10 Famous Author Pseudonyms And Why They Were Chosen

From George Orwell to Elena Ferrante, 10 stories of invented names.
Famous author pseudonyms represented by a close-up of a black Underwood typewriter

Whenever I learn the story hiding behind a name, I get so carried away that I start daydreaming about what my pen name might be if I had to hide my identity. Have you ever thought about doing the same? Also referred to as a pseudonym, a pen name is a fictitious name that an author uses to publish their work. For example, have you ever heard of Richard Bachman? Maybe, but he’s better known as Stephen King. What about Robert Galbraith? Well, Galbraith is a pen name for none other than the architect of the wizarding world: J.K. Rowling. In fact, even J.K. Rowling is a pen name that the author, Joan Kathleen Rowling, chose in order to hide her gender. These are just a few examples of famous author pseudonyms that have been used hide someone’s true identity for whatever reason.

A pen name can act as a shield that allows the author to express themselves without fear of criticism or judgment, shed preconceived notions and write freely in their genre of choice. We put together a list of some of the authors with the most interesting pen names, and explored why they chose to use this editorial tactic.

10 Author Pseudonyms And The Stories Behind Them

Ana Paula Arendt

Ana Paula Arendt, the pseudonym of R. P. Alencar, is a Brazilian poet and diplomat. Her pen name is an homage to Hannah Arendt and Pablo Neruda, her favorite authors, and she’s been writing poetry since 2012. 

Arendt is a children’s book author, a playwright, a novelist and a poet. Among her most famous works are O Constituinte (“The Constituent”), which received awards from the União Brasileira de Escritores-RJ (“The Brazilian Writer’s Union-Rio de Janeiro”) at the Academia Brasileira de Letras (“Brazilian Academy of Letters”), and the Editora Só Livro Bom (“Only Good Book Publisher”).

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand is the pen name of Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum. Rand adopted the pseudonym in 1926 when she emigrated from Russia to the United States. “Ayn” was inspired by the name of a Finnish writer (who she refused to disclose) and the last name “Rand” is an abbreviation of Rosenbaum.

For millions of readers, entering Rand’s objectivist world was an unforgettable experience. Rand sought to make her exalted vision of man and life a reality when she wrote her novels. The author is best known for her two best-selling novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), and for developing the philosophy of Objectivism.

bell hooks

An accomplished academic, writer and activist, bell hooks is the pseudonym of Gloria Jean Watkins. She was a world-renowned American academic whose works examine the connections between race, gender and class. She often explore the ideas of Black women and writers and the development feminist identities.

When she was 19, she began writing her first book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Woman and Feminism, which was published in 1981. Her pen name bell hooks is actually her great-grandmother’s name. The pseudonym’s lowercase spelling is deliberate. She chose it in order to focus the attention on her message: to honor the female legacy rather than herself.

George Orwell

When Eric Arthur Blair was preparing to publish his first book Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), he decided to use a pseudonym to prevent his family from being embarrassed by his time spent living in poverty.

He chose the name George Orwell to reflect his love of tradition and the English countryside. St. George is the patron saint of England, and the River Orwell is a popular sailing destination that Eric loved to visit.

Joseph Conrad

Sometimes famous writers’ pseudonyms can cause an uproar. That’s exactly what happened to Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. When the Polish novelist began publishing his writing at the end of the 19th century, he used an abbreviated Anglicized version of his name: Joseph Conrad.

Polish intellectuals were indignant, believing that it showed a lack of respect for their homeland. It didn’t help matters that Conrad became a British citizen and published in English. Korzeniowski explained, “It’s widely known that I’m Polish and that Józef and Konrad are my two Christian names, this last one I used as a last name so foreign tongues wouldn’t trip over my true last name…I don’t think I’m being disloyal to my country by having demonstrated to the English that a gentleman from Ukraine [Korzeniowski was an ethnic Pole born in a territory controlled by Ukraine for a time and then by the Russian Empire] can be an excellent sailor like them, and there’s something to tell them in their language.”

Lewis Carroll

If Lewis Carroll sounds like a delightfully British name to the American ear, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson probably sounds even more so. Dodgson adopted his pen name in 1856. According to the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, the author was so humble that he wanted to keep his personal life private, and so he chose to use a pen name. When letters addressed to Lewis Carroll reached Dodgson’s Oxford office, the author would refuse them in order to fuel the farce.

Dodgson invented the pseudonym by Latinizing Charles Lutwidge into Carolus Ludovicus, and then vaguely Anglicizing it to Carroll Lewis, until he finally changed the order to Lewis Carroll. His publisher selected the pseudonym from a list of different possible names.

Pablo Neruda

A poet, diplomat and Chilean politician, Pablo Neruda is widely considered one of the most important figures in 20th century Latin American literature. Born Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, he was passionate about literature from a young age, but his dad never approved of his choice.

When Basoalto began publishing his poetry, he needed a name that his father wouldn’t find out about. That’s why he chose the name Pablo Neruda, in homage to Czech poet Jan Neruda. Neruda later adopted his pseudonym as his legal name.

Tristin Tzara

Born Samuel Rosenstock, Tristan Tzara was born to a Romanian Jewish family. His anti-bourgeois principles resulted in painful clashes with his family, leading his father to disown him. As he wrote later, “I was dead to him.”

To symbolize the formal break with his past life, he decided to change his name. There are plenty of theories about why he chose his pen name. In Hebrew, Ttzara’at means exiled by the community. In Romanian, it means “sad in the countryside.” Some also called him “Tzara Thoustra” in homage to Friedrich Nietzche’s book Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Italo Svevo

Ettore Schmitz’s pen name shows his dual cultural identity: Italian (Italo) and German (Svevo). Born Jewish, Ettore Schmitz was born in Trieste during the Austro-Hungarian empire during a time when a particularly rich and complex Central European culture was developing.

After the fiasco of his first two novels, Svevo gave up on his literary aspirations to work in his father-in-law’s paint company. He traveled abroad often for work. His travels required him to learn English at a more in-depth level. He took lessons from James Joyce, who spent an extended period of time in Trieste. Joyce himself launched Svevo’s work Zeno’s Conscience in France, where the Trieste author became famous.

Elena Ferrante

Last but not least, we’d like to finish our list with a mysterious inconclusive author name: Elena Ferrante. Many claim that her name is the author’s pseudonym, but she has never confirmed it.

Her identity has been the object of a lot of speculation. One was conducted by novelist and literary critic Marco Santagata who asserts that Elena Ferrante is historian Marcella Marmo, a professor at University of Naples Federico II. Others believe it’s Marcello Frixione. Then there are some who believe the author is Anita Raja, Neapolitan essayist and the wife of Domenico Starnone, and finally others suggest that the author may be Goffredo Fofi, Sandro Ferri or Sandra Ozzola. Some even believe that it could be Starnone himself.

In La Frantumaglia, the writer stated that she valued her private life and discussed her desire for self-preservation. The author asserted that her books didn’t need her picture on the cover, nor did she need to appear on any marketing materials. Why not? She believes in her works as “self-sufficient entities” and affirms that her presence wouldn’t add anything significant.

This article was originally published on the Italian edition of Babbel Magazine.

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