Sunday, April 10, 2011

When is a Pen Name a Cop Out?

Pen names are nothing new, authors have been using them for years and years and years, for a variety of reasons. Some people because they didn't like their real names; maybe they were too bland or too common or too close to someone else's name. At one time women did it because they could not publish as themselves in an unenlightened society, so had to resort to using a male pseudonym. Thank goodness, times have changed.

Or have they?

There is one market in particular that is filled with writers using false names, again for a variety of reasons. I suspect that the rise of epublishing has only exacerbated this situation to a great extent. So why are today's writers not using their real names?

The market I am alluding to is that of the romance novel, most particularly erotic romance - from the mild to the downright smutty. You would think in this day and age, writers wouldn't find it necessary to disguise themselves for writing the stuff, but they do. Society as a whole is still very ignorant and bigoted. Some writers do it because they don't want their families to know, fearing their disapproval. With others, it is their employers, although you shouldn't have to worry about being fired for something that has nothing to do with your employer or what you do for him. But sadly, you do, as I discovered. Of course it wasn't done openly, and I can't prove it, but I know that's why I was suddenly let go after more than thirteen years of satisfactory employment (and by my own brother, no less).

There are even some who do it to separate the different fields in which they write. To not muddy the waters, so to speak. For fun, among other reasons, I took a pen name which I used for my novel Dark Love. My daughter Sarah chose it. I would have gone with Victoria Rose, she picked Reinette, so I went with it. How much I'll end up doing under that name remains to be seen. And while it's a pen name - my pen name, to be precise - it's still a female name, leaving no doubt as to the question of my gender.

Which leads me up to the point of this rather rambling dissertation. My bone of contention is not with those who use pen names as shields, but rather those who take on genders which are not theirs in order to lull their readers into assuming that they are that gender. This irks me to no end.

I think this is more true in the m/m romance field than in any other. There are women who have male pen names. People assume they are men, therefore they must know what they're talking about. Right?  Wrong! There are others who choose deliberately ambiguous names for the same reason. Or use initials.

I make no bones about who I am, or who I write as - no excuses or apologies. I don't feel that a writer should be judged on the basis of their gender or sexuality. I've heard some complain that straight women should not write m/m romances.  What a load of shit! If a gay man chose to write straight romance, would I complain?  Hell no! Straight actors play gay men and vice versa. It's your performance that counts, not who you sleep with when you go home at night.

The same should be true of writing. Some claim a straight woman doesn't know or understand how a gay man feels. Why not? Do we have to be everything we write? Is Tolkien a hobbit or an elf or dwarf, or any of the other myriad creatures/persons that populate his books? Do we deride him because of it?  Hell no. In an ideal world, we would read our literature in a gender-blind "taste" test, and take it on its own merit, not for the genitals of its writer.

Especially loathsome do I find those who construct false personae to go with their false gender. Doubly despicable. Some simply leave the assumption to the reader and claim that they make no false assertions. Semantics, I claim. Falsehoods simply concealed in a different way.

There is one consolation that I can take away from this situation - I am able to sit down at a table and sign autographs, to have my actual photo used on the back of my books and to loudly proclaim hey, that's my book when I go out in public, something that those fellows - er, I mean ladies - will never be able to do. I think that counts for a lot, because I'm proud of what I write, and I wouldn't let anyone take that away from me.

What do you think about this subject? Does it irk you when people claim to be what they are not, simply to claim experience that they don't really have? To sucker the readers in on the strength of their non-existent penises?  I'd love to hear what you have to say!


  1. I don't mind it if the pen name is all out in the open. Sometimes it can get a little weird when I go to the store and can't remember what name something was written under. It does irk me when an author uses a fake persona to go with the pen name. If you are that shy/embarassed/unwilling to admit it's your work then don't publish it. The whole pen name thing is so out of control I now have a spread sheet by author last name using the main last name to sort all of their work together. Best example, all of Jayne Ann Krentz is sorted as Krentz even though she has so many pen names! Geez!

  2. I write under a pen name - my real one is Kathryn Smith. I'd be perfectly happy to use it, except that there's already a Kathryn Smith who is a successful romance novelist. I don't want to either confuse the readers, or have it look like I'm trying to take advantage of our shared name. So I have a pen name, Kathryn Scannell. It has the benefit that it's a whole lot easier to find with google than the right Kathryn Smith.

    I love your thought about not having to be everything we write. I'm so sick of reading blogs and being offered classes on how to write male characters who sound like "real men". They don't teach you that - they teach you to write male stereotypes. I have plenty of male friends I can look at and use as models, and men in my crit group who are comfortable enough to tell me if I got something wrong on the physical side.

    At the end of the day, I don't write men or women. I write people. There's a lot more too them than their genitalia.

  3. But you aren't pretending to be a man, you're just using another name, for understandable reasons.

    You're right - there are so many preconceived ideas of what a "real" man is that they've forgotten what real men are! Like women, they come in all sizes and shapes and characters. Some men are more feminine than some women, and vice versa. That's the beauty of diversity!

    I love what you said about at the end of the day you write people! That's exactly right! Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Hi Julie Lynn,
    I won the Overlord Award and am passing it on to you. I thought world domination would be something you'd handle well.