Musings on Fame, Fortune and the Pseudonym of J. K. Rowling

Two of J. K. Rowling's novels: her first novel for adults, published last year, and the fifth book in the Harry Potter series

Two of J. K. Rowling’s novels: her first novel for adults, published last year, and the fifth book in the Harry Potter series

When I first head that J.K. Rowling had published a book under the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, I watched the number of Amazon reviews climb rapidly. And when I looked at The Cuckoo’s Calling on Amazon, shortly after the mask was whipped away from the face of the author behind it, there were no one-star reviews. But I watched over the next couple of days as the customer reviews page went from a relatively small number of favorable reviews by people who had clearly read the book to a forum for people who wanted to air their (mostly negative) personal views on Rowling, her fame, her celebrity status and the quality of her writing. Many of those ‘reviews’ have since been removed by Amazon, presumably for breaching their review policy. But I was struck by the amount of people who left one-star ‘reviews’ on The Cuckoo’s Calling, calling Rowling a fraud and duping people by creating a biography for her pseudonym. The latter point is the one which caught my interest and made me think, “Hmm, this would be good fodder for a blog post!”

My feelings towards Rowling’s use of a pseudonym are sympathetic. Perhaps she wanted to publish a book which would be reviewed solely on its own merits and not based on the fact that it came from the pen of one of the most famous authors in the world. And who can blame her for that? In the recent days, we have witnessed the frenzy which fame brings. The wait for the birth of the baby of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge was covered in obsessive and compulsive detail by media outlets around the globe. Is it any wonder that Rowling wanted to publish a book, in her own words, “without hype or expectation”?

J. K. Rowling is not the only female author to don a masculine nom de plume. Mary Ann Evans, author of classics such as Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, wrote under the pseudonym of George Eliot, so that her novels were taken seriously in an era when female writers were not treated equally to male authors. There was a common – and erroneous! – assumption that women couldn’t write serious novels and were only fit to write light, insubstantial romances. So, too, did the three Bronte sisters: Emily, Anne and Charlotte, who wrote under the names Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell.

Now, in the western world at least, fortunately there is no longer any need for any woman to disguise her writing as the work of a man in order to be taken seriously. But, thinking back to articles I read about the publication of the Harry Potter series, Joanne Rowling was advised to publish as gender-neutral J. K. Rowling because it was thought that it would appeal more to boys than a book with “Joanne Rowling” on the cover. According to this Wikipedia page, “her publishers demanded that she use two initials, rather than her full name”. However, Rowling’s reason for choosing a male name as a pseudonym for The Cuckoo’s Calling was to distance herself from the book, in the hope that the real identity of Robert Galbraith would stay hidden. In the FAQ section on the new official website for Galbraith’s books, she states that she wished to “take my writing persona as far away as possible from me”.

Yes, she certainly did that. The author blurb for The Cuckoo’s Calling is entirely fabricated, claiming that Galbraith has served in the military and that the book draws on “his own experiences and those of his military friends who have returned to the civilian world”. It is this claim which has upset quite a few people. Claiming that the author of the book has experience of the military when he (she) does not is controversial. I did a quick Google search and amidst the excitement about the publication of a new Rowling novel, there are people who feel that Rowling lied to them. Now, of course, the truth is out and the Robert Galbraith bio is no longer being printed inside The Cuckoo’s Calling; the author blurb has been changed to “Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling”. But the ethical question of deceiving one’s readers remains pertinent.

I am a Rowling fan and as I stated earlier in this post, I understand her reasons for wanting to use a pseudonym. However, deceiving readers with a false blurb about the author is unethical, in my opinion. I am disappointed that Rowling, an author whom I hold in high regard, thought it was acceptable to publish a book with a dishonest author bio. In the FAQs on the Robert Galbraith website, Rowling wrote about her reasons for choosing the content of the author info, including the fact that Galbraith’s work in the civilian security field gave “him a solid excuse not to appear in public or provide a photograph” (quote source: Robert Galbraith website). I can understand the difficulties which would have been posed if readers of The Cuckoo’s Calling had wondered why debut author, Robert Galbraith, turned down all public appearances. But I still think lying to one’s readers is unacceptable. In terms of readers feeling duped because Galbraith’s bio fictitiously claims the author has insider knowledge, having served in the military, according to the FAQs on the website the factual content of The Cuckoo’s Calling is “from military sources”. This gives credibility to the book. Nevertheless, the question remains about the controversial issue of the use of a fake author bio. As the character, Dolores Umbridge, said in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, “[We] must not tell lies”.

What do you think? Is the fake author biography of Robert Galbraith acceptable or is it completely unethical?

Mateship With Birds by Carrie Tiffany

This review of Mateship With Birds is a guest post from Dina Ross who blogs at the wonderful books blog, Books Now! Dina also presents Pageturners, a monthly radio show on 3mbs, 103.5 FM and at http://www.3mbs.org.au

Mateship with Birds

Let me begin by confessing that I am a city girl. The countryside for me is an alien place. Cows and lambs and green pastures may calm many a savage breast, but they have the opposite effect on me. As writer Susan Cheever noticed – memorably – the country is uncomfortably noisy. To which I would add: and you can’t get a decent cup of coffee.

