Why I use a pen name

This is a pretty common discussion among writers, I think, so I’ll try not to rehash the argument. Instead, I’d like to address the idea of authenticity in pen names.

Recently, I changed my pen name because the one I had, Vivien Weaver, was very feminine (and my brain had not yet gotten the memo that I am not). In a conversation I had with someone in which I mentioned the change, they argued that (I’m paraphrasing) pen names are not authentic, and if someone uses one, they’ll be “caught” at being “fake” because there’s no privacy on the internet, and that’s a violation of trust.

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Needless to say I find that statement pretty offensive on several levels, so I’d like to address each one, not necessarily in order.

Privacy

It’s true that there’s no such thing as privacy on the internet. NSA inside, an industrious internet user could probably connect the name I use in real life with my pen name if they were savvy enough. Connecting my pen name with my legal name (as in the name my parents gave me) would probably take some doing. I would rather people not know my legal name because it’s obviously gendered, and I find that uncomfortable given that I’m in the early steps of transitioning, Using a pen name affords me a modicum of privacy and a clear delineation between my author life and my “real” life. I’m a teacher, so the separation is important to me. 

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to hide the fact that I’m an author, and I’m not ashamed of what I write. I really wouldn’t be that troubled if someone did connect the name I use IRL with my pen name. I do, however, want to distinguish, at least on the surface, my scholarly work from my work as an author. They’re two different “brands,” if you will, and crossing the two just doesn’t make sense to me. 

Getting “Caught”

While I acknowledge that people could find my author work if they tried, how many people are realistically going to put forth the effort to try? And who’s going to care if they do? If I were doing something untoward, I might be worried about getting caught, but “caught” implies that I would be in trouble if someone did connect the names I use. It’s pretty well established that people in general on the internet often don’t use their real names. Usernames, for example, have been around since forever. The use of pen and stage names is also very well established. I’m sure you could think of at least five or six of those off the top of your head. I’m willing to bet people really do not care that JK Rowling isn’t that author’s real name or that Lady Gaga has a legal name. They certainly aren’t going to take offense. 

Being “fake” vs. “authentic.”

The argument I heard was that authors need to establish credibility, authenticity, and transparency. I agree with this argument in certain contexts. In my academic work, when I finally publish it, of course I’d have to establish my credentials. To a certain extent, I have to do the same as a fiction author. But the two roles are different ones, neither of which is more or less authentic than the other. My fiction readers probably don’t give one tiny shit that I’ve written about Socrates, and if I’m trying to get a scholarly work peer reviewed, they give even less of a shit that I’ve written speculative fiction with queers and disabled people in it.

I’m bothered by the idea that my legal name is my only legitimate/authentic name and the other names I use are somehow fake. Not only is it short-sighted, it’s exceptionally dismissive. People go by names other than the ones their parents gave them for a thousand reasons, and to say that those names are fake or disingenuous is not only silly, it’s offensive. Those of us whose names don’t match their gender identities find it somewhere between trying and hopeful to be asked what our “real” names are. My “real” name is the one I chose, the one I use. Of course this isn’t solely the province of trans people; anyone who doesn’t like or doesn’t use their legal name would likely be annoyed and hurt just as much by the implication that they are fake or worse, lying if they don’t use the name assigned them at birth.

 

Names are important. In business, they build platforms or brands. In life, they define parts of our identity. This may matter less to some people than to others, but when you live a life that is a continual struggle to be true, to be authentic to yourself, to define your identity as one you chose rather than one that was foisted upon you by outside forces, choosing a name is one way to exert some control over one’s life. 

Since the advent of the internet, people have been using names other than the ones assigned to them at birth. The relative anonymity of the internet allows us to become something and someone different than we are in real life. When you’re an author, sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s detrimental. The logic that’s often put forth about building a marketing platform using a consistent name/username across different media venues makes complete sense. But what does it matter which name you use, if you’re writing fiction? The credibility you establish is the credibility you gain with your interactions with people. If you act like a douchecanoe, people will treat you like a douchecanoe. No one cares what your real name is.

There’s an understanding among most internet users that you don’t make any representations about your identity. Is it a good idea to be real? Yes. If people get to know you, they’re more likely to read your stuff. But then the question becomes, what is real? What’s authentic? IMO, it’s more about your actions–what you say, what you do, what ideas you express and how you express them–that really matter, not what name you’re performing those actions under. That’s not to say that my name doesn’t matter to me (which is exactly my point), but who is anyone else to determine what I should call myself? There are bounds of propriety, but as long as I’m not RainbowHedgehogFartFace, do people really care what I call myself if they can easily connect my name to my totally rad and amazing books?

What are your thoughts on pen names? Are they less authentic or real? Have you ever been bothered by someone’s use of a pen name?

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One thought on “Why I use a pen name

  1. Whatever you want to call yourself, you are an amazingly entertaining fiction writer, incredibly smart educator, and it is my honor to call you my friend. This person is carrying a gross misconception and I find her opinion as dismissive as my reaction towards her option. Remember what Forrest said, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

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