By Any Other Name…
The internet has been abuzz of late with the news of J.K. Rowling’s latest. For those who have missed it, she submitted and published a detective novel under a pseudonym: Robert Galbraith. In and of itself, this is no big deal. Lots of writers publish under pseudonyms. Some, for example, have one publishing name for each genre they write in. In theory this makes life easier for the readers, who might want Dirk Bennett’s latest detective novel, but not Gillian Charbonneau’s latest romance novel or D.C. Stalling’s latest fantasy novel – even if all of them were written by John Q. Writer.*
What Rowling did was kind of like that. After the mixed reception of The Casual Vacancy (haven’t read it), I’m not surprised. People expected so much from that novel, after the crushing success of Harry Potter, that it could never have lived up to their expectations.
So I can completely understand her desire to put a novel out there under a pseudonym and let it rise or fall on its own merits, see how it gets reviewed when it can be compared to nothing but itself. It’s like the old stories of the king going into town dressed as a peasant to find out how his subjects really feel about him.
However. None of that excuses her pseudonym’s bio:
Born in 1968, Robert Galbraith is married with two sons. After several years with the Royal Military Police, he was attached to the SIB (Special Investigation Branch), the plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. The idea for protagonist Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who have returned to the civilian world. ‘Robert Galbraith’ is a pseudonym.
Giving a fake name and gender is one thing. Lying about the author’s pertinent personal history and experience is another.
Say you’re browsing for books and you check out two detective novels by new authors. They look to be of about the same quality, but you notice the author bios. One book was written by someone with an extensive résumé of police work and investigation and claims to be writing from stories he lived through, and the other was written by someone with no applicable personal history, just a love of the genre and some writing experience.
Which would you buy? I may be going out on a limb here, but I’m going to guess the one written by the freaking expert, the one who claims outright that you’ll be reading fictionalizations of actual crimes and events that the author lived through. That sort of life experience is part of the draw for military thriller writers, for example, like Richard Marcinko (ex-SEAL) and Bob Mayer (ex-Green Beret). Hollywood capitalizes on this idea all the time by tying movies to true events through whatever tenuous links they can.
Some readers – and some reviewers – took “Galbraith’s” bio into consideration (consciously or unconsciously) when they formed their opinions of Rowling’s book. Hell, Rowling might not have been able to get it published by a traditional publisher without that falsified bio, because one question every writer has to answer for publishers is “why am I the one to write this book?” The bio is part of that answer.
I don’t know whether Rowling or her publisher provided that bio, but whoever did it was wrong. They lied to readers, and some of those readers will never trust another author bio. That sucks, because every human walking the planet has lived an interesting life, and every author can put intriguing, relevant, true details into an author bio.
This is probably not the first time something like this has happened. But that doesn’t excuse it.
That’s what I think, anyway. What do you think?
*Personally I believe in letting readers decide for themselves whether the writer or the genre is more important. I might never have discovered Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera if his name weren’t on it.