The Internet has been abuzz with news of J.K. Rowling’s pseudonymous novel-writing undertaking. Taking the male name of Robert Galbraith, the woman who sold over 450 million copies of the Harry Potter series wrote a crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and didn’t spill the beans about it until her identity was exposed.
It brings to mind the question of why one of the modern world’s most successful writers wished to write under a different name. Which leads to the more complicated question of how much of an individual’s value is placed on their namesake and its history, and how much on the merit of his or her present work.
As this Wall Street Journal article states, Rowling’s reason for the first question is simple and understandable enough. “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation,” she said on her website. For someone who has long been a tremendously celebrated writer, writing without the pressure of hype must seem like a nostalgic and impossible notion, something reserved only for fledgling artists.
Her secret lasted for about six weeks, and soon after the author’s true identity was revealed, WSJ reported that sales shot up and 300,000 more copies were printed. NPR states that the book reportedly only sold 1,500 copies in the U.K. its first week and gives it a lukewarm review, while user reviews on Amazon averages at a solid, respectable 4. However, if Rowling’s identity hadn’t been revealed, what would the book’s overall results look like?
This piece in The New Yorker explores another case of secret writing by a famous author, one that occurred years before in the early 1980’s. The author was the young fellow at a publishing company who failed to pick on author Doris Lessing’s pseudonymous manuscript. He stands by his first reaction, stating that the novel was simply not good enough or remarkable enough to warrant being placed on the “agented” shelf.
Though the moral of these two stories are slightly different, they both ring true the fact that intellectual renown is part talent, part cultural hype. Would attention towards a particular piece be different if the person who wrote it used a man’s name? A Western name? A male Western name? Ultimately, what’s the extent of the relationship between the thinker’s identity and her ideas?