Why Did JK Rowling Use a Male Pseudonym?

| Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Cuckoo's Calling Rowling
Recently I was over on Tumblr (a fairly frequent occurrence) and I came across a post from the Young Adult Review Network posing the question of why JK Rowling, who was recently unmasked as "debut" crime novelist Robert Galbraith, would select a clearly male pseudonym for her experiment/genre hop/new novel. I gave my thoughts on this question over on Tumblr as well, but I thought it called for a more in-depth response.

The implication YARN was driving at, which I do understand, was why a powerful woman and supposedly feminist-leaning author wouldn't choose to publish her new project under a female pseudonym instead. Why she chose, once again, to "hide her gender." Surely she of all people should know that she can sell based on the merit of her writing, name notwithstanding? And I get the sentiment. I do.

Unfortunately, I just don't think it's that simple. It's very decidedly not that simple. Here's why.

She was writing crime fiction. Crime fiction is a traditionally male-dominated genre. Her book itself features a male lead. There are absolutely successful lady crime fiction authors, but generally do not see the same critical success as their male counterparts, sometimes even being relegated to "chick lit" (Janet Evanovich). Does anyone have actual hard numbers of male vs. female authors in the crime genre? I'd be curious to see.

She was masking her identity in a genre populated by men. I have absolutely no insight into the details, but we know that The Cuckoo's Calling was submitted to at least one editor who has admitted turning it down. So it was submitted just like any other debut novel. It ended up with the same editor who edited The Casual Vacancy, though it seems the other members of the publishing team were kept in the dark about who they were really working with. This is 100% speculation on my part, but it seems like this was a novel that might have gotten passed by. That maybe, maybe, Rowling's editor took it on because he might have known it was her? So it seems that, even with a male pseudonym, this book was barely picked up for publication. Would it have been given even that shot with a lady author?

Again, completely admitting that I'm speculating here. It was clearly a great novel -- editors and reviewers both say so -- but writing a great novel isn't always enough to get you picked up as a debut novelist.Would it have been different with a lady's name on the cover? We'll never know. But we can guess.

People seemed far more impressed, stylistically, with Cuckoo than Vacancy. Coincidence? A simple matter of just doing it better the second time? Tied to the level of exposure? Expectations of the author? Perhaps. I will concede that it's entirely possible that this was just a better book (THAT much better, though?). However, I am curious about the lukewarm reception of Vacancy, but the glowing reviews and comments of "obvious talent" surrounding Cuckoo. Everyone knew a woman wrote the former, but thought a man wrote the latter. The unmasking supposedly happened after a linguistic software developer analyzed writing samples from all of Rowling's work and found their similarities "striking." Someone in the comments of one of the many blogs on this topic pointed out that the first one-star reviews of Cuckoo began appearing after the Rowling revelation. Hm.

In my mind, it's more likely that all this somehow ties in to the deeper theme of men receiving more press, more accolades, more awards, for similar work. Could I be wrong? Sure. But I think it's telling. I suppose we'll see if the glowing reviews follow the series now that we know who's really behind the curtain.

She wanted to be the "default." As I mentioned on my Tumblr post, I think it's very telling that Rowling chose this course (writing under a pseudonym) because she wanted the freedom to avoid pressure and expectations and just be viewed on her merit... and she went about that freedom by selecting a male moniker. Almost like she knows one achieves more even-handed (or preferential) treatment in literature as a whole if one is a white man, no?

Now, I'll readily admit that even with great press and reviews, the book was selling decently, but not exceptionally. It was a "quiet" book, one of the thousands of books a year that is a good book, but still doesn't make a ton of noise, even with a man's name on the cover. And being the cynical marketing person that I am, it has indeed crossed my mind that this sudden revelation may have been a manufactured "leak" intended to boost sales.

Still, isn't that the way of debuts? It's not typical for an author to come out of nowhere and shoot to the top with their first book. Even the major names -- Rowling, Meyer, Collins, Green -- took a few years to build up their steam. Would Rowling have seen eventual success with her pseudonym, or was the book just too quiet? Another thing we'll never know.

