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why did j.k rowling publish her newest novel under a male pseudonym?

Image: Daniel Ogren

Image: Daniel Ogren

There was no real surprise at Sunday’s news that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling published a detective book under a pseudonym, because why wouldn’t she want a book she wrote to be judged on its merit and not her very famous name?

What was of real interest, though, was the nom de plume she chose for her novel, ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’: Robert Galbraith.

The highest selling British writer of all time chose to publish her book under a male name.

You can’t help but wonder if Rowling decided a detective book written by an unknown male would sell better than a detective book written by an unknown female?

This isn’t a new issue. Not even for Rowling. She published the first of her Harry Potter books with the gender-ambiguous J.K. rather than her name, Joanna. This decision was at the request of her publisher who feared young boys wouldn’t read a book written by a woman.

Would she have experienced the same level of success if she had insisted on publishing her book as Joanna? It’s an issue female writers and their publishers across the globe still face.

In 2005, a study of reading habits carried out by Queen Mary College in London found: ‘Men who read fiction tend to read fiction by men, while women read fiction by both women and men. Consequently, fiction by women remains “special interest”, while fiction by men still sets the standard for quality, narrative and style.’

It’s a more nuanced issue than female writers of the past faced.

The Bronte sisters are perhaps the most famous women to have published under male pen names, fearing they wouldn’t be published or taken seriously if they used their real names. Today the question is more: are female writers as commercially attractive if four out of five male readers won’t even consider reading their books?

Especially when women will read fiction written by both sexes.

It’s something new Australian author Hannah Kent has already faced.

Since PanMacmillan published her debut novel, Burial Rites, to much fanfare in May, she’s had very similar feedback from men.

‘It is amazing how many men I have had come up to me and say “congratulations on your book. I am going to buy it for my wife”.’

‘And I am like “are you going to read it?” No, not really, you’re probably not. They don’t see anything wrong with that.’

And what are the consequences of the difficulty faced by female writers in getting men to read their work?

Kent believes it is about more than the commercial difficulty it causes; she believes it influences how female writers’ work is received.

‘If Jonathan Franzen is writing about it, it’s a universal novel and it is a huge examination of personal relationships and then if a woman does it, it is domestic drivel.’

So what needs to happen to interest men in writing by women?

The Orange Prize was created in 1996 in the UK to promote the best fiction writing by women. It was hoped it would also attract the interest of male readers.

But the same British report found a decade after its creation the prize hadn’t altered men’s views on writing.

‘Men’s reading habits have altered very little since the Orange Prize burst onto the fiction scene in 1996,’ it found.

It’s not a great sign for our own Stella Prizes for the best female writing in Australia.

Without an obvious answer for female writers to attract male readers, it is easy to see why Rowling uses gender neutral and male names for the books she publishes.

And while there is commercial interest in doing so, it is hard to see this trend ending anytime soon.

5 thoughts on “why did j.k rowling publish her newest novel under a male pseudonym?

  1. “You can’t help but wonder if Rowling decided a detective book written by an unknown male would sell better than a detective book written by an unknown female?”

    It’s certainly possible but, for several resons, it’s far from obvious that that is the case.

    1) Until the point at which JK Rowling reveals why she chose a male pseudonym, or any other helpful info comes to light, we don’t really know why she chose the name. She could’ve had just liked it, it could have been a joke, it could have been to make a point, it could have not been.

    2) Considering how famous she is and that she’s consciously writing a book under a pseudonym to avoid being associated with her successful name, it’s not entirely clear that she’d care so much about the small difference in profit margin between unknown male and unknown female name, to make such a decision. Surely if she cared about profit she’d just use her own successful name?

    3) Crime fiction is a relatively gender neutral genre. Were there any crime writers more famous than Agatha Christie and Patricia Cornwall, for example? Of all the genres where gender bias is apparent, the success of these authors surely shows that male audiences clearly haven’t displayed conspicuous against female crime writers to the same extent as in other genres.

    Ultimately, I agree with you about the broader trend of literary bias, but I’m not sure if connecting JK Rowling’s choice of pseudonym to that issue is, at this point in time, warranted.

  2. The fact that female crime fiction writers were very successful does not in any way “surely show” that male readers weren’t biased against reading their work. We would need to know what proportion of their readership (or buying readership) were male and compare that to the male/female buying readership figures of highly successful male crime writers, in order to draw any possible conclusions.

    • It would be really interesting to see those statistics. In the absence of any being readily available, however, one can only look at the amount of books Cornwall and Christie have sold (100 million, and 4 billion respectively) and conclude that, even if a small proportion of those readers were men, it still amounts to millions and millions of men who are not perturbed by female name on the front of the book. It might not be a very assured conclusion, but according to the readily available evidence, it’s not an unfair one.

      • The statistics aren’t readily available because they don’t exist. There’s no market research done on books, particularly trade books, so publishers basically have no idea who is buying and reading their books. And the buyer isn’t always necessarily the reader.

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