What’s in a (pen) name?: writers and the fate of the female pseudonym

‘What’s in a name?’ asked William Shakespeare. Apparently, a lot. From the use of initials to the chosen gender of the author’s name, research has shown that an author’s name has a significant impact on sales percentages. A Time article in 2014 showed that of the 50 most-read books by men on the site Goodreads, 90 per cent were written by men. For the most-read books by women, only five of the 50 were written by men, showing a preference to stick to one’s own gender.

A 2010 study by Vida – an organisation for women in the literary industry – found gender imbalances in respected literary journals and magazines: The New York Review of Books, for instance, reviewed 306 male authors compared to only 59 women. While this may not be due to the names alone, it certainly shows a greater preference for the male writer.

The use of a male pseudonym by a female writer was quite common in the 18th and 19th centuries, when attitudes towards women’s intellectual capacities were less than favourable. For instance, when Charlotte Brontë sent her poetry to British poet laureate Robert Southey, she received the following response: ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life.’

So to combat the sexism that was unapologetically rife during these eras, women were forced to abandon their names and adopt a male pseudonym to get their foot in the door.

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) is perhaps the most notable female author whose male pseudonym has become something of a household name. There is also Curer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, who were Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë respectively. George Sand, considered one of the most prolific French writers of the 19th century, was actually Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin.

Then there is the male author with a female pseudonym, a rare occurrence. The female pseudonym was the topic of a joke in the delightful BBC series Blackadder, when the titular character goes by a female penname: ‘I gave myself a female pseudonym. Everybody’s doing it these days: Mrs Radcliffe, Jane Austen…’

Yet while Blackadder presents an alternate history regarding women in literature, the joke actually reveals how uncommon the female pseudonym actually is in popular culture; a Google search of ‘male authors with female pseudonyms’ predominantly brings up pages of articles about female authors with male pseudonyms. This in itself is quite telling. Most of the time a male author chooses a male pseudonym, such as Mark Twain for Samuel Langhorne Clemens and George Orwell for Eric Arthur Blair. But there are several other instances where males have chosen female names.

While there are notable examples of males using female pseudonyms, they are few, and they are not writers of literary fiction, but of genre.

Crime and science fiction novelist John Creasy wrote under 28 different pseudonyms, one of which was Margaret Cooke. French poet Stéphane Mallarmé operated under several pseudonyms, including Mademoiselle Satin. Argentinian author Fernando Pessoa famously used over 75 pennames, only one of which seemed to be female: Maria José. An author who used as many female pseudonyms as male pennames was L. Frank Baum, who wrote under Edith Van Dyne, Laura Bancroft, and Suzanne Metcalf.

This shows that there are males who use female pseudonyms, but none of these pseudonyms are household names. As blogger Craig Hildebrand-Burke says: ‘Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen female authors who at one point or another have written using a male pseudonym. I cannot think of one example of the opposite. I’m sure there is, but nothing’s coming to mind.’

In her 2015 article ‘Homme de plume’ in Jezebel, writer Catherine Nichols stated that she received more responses from agents when she pretended to be ‘George’, and this seems indicative of most cases where women experiment with male names. While there are certainly cases of males using female names, the ratio is noticeably unbalanced, and few if any female pseudonyms become legendary names like Mark Twain.

While taking on a male pseudonym was seen as necessary for certain female writers to break into a male-dominated industry, males taking on female pennames has been met with confusion and amusement, showing how many still see the female writer as inferior. In fact the only genre in which it appears acceptable for a male to write under a female name is romance; Jessica Blair is actually Bill Spence, Leigh Greenwood is Harold Lowry, and Thomas Elmer Huff wrote under a number of female pennames.

Because romance is predominantly written for women, the use of a female pseudonym seems to help with sales and overall reception. But the noticeable trend of males taking on female pseudonyms in romance novels (in comparison to literature and other more well-respected genres) also suggests that male writers still fear the loss of literary prestige by using their male names in a genre that has a reputation of being low-brow, sentimental and trashy.

Female writers, too, have done themselves a disservice by routinely choosing male pennames. In fact a female with a female pseudonym seems to be the rarest of all. They are few and far between: Sarah Vaughan (Sarah Hall), Lucy Diamond (Sue Mongredian), and the multi-genre writer Eleanor Hibbert, who wrote crime, romance and mystery under more than six different pseudonyms, most of which were female.

If a female writer decides to use another name, most of the time a male name is seen to suffice, such as JK Rowling using Robert Galbraith for The Cuckoo’s Calling in 2013. In contrast, popular male authors from Stephen King to Salman Rushdie have not likewise considered a female pseudonym.

The fact that a female penname for a female writer seems pointless is indicative of the problem: we do not give enough credit and respect to the female pseudonym, considering it weaker and ineffectual. The male pseudonym by contrast is elusive and playful. In The Wall Street Journal, Penguin editor Anne Sowards claims: ‘For a new author, we want to avoid anything that might cause a reader to put a book down and decide, “not for me”.’ This, apparently, includes using a female name (her female fantasy authors include K.A. Stewart, Rob Thurman and K.J. Taylor). ‘When we think a book will appeal to male readers, we want everything about the book to say that—the cover, the copy and, yes, the author’s name.’ Hence a male name is often chosen, further problematising the status of women writers.

Sowards notes that this is particularly true in science fiction, where women writers have long pretended to be men. Josepha Sherman, discussing the Nebula awards, notes that ‘male readers, especially young ones, would not pick up anything with a woman’s name on the cover.’ Things have progressed in contemporary literary culture, but female writers are still marginalised.

In his 2015 Guardian article, Paul Oswell says that a more recent trend is to go ‘genderless’, with JK Rowling and EL James prompting gender ambiguity in writing. Yet this is somewhat counterintuitive, as it encourages writers to hide their genders in order to be more popular. By hiding gender, both men and women perpetuate negative connotations of the female name. As Jane Caro notes: ‘Women and girls will buy a book about Harry Potter written by the gender neutral J. K. Rowling in as great numbers as boys and men. The likelihood is that if Joanne Rowling had written the Hermione Granger series, only girls would have read it.’

While going ‘genderless’ might be the trend of the moment, and a safe one at that, it actually seems to inhibit the strength of the female name, more so than the male, who has enjoyed a luxurious place in the history in literature. Both male and female writers need to ask themselves why they choose the names they do; in purposefully avoiding female names, we are propagating one of the more unhelpful myths about female writers. Omitting the male pseudonym is not the answer – it’s about levelling out the literary field with more female alter-egos, from both men and women.


Siobhan Lyons is a media scholar whose PhD research analyses a history of celebrity authorship. She has been published in The Washington PostOverland, and Kill Your Darlings, and is a regular contributor to The Conversation and Philosophy Now.Siobhan Lyons - Profile pic

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