What’s in a Pseudonym? J. K. Rowling Unmasked

Everybody’s got a novel or screenplay or sheaf of poems stuck in their desk drawer or hard drive somewhere; and if not, they’ve got it all written out in their head. Many things keep those works from ever seeing the light of day, most particularly publisher or agent indifference, and sometimes reluctance to part with the work until it’s in perfect shape.

Bestselling authors don’t have that problem. If you’re the New York Times bestseller-list haunters like Stephen King or Malcolm Gladwell, one imagines that with few exceptions you could find a house to publish anything you damn well please. If Tom Clancy wanted to write a book of children’s verse, eventually he’d find somebody to put that one out, likely with a big bold “From the author of The Hunt for Red October” slug on the front cover, just above the watercolor picture of a kitten and puppy frolicking together.

So why would J. K. Rowling feel the need to hide her name? Recently, the New York Times reported that Rowling had been revealed as the real author of the mystery novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling:

“Readers described it as complex, compelling and scintillating. They compared the author — a former military police investigator writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith — to P. D. James, Ruth Rendell and Kate Atkinson. They said the book seemed almost too assured and sophisticated to be a first novel.

As it happens, they were right. In one of the great publishing coups in recent years, ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling,’ which has sold just 1,500 copies in Britain so far, turns out to have been written not by an ex-British Army officer, or by a new writer, or even by a man.”

It’s not as though Rowling hadn’t branched out from her Harry Potter success. Last year’s novel, The Casual Vacancy was set in real-world Britain, with nary a spell to be found. Why would she put that out under her own name and not The Cuckoo’s Calling? The easy answer probably goes back to the old literary / genre divide that one would have thought had disappeared in a time when people aren’t embarrassed to be seen reading Fifty Shades of Grey on the train and adults happily own up to reading YA fare like The Hunger Games.

The Casual Vacancy, whatever its merits as a novel (for what it’s worth, this writer found it smartly delivered realism, with the same kind of naturalistic detail that gave the Potter books their peculiar real-world resonance), certainly fell into the category of literary fiction. By using a small-town council election as her catalyst, Rowling investigated the town’s seething currents of class resentments; quick-moving, to be sure, but hardly the kind of thing that normally races up the charts these days if it didn’t have that byline. Rowling’s “literary” novel is the one attached to her quite formidable brand name.

The Cuckoo’s Calling, on the other hand, is about a private detective investigating a young model’s suspicious death. Thusly, genre, and so, a pen name to separate Rowling’s primary brand from this lower sort of work. This is still a remarkably common practice, with literary figures like John Banville and Richard Price knocking out mysteries under different names (Benjamin Black and Jay Morris, respectively). Joyce Carol Oates, being more prolific than anybody, had two pseudonyms at one point (Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly).

In other words, if you don’t think it’s the kind of thing that your book will get put up for a National Book Award, outsource it to your less-reputable pseudonym. What makes the above writers’ situations even stranger than Rowling’s, though, is that those are generally open secrets. Everybody knows who Benjamin Black really is, so why the fig leaf? Do modern-day readers still maintain such a strong sense of a strong literary / genre divide?

It could be no more complicated than a desire to try something different and needing the help of a pretend persona to make that happen. Stephen King, who has published several non-horror novels under the name Richard Bachman (he was unmasked in 1985 but has continued to publish under Bachman) wrote in his introduction to The Regulators:

“I do believe that there are tricks all of us use to change our perspectives and our perceptions. I love what I do too much to want to go stale if I can help it. Bachman has been one way in which I have tried to refresh my craft, and to keep from being too comfy and well-padded.”

Another reason may simply be the tamping down of expectations. Rowling publishing a mystery novel under a different name lets her (for a time, at least) avoid all the fuss and press parsing all the ways in which the book does or doesn’t live up to Harry Potter. She can return safely to the anonymity that the vast majority of writers labor in. Not anymore, of course, but at least until she figures out a new name to publish her next book under.