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.

Bless This Trope: Body Swaps

| Friday, July 12, 2013


Throughout the illustrious history of this blog, I've done a lot of posts about killing stock characters and common cliches in YA. I've talked about tropes I find problematic. I've even found the silver lining of tropes I don't especially like very much. But I haven't done many posts where I talk about tropes I unabashedly love. So I figured I'd remedy that!

Welcome to a trope I absolutely adore: body swaps.

If you don't know why this is hilarious, I am sorry.

You might be thinking: "Body swaps? Really? The whole breadth of tropes at your disposal and you love BODY SWAPS?"

LET ME EXPLAIN TO YOU WHY THIS TROPE IS AMAZING.

I recently started watching Lost Girl, which is an urban fantasy show full of queer characters and people of color in prominent roles and amazing ladies who kick ass and are also unabashedly feminine and a bisexual protagonist whose sexuality is treated with respect and OH MY GOD IT IS JUST A REALLY GOOD SHOW WHY AREN'T YOU WATCHING IT RIGHT NOW. (But I am only two seasons in) (so don't spoil me) (I will cut you).

Yeah. Anyway. It's a great show. Great cast, fun fantasy walking the line between fluffy and gritty, lots of sexy sex, etc. This is all set up so that I can segue into talking about body swaps. The following is a spoiler for a single episode, but doesn't spoil anything about the main plot other than some general characteristics of some of the characters.

In the episode "Original Skin," some mysterious magic-y magic happens that causes everyone to switch bodies. And. It. Is. Hilarious. Ultimately, this is what really tickles me about the body swap trope -- the fact that you already have preset expectations of a character. You've gotten to know them, how they act, how they respond to situations. Then body swaps completely undermine all of those expectations and you're exposed to familiar characters acting like their polar opposite, often to great comedic success.

This particular episode has Kenzi -- the spunky, fashion-obsessed, high-energy, jokey thief character -- switching bodies with Dyson -- the brooding, buttoned-up, cool-guy cop character. It's a joy to read/watch scenes like this because they're so unexpected. It opens up a whole different ballpark of character interaction, ranging from issues of consent (is it okay to look at someone's body naked without their permission if your consciousness is inside it? Not really.) to experiencing life through a literal different lens.

I have seen this trope done so many times in so many different ways, and it almost always thrills me. It can be done badly, of course, and that always bums me out, but nine times out of ten, I'm going to love it. This trope is most often used for its comedic potential, but it can also be used to create a really raw, emotional story. In this same episode, Kenzi uncovers a secret Dyson's been hiding, and it's pretty darn sad-making.

Likewise, there are episodes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "Who Are You" (spoilers ahead), wherein Faith forcibly switches body with Buffy. Her intent is to get to live as the girl "everyone loves" and wreck as much havoc as she can, but she ends up opening some very deep wounds and, in several emotionally charged scenes, learns some crushing truths about herself.

In a nutshell, this trope is great for comedy, but equally great for character development and deepening characters' understanding of one another. And man, I just love watching really talented actors pull this trope off. Anna Torv playing Leonard Nimoy on Fringe? PERFECTION.

This trope is not without its issues, like many others. I mentioned consent above, but body swap adventures in general seem to have a real issue with it. Characters insist on grabbing intimate parts of the bodies they're in with complete disregard to the body's owner. Sometimes they even use the body to have sex with someone who otherwise would never agree to it, which is UNCOOL AS HELL (and also a form of sex assault). Occasionally social issues are handled really, really poorly -- no, you do not "understand what it's like" to live as another person just because you spent a few hours in their body. These issues, when they occur, are rarely inverted or explored. So it's not perfect.

Even so, I love the possibilities and outcomes of this trope. There are so many ways to play it. Was the switch an accident? Intentional for one or all parties involved? Shapeshifting spell? Projected consciousness fighting for control of the body? THE OPTIONS ARE ENDLESS.

This is a trope that tends to be better suited for television, since actors often play an integral role in comedic timing and ability to capture the essence of a character they don't usually play. It's also most effective when the audience has had time to learn the personalities of the characters and feel they're well-defined. However, it CAN be done in novels. It just takes a skilled hand.

BLESS THIS TROPE. Here's your assignment for comments today: tell me about a trope you completely, unashamedly adore.

Battling Burnout

| Monday, July 1, 2013

Some of you may have noticed that I haven't been updating this blog nearly as often as I used to. This is partly due to an upswing in other obligations (work, family, brother got married, etc.), partly due to various computer troubles, and mostly due to being just plain burned out.

I have lots of ideas for posts sitting in my queue, I just haven't had the time or energy to write them down. It happens. I'm hoping to get back into the groove sometime soon. In the meantime, if you have any burning questions or topics for discussion that you'd be interested in hearing my take on, I'm always happy to hear about it! You guys know I love to write about pop culture and YA, so throw it at me.

I'm still posting regularly on Tumblr and Twitter if you'd like to keep up with me there. I'm finding short-form is a lot more manageable for me these days, though long-form still has a special place in my heart and I'm not giving up on it anytime soon.

Take care <3 br="">
 

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