Pseudonyms?

Freya Sanders 7 February 2014

Last year J. K. Rowling caused a storm by admitting that she was the author of the ‘debut’ detective novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Her decision to use a made-up name is understandable. The hype surrounding The Casual Vacancy– Rowling’s first post-Potter novel, published under her own name – was extreme. Expectations were ridiculously high for an author who is essentially an (admittedly very good) children’s story-teller. It was therefore greeted by a wave of disappointment from fans and raised eyebrows from critics.

In contrast, Rowling described it as “wonderful” to publish The Cuckoo’s Calling without all the build-up. It also got pretty good reviews: Publisher’s Weekly called it a “stellar debut”, although this compliment lost some of its value once the true identity of the author – a multi-millionaire best-selling novelist, rather than a humble debutant – became known. Compliments may have lost their value, but the novel itself certainly didn’t; sales of the book rose by 4000% within a week of the announcement that Rowling was the true author – a sad and predictable testament to the power of a name, and the difficulty that a deserving debut might have in struggling up the ladder.

However, it seems Rowling has never had confidence in her own name: when she first came to write the Harry Potter series, she felt a female forename would put boys off reading it. She therefore followed the example of the Brontë sisters, who attempted to conceal their femininity by publishing under male names. Rowling chose to write under partially invented initials – she in fact has no middle name: her legal name is simply Joanne Rowling.

It is ironic that twenty years ago Rowling concealed her true name in an attempt to attract readers, whereas in the publication of The Cuckoo’s Calling she did the same thing with a view to reducing the publicity that most authors long for. Many would argue that Rowling is in a fortunate position. As The Casual Vacancy proved, popularity can be restrictive. Ultimately the decision to write under a pseudonym should be a personal one. We should, after all, judge a book based on its content and not the identity of the author. We should expect nothing but fiction from a novel: an invented author therefore merely adds another layer of mystery.