr. Smarty-Pants?’ says the little critic’s voice in my imagination. So in order to avoid such possibilities, I am currently running an experiment: I have released fiction under several pseudonyms and am judging results before I claim the work for my own. It’s quite a different matter studying the master authors of the last few centuries, including modern screenwriters and TV scriptwriters, and distilling what they are all doing down into a single book, than it is to actually apply all of that to one’s own work. I ask others to do it, so I conclude that I should first be able to do it myself. As each invented author gains acceptance and recognition, I will step out from the shadows and reveal that it was me, applying the maxims in my book, all along. So anonymity has its uses.
Just to be clear, the ‘Me’ you see on this website and in the Inner Circle Writers’ Group is really me. I have a passport and everything. It’s important to be authentic and even to be vulnerable too, at the right time and in the right place.
You may have thought of other advantages to using a pen name. Are there any disadvantages? Apart from the question of authenticity, none that immediately occur to me, not in this day and age of electronic banking and online platforms, which mean that sales and income can be attributed to you even when you use an invented identity. If you can benefit in some way from using a pen name, why not give it a go? You may never be the same (name) again.
But be yourself when it’s right to be so too. That has its own power.