News recently broke that the well-reviewed debut novel from Robert Galbraith was actually written by none other than J.K. Rowling.
Of course sales have skyrocketed and the attention of entire literary world has turned towards The Cuckoo’s Calling. It’s no wonder Rowling chose to forgo the sales and attention of another novel in favor of an anonymous debut. It’s not as though she needs the money. As the world’s foremost literary celebrity it makes sense that she try to escape the trappings of this fame to explore her writing. There are so many expectations and judgements associated with all of her work following the juggernaut of Harry Potter; it would be hard to get a fair shake in the publishing world. The question isn’t why she wrote under a pseudonym, but rather the choice of pseudonym she used. Robert Galbraith is clearly a male name. A male name for a male genre then? It sure seems like it.
The backlash has already begun against Rowling’s decision to undergo a gender swap. The reasoning behind the decision, unfortunately, is not that hard to see. Crime novels, the genre under which The Cuckoo’s Calling falls, have long and storied traditions one of which seems to be the overwhelming presence of male authors. The names James Patterson and Stephen King dominate the charts and the media. There seems to be little confidence in the abilities of women to write outside of certain genres.
Some argue that women simply aren’t putting forth the work to be considered for publication in genres such as crime, mystery, science fiction, and other male dominated areas. However, it’s not that women aren’t writing genre fiction; it’s that they are forced to put someone else’s name on the cover. Some of the best-selling genre works out there are written by women who have taken a male nom de plume. Nora Roberts turned to the name J.D. Robb when venturing into the suspense genre. Ann Rule chose the name Andy Stack at the behest of her publisher to "bring more credibility" to her writing. Even Louisa May Alcott turned to a male alter ego to writer more "serious" fare. Female names, if not their abilities, are clearly not welcome in certain circles.
Publishers seem convinced that men are put off by female writers. They have certain expectations of what women produce and by all accounts, the average male just does not want to read a work by a woman. By using a male or gender neutral name, they are casting the widest net possible. The question arises then, are men not buying works by female writers because they are sexist or because there are no prominent female genre writers on the shelves? Logic tells us that maybe it’s the publishers who are creating certain attitudes toward female produced writing. Women’s fiction is a term that is broadly used to describe romance and chick lit among other. This term causes a problem as if we only see women’s names on certain genres such as chick lit or YA then we are going to associate all female writers with such fare. The publishing industry is conditioning our attitudes towards female writers in the worst way possible.
Meanwhile, there are women out there who risk the lower sales in order to stay true to their gender and they are not wholly unsuccessful. Patricia Cornwell, Sue Grafton, Denise Mina are among those who are commercially lucrative as themselves and not a male character they are forced to be. Could the belief that women written genre fiction is largely unsuccessful be coming undone? I can’t say definitively but there is only way to find out. By flooding the market in all genres with female writers, readers would be forced to buy books based on merit as opposed to gender associations and then we could tell once and for all.
Thus, the problem with Rowling’s choice of a male name is that she is refusing to lead the way. Considering she changed her name once in the name of sales, from Joanne to J.K., it would have been nice for her to blaze the trail not taken. I would have hoped we had come a long way since Rowling was told to use a pseudonym because boys won’t read books written by a girl. Apparently we haven’t because the world’s best-selling author feels the need to change her gender to write a crime novel. No offense to Robert Galbraith but I am holding out hope the next great crime novel to come from the likes of the fairer sex with her name emblazoned on the cover.