Andrew Eaton-Lewis: JK Rowling’s creative stunt

DID JK Rowling record two albums of “gritty, introspective dubstep” under the pseudonym Burial? Of course she didn’t, but the Daily Mash’s spoof is still my favourite response to the news that crime writer Robert Galbraith was Rowling in disguise all along.

JK Rowling wanted to escape the baggage attached to being a famous writer  and it worked. Picture: AP
JK Rowling wanted to escape the baggage attached to being a famous writer  and it worked. Picture: AP

Few creative people haven’t used an alias at some point, for fun, misdirection or to get round contractual restrictions, but it’s particularly common in electronic dance music. This is partly because you can get away with it more easily – distinctive voices and playing/writing styles are difficult to disguise, but programming samplers and drum machines is a little more anonymous. But it’s also because aliases can create cool, enigmatic stars out of geeky bedroom boffins. The Burial joke is funny because, if seeing a photo of, say, Daft Punk without their robot masks feels anticlimactic, imagine the masks coming off and revealing middle-aged “assistant headmistresses”.

In reality, JK Rowling was doing something very different: trying to escape the baggage attached to being a famous children’s writer, to have a book judged on its own terms. There are musical precedents for this. In 1987, Stock Aitken and Waterman were very pleased with themselves when hipster DJs played a white label of their dance track Roadblock, not realising it was made by the least cool production team in pop, men who wrote songs for Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley and Jason Donovan.

It is rare for these things to stay secret for long, though. The same year Roadblock appeared, an act called Boogie Box High released a cover version of the Bee Gees’ Jive Talkin’, and it took most listeners about five seconds to figure out the singer was none other than George Michael – even though he had to deny it for contractual reasons.

One notable exception to this rule is Stephen King, who published his first Richard Bachman book in 1977, and wasn’t outed until eight years later. This has some parallels with Rowling’s situation. While King’s main motive was a desire to publish more often without people getting sick of new Stephen King books, he later said he’d wanted to find out whether his success was down to talent or luck. King also said he thought the experiment never provided a satisfactory answer to that question – although, after he was outed, sales of Bachman books soared.

The same has now happened to Galbraith, in spades. Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling sold fewer than 500 copies. Once the world knew Galbraith was really Rowling it sold half a million within days. Some have drawn dark conclusions from this about the state of the publishing industry. If an acclaimed debut novel, in a popular genre, sells so few copies, what does that say about the prospects for any new author? That it has now sold so many, purely because Rowling’s name is attached to it (she has, remember, a reputation as a children’s novelist but no track record as a crime writer) must feel like a kick in the teeth for those who feel publishing has become entirely, depressingly celebrity-driven.

Well, you can moan about it, or you can see a creative/marketing opportunity, perhaps along the lines of those charity art sales where some of the art is by famous people, some isn’t, and you have to guess. A publisher, say, puts out a roster of new stories. One is by a hugely famous name under an alias, but you only find out which one it is if you read – and pay for – them all.