J.K. Rowling & Robert Galbraith: The Problem Behind the Pen Names
Laura Koroski | On 31, Jul 2013
In May 1997, a Scottish woman received a call from her publisher. They thought her book would be great for boys to read, but were concerned that no boy would read it if it had been written by a woman. A first-time author desperate to be published and eke out a living, she agreed. And with the decision of one editor, Joanne disappeared and became J.K., and the passionate woman who spent years creating a fantasy world became an androgynous first-time author.
So when the author of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone received her first fan letter, it was addressed “Dear Sir.” The mistake was quickly corrected, and the then-young fan, Francesca Gray, is now a close friend. The publicity that eventually surrounded the book revealed the author as a woman, and she was accepted as such by adoring fans.
But beyond hearing the tale, Bloomsbury’s desire to assign her a male-sounding pseudonym has for the most part remained unquestioned. Of course her publishers wanted the book to sell better, people have said. But underneath this rationalization is a whole set of problematic assumptions. The assumption that women aren’t as talented at writing as men. The assumption that they write a certain “kind” of book. The assumption that men will not read something written by a woman, or the assumption that somehow ten-year-old boys would see the name “Joanne” on the cover and refuse to buy it.
Of course, all those assumptions are false. And J.K. Rowling is Joanne Rowling, and has become a billionaire author, so no harm done, right?
Wrong. Though there may not have been harm done personally to Jo–she succeeded in spite of the restrictions her publishers put on her–those assumptions are still around. And still powerful. And still hurting authors and others in the publishing industry. Merely because she succeeded does not mean that those restrictions are okay. They’re not.
And in fact, they’re still affecting Joanne Rowling. The Cuckoo’s Calling was a modest detective novel published in April which got good reviews but small sales. A misplaced confidence, a tweeted tip, and some automated text analysis programs later, and The Sunday Times outed Jo as the pseudonymous author.
It’s not hard to fathom why Jo would have wanted to use a pen name. The lack of hype and interviews are a good enough start, and an honest, critical, yet fair response to her writing must have been additional reason. She has the right to be a bit angry with the lawyer who slipped her secret.
But what’s most revealing is the pen name she chose. Robert Galbraith. A man’s name. The updated FAQ on the book’s new website reads:
I certainly wanted to take my writing persona as far away as possible from me, so a male pseudonym seemed a good idea. I am proud to say, though, that when I ‘unmasked’ myself to my editor David Shelley who had read and enjoyed ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ without realizing I wrote it, one of the first things he said was ‘I never would have thought a woman wrote that.’ Apparently I had successfully channeled my inner bloke!
And here is where it gets even more problematic. This whole interaction has assumptions about gender up the wazoo. It makes me frustrated that one of the world’s most successful authors felt that she had to hide her gender in order to retain her anonymity. It makes me sad that Jo felt victorious that she had “successfully channeled” her “inner bloke” when everyone accepted the pen name for 3 months. And it makes me angry that the editor of Little Brown, David Shelley, holds horribly essentialist assumptions about how women write differently from men, not to mention that he had the gall to say it.
Apparently not even celebrity authors are immune to backhanded sexist compliments.
And if such realities are par on course even for the richest woman in Britain, how does every other female writer fare, especially those starting out in the business? Not as well as men, most likely. (Unless they’re writing romance, where female authors are preferred by the industry.)
Some might say that this is just an isolated incident. But isolated incidents are often symptomatic of the society that creates them. We need to carefully examine this “isolated incident” and question what it says–about the publishing industry specifically, and society as a whole. It’s handy to blame David Shelley, or Little Brown, or Jo, or publishing in general. But assumptions don’t come from nowhere. They’re longstanding things. And in order to break them, we need to do some serious soul-searching.
What do you think of Jo’s decision to choose Robert Galbraith as her pseudonym? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Written by Laura Koroski