Thanks to the Internet, “nom” is now a verb, and “nom de plume” is straight English for what a lolcat does to a big feather. Q.E.D.
In literary circles, however, a nom de plume is still a pen name. Authors have long used pseudonyms and we know many writers primarily or only by the fictitious names they adopted.
The writers of the Federalist Papers used pen names. CB radio enthusiasts use handles. On the Internet, fanciful avatars or screen names are the order of the day. We want fame and anonymity both.
There are many reasons both for and against using a pen name. I find it interesting that publishers will press a pen name on a prolific author to hide his output from the public. I can’t help but wonder where that fine line between being decently productive and a churn-’em-out hack is.
There is a similar logic in a well-known author taking a pen name when switching genres. A person known for humorous writing could have trouble being taken seriously if he tried his hand at horror or romance. His fans could be terribly disappointed to learn that outside the humor genre he’s not funny even if he’s good.
Peculiarly, some authors are finding they can use a pen name as an alternate brand for their writing and tell the whole world they’re writing books under another name. It seems to work for them, although it flies in the face of the pen name as a protector of one’s true identity.
Doris Lessing performed a brave and fascinating experiment with the use of a pen name. I say brave because when one is accustomed to being published merely because one writes, being rejected and told your prose isn’t all it could be must surely be a blow to the ego.
Pen names are easy to use and can be entertaining to consider. I have long thought it would be fun to create a writerly persona for myself and sound whatever barbaric yawp I cared to from its concealing shadow. In my own little way, I could be Bruce Wayne by day and Batman by night. I’ve never done it, though; simple vanity keeps me using my own name. On the off chance I do something spectacular, I want everyone to know where to send the fan mail.