As someone who uses a gender-neutral pen name, I feel kind of close to this issue. I am fiercely pro-woman... mostly because I've grown up as a woman. I know how surprised people seem when I show even the barest glimmer of intellect. I know the looks I've received in writer's groups when I read my YA sample and everyone was clearly expecting some little twinkling bit of forgettable fluff. I've listened as people (okay, men) explain something to me that I already know intimately, and have told them as much. I've watched people look bored as hell when I talk about lady-written YA but light up like the freaking sun when someone mentions John Green.

Do I know if I will achieve more success with a neutral pen name or a feminine one? I'll probably never know for sure. But I have an inkling. And that's the problem.


{ JeffO } at: July 17, 2013 at 5:56 AM said...

You raise some great points and good questions. The tough part in this case is that there's so much we don't know. Did Rowling's editor take on this book because he(?) knew it was her, or did he take it on because he thought, 'hey, I like this'. Are the reviews for Cuckoo better because it's a better book, or because it has a man's name on it? Maybe Rowling's style is more suited to this sort of book than to the sort of book that ACV is; I haven't read either, so I can't say.

I do suspect you're right, sexism is involved in all this, but perhaps not as deeply as you might think. The one star reviews that followed the reveal could also be due to people who feel manipulated (that sentiment has been clearly expressed over at Absolute Write), or to that group of people who seem to hate successful people. Or all of it.

It's a shame that women still have to hide behind initials and male pseudonyms in this day and age. It should be all about the book, not the gender of the person who wrote it.

{ Andrew Leon } at: July 17, 2013 at 8:15 AM said...

First, I don't know who John Green is. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

My understanding is that the editor did not know s/he(?) had a book by Rowling. Not when given the book, at any rate.

I was wondering what had happened to Rowling's expressed desire to write some crime fiction, so I'm glad to see that she didn't abandon that. And, after the reception that Vacancy received, I probably would have done the same as her, too. Vacancy, by the way, which I am about half way through, is a -good- book. It's unfortunate that people discarded it because it's not HP, but, then, it's a much more complex book and takes some attention, which, as fun as they are, HP does not need.

{ Paul Anthony Shortt } at: July 17, 2013 at 8:28 AM said...

I can understand the desire to use a pen-name. They're a staple of the industry. To be honest, I think it was likely as simple as Rowling deciding she wanted to try something that wouldn't be compared to her Harry Potter books and chose a name that would help counter any "handicap" she might have been afraid of as a woman writing in a male-dominated genre.

{ S.E. Sinkhorn } at: July 17, 2013 at 9:12 AM said...

I think this *probably* would have been an easier experiment to gauge if Rowling's fame weren't a factor. If she were just an average female author instead of, you know, HER, we'd probably be able to get a better read on people's reactions at face value rather than tinged by her fame.

Even so, there's still the fact that her style across all her novels the is similar enough to be recognized by linguistic software, yet Vacancy was met with MUCH more negative criticism. Could be purely a numbers game, but, well, this isn't the first time a lady author has written under a male pseudonym and received high praised about the "realness" of the male characters, strength of writing, etc. Meanwhile, it's not uncommon for male authors/reviewers to say women just "can't write men."


{ Paul Anthony Shortt } at: July 17, 2013 at 9:20 AM said...

I think you're right. If she hadn't been JK Rowling, creator of Harry Potter, and one of the most successful authors in the world, people probably wouldn't have bat an eyelid.

{ thepagesage } at: July 17, 2013 at 1:12 PM said...

I was actually talking to someone about this and The Casual Vacancy just yesterday. I feel that CV's original cover was "gender-neutral" because everyone knew, unlike with the first HP, that J.K. Rowling is a woman and they wanted to keep the male demographic. It's sad and infuriating that women's writing (hell, their thoughts in general) are belittled simply because of their gender. I don't blame her at all for wanting to be judged on the merit of her writing and not her gender or fame.

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