With the announcement of JK Rowling’s third crime novel in the Cormoran Strike series, titled Career of Evil, due to hit the shelves in October, once again under the leaked pseudonym of Robert Galbraith (to which she refers as her ‘good friend’), one cannot help but speculate about the motives of such well-known authors in masking their identities.
In the case of Rowling, these have been made plain upon the media inquest – ‘to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback’ from publishers, reviewers and readers. If her intention of distancing herself from the much-celebrated Harry Potter series is to be taken at face value, this certainly remains amongst the most noble of reasons for anonymity. To allegations of a cynical marketing ploy, Rowling’s common retort is to reiterate the novel’s success prior to the disclosure of its true authorship – Robert Galbraith’s accomplishments were reportedly on a par with that of JK Rowling at the equivalent stage in her writing career.
To skeptics’ further queries surrounding the decision to adopt a specifically masculine alias, Rowling insists that it simply makes manifest her desire to inhabit a persona as far removed from her reality as possible.
The prejudicial question of gender in matters of authorship remains a very real one. Although the hardship suffered by female writers nowadays undoubtedly remains a far cry from that faced by the Brontë sisters, for instance (who published under the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell out of pure necessity), women are often still compelled to adopt male alter-egos in the interests of publication and sales. After all, Rowling’s initial choice to publish under her initials was not merely an arbitrary one.
Even in terms of genre, gender-based assumptions remain rife, with romance erroneously perceived as the domain of female authors and crime writing as dominated by men. Beneath the surface-level admiration from Rowling’s own editor, even his words are liable in perpetuating such prejudices, his statement that he ‘never would have thought a woman wrote’ an earlier book in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, riddled with negative connotations. The decision of well-known authors to adopt a nom de plume, however, often extends beyond the question of gender or, indeed, genre. Stephen King’s decision to operate under a pseudonym, Richard Bachman, was simply a pragmatic measure intended to maximise his rate of production; early in his career, he claims, ‘there was a feeling in the publishing business that one book a year [from a single author] was all the public would accept.’
The motivations behind the use of pen names amongst writers are diverse. Where the said author does so with the purpose of inviting fresh and unfettered feedback, however, the venture is certainly a brave one. As long as these ventures do not detract from the discussion of the actual writing, as was such with JK Rowling’s pseudonym where the fallout resembled a ‘whodunnit’ itself, they should be wholeheartedly encouraged by the literary community. Regardless, if her previous writing is anything to go by, the third installment of the trilogy is bound to be a page-turner!