By any other name

ALTER EGO: JK Rowling  has published crime-novel The Cuckoo's Calling under the name Robert Galbraith.
ALTER EGO: JK Rowling has published crime-novel The Cuckoo's Calling under the name Robert Galbraith.

What a good thing Eric Blair decided to use a pen name. The word ''Orwellian'', used to describe a sinister government or a form of mind control, has an ominous ring. But what if we could only come up with ''Blairian''? It sounds like a former British PM's policies, and it just isn't the same.

Mind you, it could have been worse. The names Blair suggested to his publishers were George Orwell, Kenneth Miles or H. Lewis Allways. An Allwaysian world? Sounds like a bad fairytale.

Authors' pen names have been commonplace since the Bronte sisters used male monikers to escape the patronising prejudices of the day against lady writers.

Now they have come under renewed scrutiny because J. K. Rowling has confessed she was the writer of a well-reviewed but modest-selling crime novel, The Cuckoo's Calling, supposedly written by a retired military police investigator called Robert Galbraith. Within hours of her outing, the book had hit the top of the bestseller charts and bookshops were frantic for more copies.

Why did Rowling do it? She certainly would have known she would be sprung sooner or later - with technology that can identify a famous writer's style, it's virtually impossible to keep that kind of anonymity nowadays. Her explanation is she wanted to publish ''without hype or expectation'' and receive reviews that weren't influenced one way or another by who she was, and she found it a wonderful experience.

It's a wish that has struck a chord with other writers. ''What a pleasure, what a blessed relief, to write in anonymity, just for the joy of it,'' said Stephen King, who wrote several novels under his pen name Richard Bachman. Anna Maxted revealed that after four novels under her own name, she invented an alter ego, a Jackie Collins-like vixen with long red fingernails called Sasha Blake, who was the author of scandalous sexy tales. It was fun and liberating to escape into Sasha. ''The nom de plume is essentially a witness protection for authors,'' Maxted writes.

Any author may be subject to merciless scrutiny and their work judged by irrelevant criteria. The pen name frees the author from the expectations of fans who always want you to write the same kind of novel, or the rottweiler critic who always eviscerates your work.

A pen name is particularly useful for women writing about sex: it releases them, at least temporarily, from the demure, respectable everyday identity they are expected to have. Nikki Gemmell was a short-lived ''Anonymous'' author of The Bride Stripped Bare. E. L. James, who wrote the Fifty Shades trilogy, is really Erika Mitchell. She has said she will write her next book under another name, so we can have fun trying to spot it.

Other reasons authors use pen names include: wanting to write in a different genre; avoiding legal repercussions; using one name for a husband-and-wife writing team; moonlighting for different publishers; and getting a name on the book jacket that sounds a bit cooler than yours (journalist Jonathan Freedland became thriller writer Sam Bourne).

A pen name can even release your writing. John Banville says that when he writes literary novels, he can produce perhaps 100 words a day: but when he's crime writer Benjamin Black, he can do 2000 words a day.

On Black's website, a diffident Banville interviews an assertive Black, who tells him ''Your books think: mine look, look and report ... You came here to talk to yourself. You've done a grand job of it. Now, how about a drink?''

- Jane Sullivan is a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

The Age