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?