What's in a name: looking at the history of author pseudonyms

For centuries, authors have used pseudonyms, for a variety of personal, political and plain random reasons. We turn the pages of a storied lineage

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 07:  (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK TABLOID NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 48 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME. MANDATORY CREDIT PHOTO BY DAVE M. BENETT/GETTY IMAGES REQUIRED)  Author J.K. Rowling signs autographs at the World Premiere of 'Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2' in Trafalgar Square on July 7, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Dave M. Benett/Getty Images)
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"What's in a name?" The question was famously asked by William Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about the subject, if Romeo, who spoke the line for him, is any indication. So here is a quick quiz. What or who are in these names?

Ali Ahmad Said Esber

Howard Allen Frances O’Brien

Marie-Henri Beyle

Seyyed Mohammad Hossein Behjat Tabrizi

Francois-Marie Arouet

The answer is they are all writers better known by their noms de plumes:

Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber)

Anne Rice (Howard Allen Frances O’Brien)

Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle)

Shahriar (Seyyed Mohammad Hossein Behjat Tabrizi)

Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet)

There are easier versions of the quiz. The plumes of some pen names are all but bare. Charles Dodgson is almost as famous as Lewis Carroll. Something similar can be said for David Cornwell (also known as John Le Carre), Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) and Richard Bachman (Stephen King).

The actual king of pen names is probably Dean Koontz, who has used at least 10, from Deanna Dwyer to Leigh Nichols. Probably the most bizarre is Luther Blissett, the journeyman English footballer who serves as the pseudonym for a variety of projects which extend from the collaborative Italian novel Q (once rumoured to include Salman Rushdie) to a left-wing political movement to a series of bizarre pranks: one included giving away the ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

The reasons for hiding one’s literary identity are manifold. When Steven Mitchell began writing novels, he hid his face and identity behind Andy McNab. The reason was his former career in the SAS, which made him a target for terrorists across the world.

McNab's story raised its head in arguably the most famous nom de pluming in recent memory: that of Robert Galbraith. When a proof of his debut novel The Cuckoo's Calling dropped through my door, the author's note announced him as a "former plainclothes Royal Military Police investigator who had left in 2003 to work in the civilian security industry'. A request for an interview, even by email, was politely declined on the grounds that Galbraith was a reclusive McNab type averse to publicity. I should have smelled a rat. The truth, as we wouldn't be long in discovering, couldn't be more different. Far from a hermit, Galbraith was actually J K Rowling, the world's most famous author, whose ambition to launch a crime series under the radar was destroyed by an imprudent tweet sent by the wife of her solicitor.

A similar, if less high-profile case concerns another crime star in the making, Cara Hunter, whose "first" novel Close to Home is published this week. This too is a pseudonym for an already-established novelist, who for the time being wants to remain secret.

The reason for the nom de plume is to draw a line between her previously published mysteries and her impressive new series set in modern-day Oxford. Communicating in top-secret conditions, I asked how Hunter came into existence. “I was racking my brains for a name I liked. And then I remembered seeing the singer Marti Caine on television years before. The interviewer asked how Marti chose her stage name. Apparently a friend suggested she stick a finger at random into a gardening catalogue and see what came up. The result was ‘Tomato Cane’. So that’s what I did.” Opening her own gardening catalogue, she found “Cara” and “Hunter”, varieties of potato, and a new writer was born.

In similar fashion, Galbraith combined the Christian name of Rowling's early hero, Robert Kennedy, with a fantasy name from her childhood: Ella Galbraith. But like Hunter, Galbraith is a form of rebranding – a rougher, tougher name that suits the distinctly un-Potterish mood of her Cormoran Strike thrillers.

If genre is one factor, then surely aesthetics provides another. One can forgive Diedrich Knickerbocker for thinking he might sell more books as Washington Irving, or Ford Hermann Hueffer preferring the elegant balance of Ford Madox Ford. Could you imagine asking a bookseller if they have anything by Wilhelm Albert Wlodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki? Guillaume Apollinaire is both romantically effective and doesn’t take three days to say.

As Bono and Cher can attest, nothing is snappier than a one-word name. The 19th and early 20th century is littered with writers who boiled theirs down to a couple of syllables at most: Charles Dickens was Boz; Charles Lamb borrowed Elia; Hector Hugh Munro became Saki; and Georges Prosper Remi took Herge. Great English poet John Keats favoured culinary pen names: he published La Belle Dame Sans Merci as Caviare, and signed letters as the punning Junkets.

One could also forgive the poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi wanting to shorten his pen name to the honorific Mawlana (Master) or his more famous nisba, Rumi. Rumi is not only more memorable, but it locates him as a Muslim writer from an area recently liberated from the Byzantine empire. A similar geographical imperative explains why Pakistani poet and scholar Omer Salim Khan writes as Omer Tarin: Tarin alludes to the Tareen tribe of West Pashtuns.

Noms de plumes express other, more politicised concerns. Lest it be forgotten, J K Rowling is also a pen name of sorts, one that conceals the author's unmistakably female first name, Joanne. This hide-and-seek with male and female has a long tradition. "We veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because – without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine' – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice." So wrote Charlotte Bronte, explaining why the three Bronte sisters chose pen names: Charlotte was Currer, Emily decided on Ellis and Anne took Acton. The same conclusion about a misogynist literary culture informs Mary Ann Evans' choice of George Eliot to publish Scenes of Clerical Life. The custom was satirised in the BBC sitcom Blackadder, which re-imagined Jane Austen as a "huge Yorkshireman with a beard like a rhododendron bush".

Charlotte also notes that pseudonyms suited a trio who were "averse to publicity", which returns us both to Rowling-Galbraith and chimes with many writers across the Middle East, who have pressing reasons to veil their identity. Mary Ajami, the pioneering feminist, poet and founder of the Damascus Women's Literary Club, often wrote as Layla in her own journal The Bride, which contained advocation of female emancipation that provoked threats of violence.

Similarly, if you see the by-line Marwan Hisham in Vanity Fair or The New York Times, not to mention his memoir Brothers of the Gun, this too is a necessary fiction. The reason for the secrecy is Hisham's location: he lives and works in Raqqa, until recently the capital of ISIL's caliphate.

All the Iranian journalists that launched the news platform Khabarnegaran Iran used pseudonyms, as We Fight Censorship notes, "to be able to write freely and avoid additional harassment… Without the anonymity that Khabarnegaran's journalists use to protect themselves, they would not be able to publish an article mentioning the names of [crusading Iranian journalists] Ali Asgar Rameznapour and Jilatous Banyaghoub".

Certainly the most infamous pen name of all is translated from the Arabic as "Written by He Who Wrote It", or "Anonymous". In 2000, they published Zabibah and the King; a year later they published the 700-page The Fortified Castle. Whereas Galbraith's real identity was broken on Twitter, it took the CIA to surmise that these allegories of Iraqi history were composed by Saddam Hussein. Why Hussein hid behind a nom de plume remains a mystery. But spare a thought for the poor literary critic who panned either book.

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