J.K. Alias and the Pseudonym of Cuckoos

J.K. Alias and the Pseudonym of Cuckoos

I was recently asked to write about The Cuckoo's Calling by...ahem...Robert Galbraith, and what it imagesmeans for new writers. Here's what I came up with. This article is also running this week on writing.ie. Normally I'd wait to post it, but I figured that in two weeks this story will be time capsule material, so... Read on.

Okay, time to come clean. I've been involved in an elaborate hoax for years. You see, I don't actually exist. Any of you who believe you've met me were the victims of a complicated set-up involving actors, wigs, mirrors, and hallucinations brought on by large quantities of bad Roquefort. My name is on a book, but it's a pen name, a pseudonym. The real author of my novel is, of course, J.K. Rowling.

So, um...you should run out and buy it. Now.

No, just kidding.

But I won't deny that I felt envious of the fictional Robert Galbraith when it was revealed early last week that this retired Royal Military Police officer was actually a front for legendary bestselling author and superhero J.K. Rowling. Galbraith's book The Cuckoo's Calling had been sitting quietly in the crime section since March, gathering enthusiastic reviews and middling sales. When the truth of its authorship was revealed, it shot to the top of every bestseller list on earth and is currently crowding the windows of bookstores all over Dublin, and I'm assuming everywhere else printed material is sold.

CuckoosCallingCoverWhat does this mean? Simply put,  brand-name authors sell books, even when they don't really mean to. They also inspire love and goodwill that new authors can only dream of. As soon as the story hit, I went to Cuckoo's Amazon page and found it flooded with five star reviews praising 'Jo', many of them admitting that they were still waiting for their newly ordered books to arrive and hadn't had a chance to read more than the sample pages on the website. So much for Robert Galbraith.

Pen names have been around for as long as humans have had access to chisels and stones, and writers employ them for a number of reasons. If you're writing the Book of Luke, several generations after the real apostle has had his last supper, you're pointing away from yourself in an act of humility. If you're John Banville disguised as Benjamin Black, you want your reader to expect bodies and fingerprints and not so much staring into the sea. If you're science fiction author Harlan Ellison, you might be signalling that a good idea has been turned into bat drool by studio executives. (When Harlan gets angry enough, he'll leave his name on a project as Cordwainer Bird, meaning 'he who makes shoes for birds.')

I always wanted a pen name myself, in fact when I discovered that there was already a Janet Cameron writing and publishing in England, I was almost relieved. Not that I don't like the name - it just seemed strange to have the same old proper nouns I'd been seeing on school report cards and pay slips my whole life printed on a book. I wanted something special to mark the occasion, a secret identity, to be Superman instead of Clark Kent. And so after much deliberation with my publishers I arrived at...the same old name, but with an E in the middle. Oh, well. I can always tell people it stands for Elvis or something.

Then there are writers like J.K. Rowling who may publish under a pen name because they want to escape their own success.

Yeah. Boo-hoo.

But I suppose I can understand her predicament. Success brings expectations - if peopleth 0451137965 start buying an author as a brand, they may expect her to keep endlessly cranking out variations on the same product that first got them hooked. This could turn into a straitjacket for a creative person. And there's the backlash of resentment that often accompanies success. I remember reading reviews for A Casual Vacancy last fall and being surprised by the condescending tone of many of them. Would an unknown author have inspired this degree of sneering? (Though to be fair, an unknown author wouldn't have gotten those high profile reviews in the first place, so perhaps it's a silly question.)

It's also possible that an author who is a stellar success might worry that it's their name alone that is selling those books. Does anyone remember Richard Bachman? This was Stephen King taking a holiday from being Stephen King. In the 80s his books dominated the bestsellers lists and were filmed as fast as he could write them. 'Stephen King could publish his grocery list' critics said, and King responded by ditching the brand name and starting over as a new author in a side project. I remember Thinner by Richard Bachman did okay, but it only became a major bestseller when the author's true identity was revealed.

J.K. was perhaps involved in a similar experiment. Could she do it on her own, start from scratch and make a success based on the quality of her writing and nothing else?

1The good news is that the answer is yes. Cuckoo got very enthusiastic reviews, and while sales were modest compared to her other work, I think they were fine for an unknown author, especially one who was restricted from participating in any form of publicity. Others have pointed out that J.K.'s disguise could never have lasted, that we need new authors to be approachable, to get their faces and their life stories out there, to tweet and post status updates, sign books and rescue kittens. To keep this going, J.K. would have had to hire an actor and a small army of staff to impersonate Robert Galbraith online, maybe writing blog posts about how he used to scribble notes for his crime series in cafes on his breaks from long hours of Royal Military Police work, perhaps while gently rocking the pram that contained his adorable pet lemur.

With any book, the story and the writing should stand alone, and it probably does once you've got that novel home. But to sell it, you need something extra.

So what's the solution? Simple. Put J.K. Rowling's name on every book in the world, past present and future. J.K. gets her anonymity, unknown authors get that magic name, and readers get to choose books based on plot, characters and style rather than publicity and branding. Personally, I'm looking forward to finally reading City of Bohane by J.K. Rowling, and I'm told that Japanese for Busy People by J.K. Rowling is an excellent language course for travellers. Then there are classics like Rowling's The Iliad – I've always meant to give that a read.

Problem solved. See you in the bookstore under 'R'.

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