Literary mysteries: Who is behind that pen name?

'The Silkworm' by Robert Galbraith
'The Silkworm' by Robert Galbraith, also known as 'Harry Potter' author J. K. Rowling, went on sale for the first time at a bookshop in London on June 19, 2014.
Justin Tallis | AFP/Getty Images

The question: Many contemporary authors are picking pen names. Why?

Literary history is littered with pen names.

Mark Twain was born Samuel Clemens. George Orwell was Eric Arthur Blair. Lewis Carroll was a mathematician named Charles Dodgson, and George Eliot was really Mary Ann Evans.

Why the ruse? Mark Twain wanted an older name, which he took from shipman's lingo. The "Alice in Wonderland" author valued his privacy; he even refused letters mailed to his home for Lewis Carroll, claiming no such person lived there. George Orwell adopted a pen name to avoid embarrassing his family, and George Eliot wanted her work to be taken seriously, which meant using a man's name.

The Bronte sisters — Emily, Charlotte and Anne — adopted men's names as well. Their books were first attributed to Ellis, Currer, and Acton Bell. And while it would be nice to think that women publishing under men's names to avoid gender stereotypes would be a thing left behind in the 1800s, Alice Sheldon used the name James Triptree, Jr. for her stories in the 1970s, trying to compete in the male-dominated field of science fiction.

Pen names offer privacy, romance and an equal playing field. They can also be a chance to escape one's own reputation. That's the impetus driving many modern pen names.

Author Stephen King
Author Stephen King poses for photographers on November 13, 2013 in Paris, before a book signing event dedicated to the release of his new book "Doctor Sleep", the sequel to his 1977 novel "The Shining". The best-selling author has written over 50 novels and sold 350 million copies worldwide.
Kenzo Tribouillard | AFP/Getty Images

Stephen King makes a mystery of himself

Stephen King wrote several books under the name Richard Bachman during the late '70s and '80s, because publishers at the time believed it was best to release only one book per author each year.

A particularly astute bookseller noticed the similarities between King's and Bachman's styles, however, and he managed to dig up documents at the Library of Congress that outed King. King came clean in an interview with the bookseller himself, but the charade still continues: The publisher issued a press release claiming Bachman had died, but in 2007, they "discovered" and published a new book by him.

King is not alone. Nora Roberts, master of romance, writes crime fiction as J.D. Robb. (Agatha Christie did the reverse — the mystery maven wrote romances as Mary Westmacott.) Writer John Banville also churns out crimes novels under another name: Benjamin Black. It's become common for writers experimenting in a new genre to pick up a pen name and keep their literary reputations separate.

J.K. Rowling can't escape 'Potter'

The biggest pseudonym splash in recent years was J.K. Rowling's brief romp as the unknown Robert Galbraith. In 2013, Rowling published the crime novel "The Cuckoo's Calling" as Galbraith, whose author bio claimed he was a retired police investigator. The ruse didn't last long, however: Loose lips sink ships.

Rowling's lawyer shared the secret with his wife's best friend, who promptly spilled the beans over Twitter to a journalist. When confronted by The Times, Rowling confirmed that she and Galbraith were one and the same. She said that publishing under the pen name had been a "liberating experience" — for a brief moment, she'd been able to step out of the shadow of Harry Potter.

Once the news broke, sales of "The Cuckoo's Calling" skyrocketed, predictably, and Rowling released the sequel, "The Silkworm," in 2014. Rowling's name wasn't on the cover, but it didn't matter. The secret was already out.

'My Brilliant Friend' by Elena Ferrante
'My Brilliant Friend' by Elena Ferrante
Book cover courtesy of publisher

The biggest mystery of the moment

Of course, these are just the pen names that have been revealed. Some have yet to be unmasked. Elena Ferrante may be the biggest mystery in literature at the moment. The Italian author, who landed on several best-of lists this year, only recently caught the attention of American critics. Ferrante has never revealed her identity, even as the Italian press has obsessed over it, spawning conspiracy theories.

One theory claimed Ferrante was the well-known Italian writer Domenico Starnone — that was only one of many theories that Ferrante was really a man. Ferrante has disputed this in written interviews, saying that "my identity, my sex, are found in my writing."

Details about Ferrante are few. She's from Naples, she's lived outside Italy at one time or another, she's a mother. But why the secrecy? Ferrante said she believes books should be separate from their writers. When her first novel was published in 1991, she told her publisher that she wouldn't participate in publicity: "She has already done enough: She wrote it."

For many modern readers, this is not enough. In an age of total access, readers pick over writers' lives for clues about their inspirations and influences. People remark: "I can't believe this character was written by a man!" or "Did you know a woman wrote this?" Authors' ethnicity and sexuality become talking points.

This is what some authors using pen names want to avoid: They want their stories to stand on their own.

But can they? How much do we really need to know about an author to enjoy a book?

That's a bigger question.

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