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