Last year, the Women’s Prize for Fiction launched a campaign to republish 25 books released under male pseudonyms with the female writers’ original names on the covers. Yet despite its good intentions, the literary award drew flak for reducing the complex history behind women’s use of male pen names.
Using a pseudonym of the opposite gender isn’t just about bypassing gendered expectations but also finding freedom in anonymity, constructing a persona or alter ego, expressing queerness, and coming to terms with racial heritage. And when you flip the coin, you’ll find that men have experienced just as much power in feminine nom de plumes.
Here are just a few male authors who wrote under female pen names.
L. Frank Baum | Edith Van Dyne
The “Royal Historian of Oz” was the star writer of publishing house Reilly & Britton. On top of publishing 13 of his 14 Oz books with them, Baum created the Aunt Jane’s Nieces series of novels.
The first book targeted the same audience as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and, in keeping with the female demographic, Baum was told to ascribe it to “‘Ida May McFarland,’ or to ‘Ethel Lynne’ or some other mythological female.” He chose Edith Van Dyne, and the book’s success went on to inspire nine more novels.
Charles Leslie McFarlane | Carolyn Keene
For many fans of the Nancy Drew series, it’s a revelation akin to finding out that Santa Claus isn’t real: the author Carolyn Keene is actually a pseudonym. Children’s book mogul Edward Stratemeyer founded the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a publishing company that hired ghost writers (usually newspaper reporters looking for side hustles) to flesh out Stratemeyer’s ideas and published books under continuous pseudonyms.
Canadian journalist Charles Leslie McFarlane was one such ghost writer, famed for producing not just a number of the early Hardy Boys books under Franklin W. Dixon (also a Stratemeyer pseudonym) but also the first four volumes of the Dana Girls series under Carolyn Keene.
Dean Koontz | Deanna Dwyer | Leigh Nichols
The prolific Dean Koontz has published over a hundred novels in a variety of genres. Early in his career, he was advised by his editors to use a different name for each genre he wrote in so as not to alienate established fans. Out of his ten known pseudonyms, two are female: Deanna Dwyer for gothic horror and Leigh Nichols—the most successful of all his guises—for romantic suspense.
Domenico Starnone | Elena Ferrante
Italian novelist Elena Ferrante is the internationally acclaimed author of the Neapolitan Novels and one of TIME’s 100 most influential people of 2016—and no one knows who she is. Many have conducted investigations and studies, and the current theory is that she’s actually a partnership between Italian journalist and novelist Domenico Starnone and his wife Anita Raja.
In her April 2018 column for the Guardian, Ferrante states that she relishes in being able to “devote [herself] to the pure result of a creative gesture, without worrying about a big or small name.”
Dav Pilkey | Sue Denim
Cartoonist and author Dav Pilkey is best known for the children’s book series Captain Underpants, but he has also created a series called The Dumb Bunnies under the pseudonym “Sue Denim.” Yup, no mystery here. Guy just wants to have fun.
What would your pseudonym be?