Recent controversies involving my colleague using a pen name had caused a big stir. In this day and age of free speech in the free world, I’m shocked that anyone using a pen name becomes a problem. I won’t weigh in on his case, but I’ll share my story and why I don’t use a pen name. I’m sure there’re many good reasons why people use pen names, and my purpose isn’t to stop people from doing so. They can call themselves Luke Skywalker for all I care.
My first (and last) encounter with pen name in the Christian publishing world has to do with an invite to write for this Chinese Christian magazine, with a predominately evangelical readership. The editors had invited me to critique the literature on this movement called biblical counseling on its theology and exegesis (interpretation of the text based on Greek and Hebrew). So, that’s what I did. I took their major handbooks and began looking at the sample verses they used to back their claim. My conclusion is that the biblical counseling movement is neither very biblical nor very theological. Unless they’ve changed their material (and honestly, their personnel), I stand by my statement.
Now, after having read my examination in the article, the editors were already anticipating backlash. I myself had passed the article to two academic colleagues in theology and in counseling and both of them said that it’s a fair article. Due to the fear over backlash, the magazine had asked me to use a pen name. I’m a pretty easy guy to work with, if I may say so myself (until you start asking me to do stuff against my conscience). So, I told them that if they’re really that scared, I’d use a pen name. Obviously, they thought that even having my name on their magazine would invite backlash. To be honest, I was a little insulted because after all, THEY invited me. I was not in any great need for extra writing gigs that don’t pay a pretty penny (the pay was pitiful). The last thing I needed was for a publication not to be able to stand by their decision to invite me to write. I’ll say this as loud and as clear as I can, IF you want Dr. Sam Tsang to write (or to speak) for you, don’t expect chicken soup for the soul. It’s against my nature. Go find someone else to sooth your uneasy conscience. Dr. Sam Tsang is NOT your man.
So, I was already agitated but the story isn’t even close to being half over. Once the article went out for review, the “corrections” came back. Like I said above, I’m an easy guy to work with. So, I told them that I would look into making the necessary adjustments so that the article wouldn’t hurt anyone’s fragile feelings. After that, there were a few more lists of corrections. At this stage, I was really getting irritated. It isn’t like people didn’t know about my writing and books, and if the magazine didn’t bother looking into how I wrote, then they and not I had a problem. I had several books in the queue waiting for me to write, and I spent close to three months dealing with all the possible scenarios this or that so that no donor or reader of the magazine would feel indignant. If I were to look back at all the writing experiences I had with countless articles and around forty published books, I have to count the correction phase of this article among my very worst. Everyday for three months, I was stressing over their demands and corrections. This is the funniest part. Upon publication of this article, the “fan mail” began pouring in threatening to boycott the magazine or pull funding for the publication. In other words, when you try to make everyone happy, you make everyone angrier than ever. As a writer, I’m determined that I’ll just do what makes me happy within my conscience from this point on and never use a pen name ever again. If someone wants me to do a list of corrections not because s/he wants me to get my facts right but because s/he is afraid to offend the constituents, I’m going to start charging my time per hour because the lost income and time for writing REAL books in those three months isn’t something I can buy back.
If anyone thought that this story has ended, it’s far from over. I had forgotten about that unpleasant article for a while because I honestly try to screen out all the unpleasant experiences in my life so that I can be a happy go lucky person. Soon enough, someone had notified me that certain Chinese websites that are created to attack psychology and advocate biblical counseling began mentioning me. Now, the writer didn’t mention my name, but the description of who I am would be quite obvious to anyone who has read any of my books. Obviously, someone had leaked to her the real face behind my pen name. In other words, the pen name is totally useless. I did all that for nothing. What lessons have I learned?
First, if you write, you’re a public figure. If you aren’t ready to face the consequences of being a public figure, don’t write. It’s really that simple. Publishers that want to deal with a controversial topic should also have the guts to face the consequences or perhaps they should deal with something more tepid like watching grass grow. Miscalculated risks are never the fault of the writer, but is always the fault of the publisher. Deal with it.
Second, in this social media age, pen names can’t hide anyone’s true identity. The reason is simple. The secrecy/protection of pen names depends on trust, but how many truly trustworthy people are there. Christians or non-Christians play by the same rules of the jungle. They’ll do whatever it takes to accomplish whatever agenda they wish, even if it’s betraying the trust of a friend. However, trust is the means for some people to gain secret to use for later gunpowder. Somehow survival of the fittest depends on how low one is willing to go to accomplish something, whether it’s settling personal vendetta or otherwise. I’m a realist, and I trust very few people. So, in order to avoid that awkwardness of having to deal with untrustworthy people (which are dime a dozen all around me), I use my real name. I’ll make my bed, and I’ll lay in it.