Allan Massie: JK Rowling author of own good fortune

Picture: Getty
Picture: Getty
Share this article
Have your say

JK Rowling may have enjoyed ‘success’ with her new alter ego, but the mantle of Harry Potter will be difficult to ignore, writes Allan Massie

The Cuckoo’s Calling, a crime novel by Robert Galbraith, was published by Little, Brown in April with an endorsement on the front cover from Val McDermid who said it reminded her why she “fell in love with crime fiction in the first place”. It was billed as a first novel and the author was said to be a former officer in the military police, evidently a chap who would know what he was writing about. McDermid’s recommendation may have helped sell a few copies, though long experience has made me sceptical of the value of such endorsements or quotes from reviews of an author’s previous work. As this paper’s fiction reviewer, I’ve been sent scores of novels by hopeful publishers. Many come garlanded with praise from established writers; yet I know that they will sell miserably.

The Cuckoo’s Calling reportedly sold about 1,500 copies to bookshops, quite a respectable figure for a first hardback novel by an unknown author, even though it’s likely that, in the normal course of events, a good many of these would soon have been winging their way back to the publishers as “returns”. Anyone who has published more than a couple of books soon learns to distrust the assurance from the publicity department that “the subscription is good”. It’s not unusual for “returns” to exceed actual sales to customers.

Happily, The Cuckoo’s Calling has escaped this sad fate because it has now been revealed that Robert Galbraith is JK Rowling. Consequently Amazon has reported sold more than 500,000 copies, pretty well overnight. “What’s in a name?” you say. Answer: “Quite a lot”.

I’ve no reason to believe that it was Ms Rowling herself who broke the news. On the contrary, I am sure she is speaking the truth when she says:“It’s been pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name, and it’s been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation.”

There is nothing new in an author deciding to publish under a pseudonym , or indeed anonymously. The practice has been common for ages. Waverley was published anonymously, subsequent novels as by “the Author of Waverley”. For commercial reasons Sir Walter Scott soon had another identity, The Black Dwarf and Old Mortality appearing in a series, Tales of My Landlord, the ostensible author (or collector of the tales) being Jedediah Cleishbotham, not the most convincing of names. Scott’s concealment of his identity is usually ascribed to a fear that novel-writing might damage his reputation as a poet, and was also beneath the dignity of the Sheriff of Selkirkshire and Clerk to the Court of Session; but I think a love of mischief played a part. Few were deceived. Even Jane Austen, who never met him, had no doubt that the author of Waverley was Walter Scott.

Some choose to employ a pseudonym for novels in a genre different from their usual one. Agatha Christie, for example, wrote romantic novels as Mary Westmacott, and Julian Barnes has written crime fiction as Dan Kavanagh. Another Booker winner, John Banville, writes crime novels as Benjamin Black. Ms Rowling may have chosen to write as Robert Galbraith for a similar reason. Other authors have used pseudonyms simply because they are so prolific. Ian Rankin published a couple of novels as Jake Harvey; they have since been repackaged as authentic Rankin’s. The late Roger Longrigg had six or seven pseudonyms; the most successful, commercially, was “Rosalind Erskine”, purportedly the teenage author of a mildly naughty novel about schoolgirls, The Passion Flower Hotel. I have a memory, which may be mistaken, that his widow said he was sometimes confused as to which author he was on a particular day.

There is, I suppose, something liberating in adopting a new identity. Actually, of course, the first identity you adopt or, better, discover, when you start writing fiction is itself new, because , as Proust put it in Contre Sainte-Beuve, “a very slight degree of self-knowledge teaches us that a book is the product of a very different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices”. This is not something easy to grasp, if only because it is very hard, even for the author himself – or herself – to say just what the difference is. Yet the difference is there: The Author of Waverley was not precisely the Sheriff or the genial host at Abbotsford. The JK Rowling who created Harry Potter and lived with him in her imagination, is not just the person her friends know.

But how agreeable for her to become Robert Galbraith, to assume another persona, to create and inhabit a different author. Admittedly one critic, Sameer Rahim, writing in the Daily Telegraph, says that anyone reading The Cuckoo’s Calling “can find small clues to the author’s identity”. This may indeed be so, though I wonder if the clues would have been evident before it was revealed that Robert Galbraith is JK Rowling. Certainly, they weren’t to the editor at Orion who turned the book down because, though she found it “well-written” and “perfectly good”, “it didn’t stand out”. Editors, she said, “have to fall in love with debuts”; and she didn’t. Fair enough; if, however, she had penetrated the mystery and identified Ms Rowling as the author, she would have surely have leapt to publish the book, whether in love with it or not.

It will be interesting to see whether “Robert Galbraith” will write another novel. There is no reason why he shouldn’t , because writing as a damaged ex-officer in the military police will feel different from writing as JK Rowling, and must have been fun. Alternatively she may choose to inhabit another identity and publish again incognito, “without hype or expectation”, and savouring “the pure pleasure of getting feedback under a different name” – until, that is, the new author’s true identity is again disclosed and the book soars to the top of the bestseller list.

It strikes me that escaping Harry Potter is likely to be a Sisyphean task, and that JK Rowling will find it as hard to be free of him as it was for Sindbad to dislodge the Old Man of the Sea. Mind you, there must be worse weights to bear.