George Eliot, Mark Twain, Pablo Neruda, George Orwell, Isak Dinesen, Lewis Carroll, George Sand... the list of fiction writers whose very names are fictional is a long one. At first glance, motivations for stepping behind the mask of another name appear pragmatic: being a woman in a world where most writers are men, having a career that can be endangered by one’s writing, not wanting to be infected by a whiff of disreputability that clings to those who make their living by their pen, having a complicated name that begs for simplification or a very plain one that is willingly exchanged for a more romantic mouthful—all these seem reasons good enough. Some of them perhaps no longer exist. Today, being a woman does not immediately disqualify one from being taken seriously as a writer, nor is writing as nearly as disreputable as it used to be. Yet still, writers love their pen names just as they always have done.
The reasons for loving the shade of another name need not be explicit or pragmatic. It is easy to guess at the relief and the freedom writers experience when allowed to be someone else. It is the same reason one imagines is the cause of such high traffic in anonymous on-line chat rooms. Except that for writers, this ability to transcend themselves is essential to their art, and not a game. A different name allows for different styles, genres, feelings, desires, personas—differentness that can transcend the contents that lie petrified and dusty under the aegis of one’s own name. It allows for the courage to push at the seams of one’s own skin, and risk an eruption into the unknown. It covers and protects the newborn forms and styles, indifferent to their quality, just as a good mother would protect her children, both ugly and beautiful.
With all that a pen name does, perhaps we should all have one.