J.K. Rowling, one of the most brilliant imaginations of our time and a self-made millionaire to boot, is supposed to be an inspiration for women and girls the world over. And, with an empire under her belt and the title “Most Influential Woman in the U.K” tacked on, her name has become synonymous with success — a powerful message for little girls with big dreams. But, as we learned this weekend, Rowling dropped her famous name for a new crime thriller released in April — and with it, her status as a feminist role model.
The Sunday Times of London confirmed Sunday that Rowling is the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, a detective novel written by an alleged first-time author working under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The novel, which has sold 1,500 copies to date, may not have been a commercial success, but it did garner critical praise, the New York Times reports.
According to the Times, Rowling confessed to her deception in a statement, saying, “I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”
After the heavy scrutiny she faced when Rowling released her first non-Harry Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, in September 2012, it’s easy to see why it would be appealing to take on a new name. It must be freeing, as Rowling says, to escape any expectations of which one might fall short. The problem with Rowling’s sneaky move is not that she chose a nom de plume, but that she chose a male one.
Women writers (women in practically every field, really) have long faced a stigma. Considered too fragile, too sensitive, or not intelligent enough to create anything of substance, women writers have been looked down upon for centuries. And as such, women often chose to write under male names. The Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, were guilty of this — first publishing under the names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell because, Charlotte once said, “authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”
And this prejudice, unfortunately, was not relegated to the 19th century. In fact, the reason Rowling chose to use her initials instead of her first name, Joanne, is because her publisher believed boys would not buy a book written by a woman, the BBC reports.
But then, Rowling wrote one of the most popular book series of all time. A face was soon paired with her name, and everyone knew the truth: Harry Potter was created by a woman. And guess what? People still bought the books. They bought them by the millions and billions. And then they shelled out $15 a pop to see her stories brought to life on the big screen. And they flocked to an amusement park in Florida to pay $100 to experience her world as part of their own.
But now, Rowling has taken a step back. Sure, I understand that she wanted to write without the added pressure her name attracts. I get that she wanted honest feedback, reviews without the caveat “written by the author of Harry Potter.” But couldn’t she pick a lady’s name? With The Cuckoo’s Calling, Rowling attracted praise to a supposed newcomer — wouldn’t it have been more interesting, and more beneficial for other women writing genre fiction, if that newcomer was female?
Crime fiction is dominated by male voices — the likes of P.D. James (another initials user!), Patricia Cornwell, Ruth Rendell, and a few others stand out from the pack of men in their rarity. Which is why it’s especially upsetting that Rowling would pass up the opportunity to throw another woman’s name into the mix. Is Rowling still under the impression that readers don’t want to buy books by female writers? Or, even worse, is it true that the general public — and men in particular — still won’t buy books written by female writers?
If that’s the case, the only way to dispel the victorian myth that women can’t write is to prove, again and again, that they can. In publishing under a male name, Rowling passed up the opportunity to do just that.