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When Pen Names Go Too Far

PencilsThis week, an MM fiction writer who uses several male pen names was unmasked as a woman.

This in itself is not a big deal – people write under open names all the time – and there’s a long history of women writing under male names to get their work out there – look at George Elliott.

People often establish a separate pen name for other purposes as well – for instance, when an author writes erotica, and then wants to publish something in the YA market. A pen name is a great way to keep the two lines separate.

But we’re in an era now when it’s increasingly easy to find out almost anything about almost anyone, so anyone using a pen name runs a high risk of being discovered.

Again, generally not a big deal so far. But then we get to catfishing.

Catfishing, popularized by the movie Catfish and the MTV series of the same name, means using a false online profile to interact with others, often resulting in a relationship. In the movie, an older married woman pretended to be young and single to get involved with the documentary maker who filmed it. In this week’s case, a QSF friend of ours was apparently hurt badly by this person’s actions that went well beyond using a pen name as an author on a few books.

So my question today – are pen names still viable in the internet age? Is it ethical to “out” someone writing under a pen name? How far is too far when assuming a made-up identity?


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4 thoughts on “When Pen Names Go Too Far”

  1. I think you’ve nailed it on the head. If you are “faking” your identity to sell books, whatever. I’m over that. So many “male” erotica authors are really females, so what can we do? But if you’re creating relationships that have the potential to go outside of Internet-land, the there’s an issue. They shouldn’t cultivate those kinds of relationships. That’s damaging. But posting, or small communications, I think should be fine. Like you said, authors have been doing it forever. Maybe these females pretending to be male erotica authors are just a lot smarted than me. They’re sure as hell making a lot more money! lol

  2. In my opinion own names are five as long as they aren’t used to hurt or deceive someone. I use my real name for straight and a pen name for MM. The pictures on the page are of me. I have gone to conventions so I am not hiding my gender. When you hide your gender, use pictures of others in order to get people to like you, give you money then that is wrong.

  3. There are some very valid reasons to use a pen name. Some people have jobs (and/or have spouses who have jobs) that would be at risk if the world at large knew what they wrote. Others have family members who would rather it not be known that their granddaughter/cousin Suzie/sister-in-law writes erotic fiction. (I sometimes think my sister in law is grateful I kept my own last name when I married my husband–and while I say that with an eye-roll, on the other hand, she teaches high school. Imagine one of her students coming in and asking “did you see this author has the same last name as you!?”)

    But a pen name is just that. A name. It’s not a persona. I doesn’t have a family or a history that is separate from the author’s. The author may chose to not give certain details, or may chose to gloss over details (Sally Snowflake graduated from a major mid-western college and lives in Ohio with with her husband and two children) rather than being specific. That’s fine. It’s fair. It’s probably even smart. What Sally has no right to do is claim to be something she’s not in real life; if she’s a waitress, she has no right to say she’s a brain surgeon. If she’s really single and never went to college, she’s has no right to invent a husband and children.

    Lying is not only always a bad idea, but eventually, you will get caught. It is wiser (and simpler) to just tell the truth–or say nothing at all.

  4. There are plenty of valid reasons to use pen names that don’t hurt anyone. My daughter and I use a made-up last name for our books, largely because our real last name is unspellable and unpronounceable and we want our readers to be able to find us. If Shannen should choose to take her spouse’s name when she gets married, it won’t impact our writing.

    I’m not hiding my gender from my readers but I’d rather not make it super easy for everyone who sees my books to find my home address either. Writing steamy paranormal m/m romance could very possibly attract negative attention in my little corner of Rednecklandia that I don’t want to deal with in my day-to-day life.

    M/m romance author Amy Lane has posted a terrific piece about how she only kept her job as a professor at a (presumably religious) private college by showing that she had been careful to keep her author persona separate from her teaching life and unknown to her students.

    I understand that in this information age there is no such thing as true privacy but outing someone’s real name without knowing why they use a psuedonym would be wrong.


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