But I digress (you’re also welcome to take issue with me). Australian writer Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship With Birds won both the Stella Prize for fiction and the NSW Premier’s Award this year. It was also hotly tipped to win the prestigious Miles Franklin Award, although this was awarded in June to Michelle de Kretser for Questions of Travel.

Tiffany’s first book, Everyman’s Guide to Scientific Living, as well her latest novel, both have rural settings and they’re populated by decent, ordinary folk, who run their farms with pride and live their lives modestly and without fuss. They face their troubles as best they can, keep calm and carry on.

Set in the 1950s, the novel’s hero, a gentle farmer called Harry, quietly sees to his farm and frequently pops over to visit single mum Betty and her two children Michael and Hazel next door. Their platonic friendship goes on for years. It’s only when Michael enters adolescence that Harry feels that he should give the boy some instruction on the affairs of the heart.

Harry’s reflections on love and sex – as a farmer, his allusions and metaphors center very amusingly on the agricultural – are juxtaposed with his observations of a kookaburra family who nest on his property. In his diary he notes the passing seasons and their effect on the birds that squabble, starve, feast and raise their young. The lives of the kookaburras, with all their violence and vibrancy, are in sharp contrast to Harry and Betty’s staid, almost monastic existence. Will the coming of spring awaken them?

There is much to admire about this book. Tiffany’s style is honest and direct. She’s not a fan of purple prose. Her dialogue is robust and humorous, her descriptions of country life energetic and sizzling with life. What distinguishes her narrative is the obvious knowledge of her subject that seeps through the pages. Here is someone with complete understanding of the land and its people.

I question, however, why Harry’s diary is laid out like a prose poem. He may be a poet who doesn’t know it, but it felt to me too self-conscious a literary device. Similarly, I don’t believe any 12 year-old schoolgirl anywhere in the world, even in the 1950s, would use the word “flaunt” in a school essay. But these are quibbles. Mateship With Birds is a fine book and deserves to be read. And there is a great deal of homespun wisdom in its pages.

Mateship With Birds is published by Picador, and is sold online for $19.99

Giant couscous and feta salad

Couscous salad

Despite the name, giant couscous is in fact a type of pasta which is toasted and shaped into little balls that look like an enlarged version of couscous. According to Wikipedia, it was invented in Israel during the early 1950s when there was a rice shortage. You can read more about its invention by clicking here. Ptitim, as it is known in Israel, is now becoming increasingly well-known outside the country and is currently a popular ingredient on the menus of many trendy restaurants. It is also known as Israeli couscous or Jerusalem couscous. I used a wholegrain giant couscous to create this nutritious, summery salad. If you cannot find giant couscous, you could substitute regular couscous or orzo pasta in place of it.

GIANT COUSCOUS AND FETA SALAD
(serves 4)

Ingredients

150g giant couscous
100g feta cheese, cut into small cubes
1 small red onion, finely chopped
100g frozen garden peas, boiled
Approx. 10 Kalamata olives, chopped
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Black pepper, to taste

1. Cook the giant couscous according to the instructions on the packet. I lightly fried mine in a little olive oil for 5 minutes before adding water and stirring until the water was absorbed and the couscous was tender.

2. While the couscous is cooking, prepare the rest of the ingredients. Boil the peas, drain them and leave them to cool. Chop up the feta cheese and the red onion. Finely chop the Kalamata olives. I prefer to buy the ones which are whole as I think they taste better than the pitted ones. If you do this, take care to remove the stones before including them in the salad.

3. When the couscous is cooked, add it to a large bowl, along with the rest of the ingredients. Drizzle the lemon juice and olive oil over the salad, mix well and serve. Enjoy!

Summery kohlrabi soup

A rather spectacular Kohlrabi by Petr Kratochvil (public domain image)

A rather spectacular Kohlrabi by Petr Kratochvil (public domain image)

Kohlrabi is a versatile member of the brassica family; in the winter, you can use it in hearty soups and stews or create a delicious mash with olive oil and salt and pepper. The summer crop of kohlrabi is less fibrous than during the winter and it is ideally suited for summer salads and kohlrabi slaw. Try adding grated kohlrabi and carrot together with a mustard dressing.

This kohlrabi soup – my own recipe – is perfect for a light lunch in the garden. The combination of peas and mint help to bring out the crisp taste of the kohlrabi, resulting in a delicious summer soup.

SUMMERY KOHLRABI SOUP
(serves 4)

Ingredients

2 tbsp good-quality olive oil
2 large onions, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 kohlrabi, peeled and diced
2 carrots, diced
3 heaped tbsp frozen garden peas
3.5 cups/1.5 pints vegetable stock
2 heaped tbsp chopped fresh mint
1/2 tsp dried oregano
Salt and pepper

1. Saute the onions and garlic in the olive oil for approx. 10 minutes, until they are golden.
2. Add the kohlrabi and carrots to the pan. Saute gently for 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are tender.
3. Add the vegetable stock and the peas. Bring to the boil, then immediately turn down the heat and let it simmer for 5 minutes until the peas are cooked.
4. Add the chopped mint, season with salt and pepper to taste and blend.

Kohlrabi soup