Anonymity for Authors – Are Pseudonyms Necessary or Attainable?

Pseudonym’s may have become an accepted part of literature and the arts, from the likes of respected authors such as Mark Twain (real name Samuel Longhorn Clemens) and Stephen King (real name Richard Bachman) to modern day music moguls and actors such as Lady Gaga (real name Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) and Kirk Douglas (real name Issur Danielovitch Demsky) yet a lot of questions still linger around the seemingly strange decision to change your name.

When referred to as a ‘stage name’ it’s easy to assume that some names are created purely for commercial intentions, either because the artist’s birth name is difficult to pronounce or a new alliterative and carefully constructed name is easier to market and recall. I know that I never forget the names Whoopi Goldberg (real name Caryn Elaine Johnson)or Agatha Christie (real name Mary Westmacott) but what if an author wants more than just a memorable name of which to write under? What if an author wants to use a name for true anonymity? Is it really possible?

Historically books have been written anonymously or under assumed identities when controversial, put simply, for the authors safety, but in recent times when freedom of speech and expression are so valued, do authors still need the protection? Unless you’re writing about your evil plans to end humanity, even then you’d probably just be considered insane and dismissed in the minds of most rational thinking people, unless massively offensive you probably don’t need to be covert to such an extent. Proven in the fact that many authors although use a pen name are more than happy to print a picture of themselves on their work; but what about those who do want to remain anonymous?

The media has brought with it a culture of celebrity and a sense of public possession over the identities and lives of acclaimed authors and stars alike and so I can’t help but wonder if name-less-ness is nothing more than a dream. Add defamation lawsuits into the mix and it’s no surprise that many authors decide to change names and places in their works too, but then are we rewriting history if we’re changing all names, descriptions and accounts of events? Where do we draw the line between sensitivity for privacy and the moral implications of changing details in so-called ‘non-fiction’?

As an author myself I enjoy the freedom that comes with not using my real name, knowing that you can’t type the name I use daily into google and find my most personal thoughts and secrets allows my work to be more honest and that can only be a good thing-right? I’m not famous by a very long stretch and while I don’t necessarily think I ever will be, there’s always the ‘what if’ fantasy that comes to mind when I consider the possibility. If I did become well known, would the simple change of name that internet submissions permit be enough? I feel safe now in the knowledge that I can be an author online and still have my own life outside of that but could it really last if people actually looked a little deeper?

When asked what people want to achieve in their lifetimes, I think many of us would like to leave a legacy behind as an ‘X was here’ stamp on the world, people would like to be remembered and missed. The question then posed is if we decide to remain anonymous, are we really remembered; is our work being remembered enough? I think of writers such as J.K Rowling, famous for using multiple pseudonyms, who will always be synonymous with the Harry Potter books and what an amazing honour that must be but then remember that her personal life will always be public domain, and it doesn’t seem as glamorous. I wonder if she’d remained anonymous, would her mark on the world have been as satisfying for her? We all enjoy a pat on the back for a job well done and as a writer this should be enough, I wonder if leaving the mark ‘Harry Potter Author was here’ would have been enough.

Some of us write so personally that we couldn’t stand the thought of our faces becoming recognisable to the world, those authors are which are biographical but want to keep our lives liveable day to day. For some it goes further than a change of name and for them anonymity is desired. Look at musician Sia, she wears huge wigs and gasses to conceal her identity because she wants her work to stand alone, she wants her life to be liveable, but if you did some basic searches online, you’d find hundreds if not thousands of images and details of the real her. Granted she probably doesn’t go to the length she probably could do to conceal her identity, she occasionally goes to smaller awards ceremonies a herself, but even if she didn’t, public desire to unveil the mystery of someone that people feel a possession over drives the media to hunt her down and get those photo’s and details that are oh-so-profitable.

As children we played dress-up, pretended to be others and assumed different identities for fun but when did an innocent game of dress-up turn into an MI5 cover-up operation? When do we have to make the decision between having a successful writing career or maintaining a life that’s just ours but being unfulfilled? For some, they simply cannot choose hence the need for; pen names, stage names, pseudonyms and pictures of others on the sleeves of their books, then though you must wonder if choosing this middle alternative is really a good substitute for a fulfilling writing career. Is it even possible?

There’s no short or easy answer but it boils down to two choices;

First choice: shoot for the stars, knowing that if you do reach them the whole world will likely have all eyes on you both when you reach them and when you return to earth.

Second choice: remain small scale, accept that your mark on the world may be lessened as the price for privacy but still gaze up at the night sky every so often in your own peaceful back garden in suburbia.

For me personally, I have a thing for star gazing on a calm night, but for others, the pull of the bright twinkling lights proves too strong and while some will embark on the most amazing adventure of their lives, too many will be burnt by what is in reality a hazardous mass of flames.

This post is contributed as Guest post by Renee Bailey