Harry Potter book published in 1996—after a dozen publishers had rejected it—she did it as J.K. Rowling, as Bloomsbury worried that a woman’s name on the cover could alienate the target audience of boys.
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Now it seems Rowling might have taken that lesson to heart, as news broke on Sunday that she is the author behind the novel “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” published in April to rave reviews under the pen name “Robert Galbraith.”
“I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience,” Rowling said in a statement. “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”
Her publicist Nicky Stonehill said on Sunday that Rowling was indeed Galbraith. “We can confirm it,” she said, “but we are not making any further statement.”
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So was it a good move for Rowling to pose as a male author? Based on reviews, it seems that it was.
“The Cuckoo’s Calling,” in which a war vet turned private eye investigates the suicide of a London model, was beloved by critics.
“In a rare feat, the pseudonymous Galbraith combines a complex and compelling sleuth and an equally well-formed and unlikely assistant with a baffling crime in his stellar debut,” declared Publishers Weekly.
Library Journal was similarly excited. “Laden with plenty of twists and distractions, this debut ensures that readers will be puzzled and totally engrossed for quite a spell,” its write-up said. “Galbraith’s take on contemporary celebrity obsession makes for a grand beach read. It’s like a mash-up of Charles Dickens and Penny Vincenzi.”
Booklist said it was “instantly absorbing, featuring a detective facing crumbling circumstances with resolve instead of clichéd self-destruction and a lovable sidekick with contagious enthusiasm for detection,” all wonderfully woven thanks to “skilled storytelling.”
By contrast, Rowling's first novel for adults, “The Casual Vacancy,” received far less praise. Published in 2012, it was an instant best-seller, but it suffered from negative critiques (with a few exceptions, including a rave in the Guardian).
Publishers Weekly basically called it a bore. “As in the Harry Potter books, children make mistakes and join together with a common cause, accompanied here by adults, some malicious, some trying yet failing,” wrote its reviewer. “Minus the magic, though, good and evil are depressingly human, and while the characters are all well drawn and believable, they aren’t much fun.”
The New York Times agreed with PW, in much harsher terms. “Unfortunately, the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that ‘The Casual Vacancy’ is not only disappointing—it’s dull,” wrote Michiko Kakutani.
David Sexton of the London Evening Standard wrote, “The problem for Rowling's legions of fans will be that she has forgotten to include any basic likeability in her characters here or any real suspense as to what will happen—or deliberately chosen not to supply it, now she no longer needs to do anything other than what she wants. The book is quite punishing to read and the view of human nature it takes is more fundamentally lowering than that of the most cynical French aphorist.”
In the New Yorker, Ian Parker noted that, “Whereas Rowling’s shepherding of readers was, in the Harry Potter series, an essential asset, in The Casual Vacancy her firm hand can feel constraining. She leaves little space for the peripheral or the ambiguous; hidden secrets are labeled as hidden secrets, and events are easy to predict.”
Finally, proclaimed the New York Daily News proclaimed that, while the book “isn’t dreadful,” it’s “just dull.”
Could it be that expectations for Rowling were higher because of her past successes, while fictional "first-time" author Galbraith had the advantage of being 'discovered'? Maybe. There's also the very real possibility that “The Cuckoo’s Calling” was simply a better book.
But there might be another explanation for Rowling's positive reception under Galbraith's name. The disparity of reviews could be, in part, due to a depressing reality: Female authors are still not taken as seriously as men. And in the tradition of the Brontë sisters (who published as brothers Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell), plenty of women, including P.D. James, E.L. James and the team of Christina Lynch and Meg Howrey (who published “City of Dark Magic” as “Magnus Flyte”) have used male or gender-vague names to counteract it, particularly in the mystery genre.
“It sometimes makes sense for a female author to use a pseudonym, particularly when the main characters are male, or when it's a genre with a strong appeal to men, like military science fiction, certain types of fantasy or gritty thrillers," Penguin editor Anne Sowards told the Wall Street Journal last year.
“For a new author, we want to avoid anything that might cause a reader to put a book down and decide, 'not for me,’” she added. “When we think a book will appeal to male readers, we want everything about the book to say that—the cover, the copy and, yes, the author's name."
The hopeful irony in the case of “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” of course, is this: Though the book was well received when it was published, it only started flying off the shelves after Rowling’s revelation. Since then, it went from being ranked No. 4,079 to No. 3 on Amazon’s bestselling list, and sales increased a wild 156,866 percent overnight, proving Rowling, as a woman, is at least a commercial force to be reckoned with.
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