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?

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

  1. Great post, both sides of the argument really well elucidated. I must say i agree with you; I entirely understand J.K.R’s desire to have her book judged for her book, rather than for her name, but I think that the use of a fake bio for Galbraith, stating he was ex-military, was the step too far. I am sure she could have thought of an alternative excuse for Galbraith’s not appearing in public – after all, she does have quite an imagination!

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    • Thanks for your comment. Creating an effective disguise for one of the most famous novelists in the world must be difficult but that doesn’t excuse outright lying. It is certainly a betrayal of readers’ trust, in my opinion.

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    • It has received mostly good reviews. I haven’t read it myself, although I probably will do at some point in the future (I am currently working my way through another of Rowling’s books, The Casual Vacancy).
      At the time of publication up until the uncovering of the real author, Robert Galbraith was an unknown name in the book industry. The Cuckoo’s Calling sold a few thousand copies (8500, according to Galbraith’s website) which is quite good for a debut author.
      Yes, the discovery that J. K. Rowling was behind it certainly boosted sales!

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  2. I haven’t been following this very closely and only knew that Rowling had published The Cuckoo’s Calling under a pseudonym. Like you, I can definitely sympathize with her reasons for wanting to publish under a completely new name. I wasn’t aware that there was also an issue with the fabricated author bio. I do agree that lying is never a good thing, especially in this kind of context but I wonder if people wouldn’t be so offended if she hadn’t made it a point to state that Robert Galbraith was an ex-military man?
    In any case, great post!

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    • Yes, I too have been wondering about people being offended by the ex-military connection. The full bio (source: http://www.hachette.com.au/authors/robert-galbraith) reads: “Born in 1968, Robert Galbraith is married with two sons. After several years with the Royal Military Police, he was attached to the SIB (Special Investigation Branch), the plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. The idea for protagonist Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who have returned to the civilian world. ‘Robert Galbraith’ is a pseudonym”.

      Perhaps it wouldn’t have upset so many people if Robert Galbraith had a different former profession, accountancy or teaching maybe. But this bio, as other people have pointed out elsewhere on the web, makes it seem like the author has insider knowledge. Rowling and her publisher could have made up a more benign fake bio, something along the lines of “The Cuckoo’s Calling is the debut novel from Robert Galbraith, who was born in 1968 and lives in London with his wife and two children”…etc.

      Some people might buy a book because the author has personal knowledge of its subject. And that is one of the reasons why I think this fake bio is morally wrong.

      Thanks for your comment. It is very much appreciated. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

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  3. I feel the same as you. I understand her wanting to publish under a different name, but think the false author blurb went too far and was disrespectful to her readers. I’m the only fifth grade reading teacher in the world who never read the Harry Potter books, so I can’t attest to her skill as an author, but she certainly seems to have told some good stories!

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    • Hi Angela, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. 🙂
      Yes, you got it exactly right. It is disrespectful. I’m actually thinking of sending an email to her publisher, inquiring about the choice of false bio.
      Her story-telling skills are wonderful. I grew up with the Harry Potter books and movies. They have a very special place in my childhood memories.

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    • I definitely agree with you. The problem with the fake author biography inside the book is that it was written as though it were the truth.

      Rowling is a great author. Perhaps your little girl will like the Harry Potter series when she is older. I started reading them when I was eight and I loved the magical, imaginative world within them. I hope you enjoy her books, if you decide to read any of them. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. 🙂

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  4. An entertaining and great post. I am a JK fan and sympathise with her on this error of judgement but I would ask, why did those around her think it would be a good idea to fabricate such a deep lie, in this day of easy access to all things relevant and otherwise it was bound to come out at some stage.

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed this post. Thanks for leaving a comment. I think J.K. probably tried to disguise herself as best as she could. Perhaps the bio was her publisher’s idea. But “truth will out”, especially when you are one of the most well-known authors in the world!

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  5. Interesting post! I didn’t know about J.K. Rowling’s pseudonym or this other book, though, like you, I understand her desire for anonymity. I also agree with you that she shouldn’t have lied in the author blurb. I’ve seen writers leave minimal details about themselves, such as “so-and-so lives in England with his/her family and dog,” so I wonder why she couldn’t have left it at that? I have yet to read A Casual Vacancy, but I’ll add it to the list.

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    • Thanks for your comment. I agree with you: a vague but truthful blurb would have been so much better.

      I finished reading The Casual Vacancy a couple of weeks ago and felt thoroughly deflated and slightly depressed by the end. It is a difficult read, not because of the writing, but because of the scenes and characters which J. K. Rowling wrote about in it, such as child abuse, drug-dealing and rape. It’s not a bad book; I just found it very depressing to read. If you decide to read it, let me know what you think. 🙂

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  6. Pingback: My Literary Wish List | Cultural Life

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