When news broke last week of J.K Rowling’s double life as Robert Galbraith the world at large was gobsmacked. How did the author of the most successful book series in history manage to hoodwink the publishing industry and critics alike? In a transformation that bears striking resemblance to a polyjuice potion, J.K became an ex-military man who turned his hand to crime writing whilst working in the Civil Service. The Cuckoo’s Calling, published back in April 2013, quickly snuck under the nose of die-hard Rowling fans to land respectfully amongst other works of its genre. Although not a huge commercial success, it was critically acclaimed for its bold writing style and its gripping characters. Then, with no more than a Tweet, the best kept secret in literature came crashing into global media. J.K’s mask was pulled off and Galbraith’s true identity revealed.
Rowling has since gone on to lament being discovered and even highlight how the experience was very “liberating”, stating that “I was yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre, to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback.” However it is hard to deny that since J.K was revealed as the real author behind Cuckoo’s Calling, its sales have rocketed it from 4709th to the top of the best sellers list with publishers Sphere Books already planning a mass re-print to meet the growing demand. So with all this in mind, and to echo Shakespeare’s Juliet, what is in a name?
Originating from a misunderstanding of the term nom de guerre, nom de “plume” rose to fame in Britain where numerous writers felt it necessary to conceal their real identity. There was the Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson whose metamorphosis into Lewis Carroll provided him with the perfect rabbit hole into his fantastical wonderland. Eric Blair transformed into George Orwell due to crippling self-doubt and numerous women writers adopted different names to get published. During the Victorian Era writers from George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) to Currer Bell (Charlotte Bronte) had to transform their identity to pursue a literary career, and often faced backlash from editors if their real gender was revealed. But here lies the interesting paradox of the pseudonym; out of all the names listed above we are privy to both sides of the coin: we know both names. If a pseudonym were to be truly successful then surely we would only ever know it as quite simply the author’s name.
In the 21st century where even top secret government information is exposed by Wiki Leaks, is a nom de plume really worth the hassle? The task of following a successful first novel is undoubtedly a daunting one but when the début is the Harry Potter series, and your last book garnered mixed reviews, it must seem downright petrifying. The Rowling name is an incredibly powerful brand and managed to shift enough copies of The Casual Vacancy to make it the 15th best-selling book of 2012 in its first week. Robert Galbraith’s book, on the other hand, received critical acclaim yet commercial obscurity. The contrast is too great to be ignored and poses the uneasy question of whether The Cuckoo’s Calling would have received the same critical acclaim had the world known all along it was actually Ms Rowling putting pen to paper. This then opens up a murky discussion on whether critical acclaim can ever truly go hand in hand with commercial success in the publishing industry. The Harry Potter series is without doubt one of the most successful children’s books of all time, yet the reviews of the books seemed lukewarm and snobbish towards Rowling’s style. This snobbery seemed to increase from the literary world the more copies of Potter flew off the shelves. In direct contrast The Cukoo’s Calling, which was relatively invisible to readers, received fantastic reviews and Galbraith was hailed as an exciting new voice of his genre.
We will never know what the outcome of this new book would have been had Rowling been the name on the front cover, but it appears that J.K has thrown this predicament very much into the foreground of the literary world. Here we have a female author that has unprecedented commercial success from the biggest franchise on the planet, and her alter ego who sold barely any copies yet was held in higher esteem by critics. Either way, the book sales speak for themselves and it seems that perhaps J.K Rowling really is a writer who can have it all.
(image from collider.com)