Has J K Rowling betrayed women writers in her decision to publish as Robert Galbraith?

The unmasking of Rowling as the author of The Cuckoo's Calling and its subsequent meteoric success has demonstrated that celebrity trumps gender when it comes to book sales. But what about all the writers who will never achieve a fraction of Rowling's fam

So J K Rowling has used a male pseudonym for her crime debut, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and the nation is bemused. “How novel!” exclaims the initial wave of media commentary. “A celebrated, multi-millionairess author uses an unknown male writer’s pseudonym to relieve the pressure of literary expectation.” Meanwhile, the marketeers and publishing execs are praising the pragmatism of Rowling – and her agent – for invoking the steadfast, security man persona of Robert Galbraith because it is male, or androgynously-named authors, that sell big in the crime genre. Playing Man, from their perspective, is merely a matter of manipulating publishing demographics. Oh, and on a side-note, if you’re trying to pretend to be someone else, surely gender-bending is one of the easiest foils.

But just how helpful – or harmful – is Rowling’s seemingly impish act of literary transvestism?

Given that the best-selling crime author of all time is a woman - Agatha Christie – it seems odd that a male pseudonym would provide any advantage at all. And yet men have continued to dominate the genre ever since Christie’s success. In the past few years, women, writing under female names, such as Sophie Hannah, Karin Slaughter, and Rosamund Lupton have made a defiant entry into the crime fiction charts with Denise Mina winning the UK’s biggest crime fiction prize, Theakston’s Old Peculier award, in 2012. Yet on the 2013 longlist, two of the five female authors in the running use the classic androgynous initials trick. They are also up against 13 male-named authors.

Last summer, Mslexia editor Danuta Keen reported in the Daily Mail that women buy around 80 per cent of crime fiction and so it would appear that both men and women prefer to buy and read crime fiction penned by those presenting as men. The gender divide, then, is propagated by the book-buying public’s consumer choices linked presumably to entrenched gender norms, as much as any patriarchal machinations within the publishing industry itself. So should we accuse Rowling of betraying women writers for her decision to pose as Robert? 

It’s worth noting that Rowling’s success as a female author in the first place was in part dependent on her concealing her gender. At the behest of her Harry Potter publisher, she diminished Joanna to J so as to not put off young male readers.

Indeed, in the romance and erotica genres, there are examples of male authors using female pseudonyms – war writer Chris Ryan, for example, who used a female pen name for his debut romantic novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter, and American erotica writers using androgynous initals to disguise their maleness – M L Buchman and Brindle Chase, for example. But they are few and far in between. Even if it is happening more regularly than is reported, the absence of the reporting is telling in itself. Would a male author of Rowling’s celebrity have used a female pseudonym, one wonders, if he were trying to make a name for himself in erotica. Sales of erotica might have outstripped those of crime in 2012, but crime fiction takes a larger share of the UK book market - £200m out of £1.8bn total revenue. What’s more, even within female-dominated genres, women still use androgynous pseudonyms to afford them mystery, and authority - case in point being the grande dame of erotica, E L James herself.

A recent study of national book pages conducted in the Guardian during March 2013 found that male authors of fiction were disproportionately reviewed by 54 per cent (the New Statesman came in higher at 75 per cent, while the London Review of Books didn’t review a single female fiction author in the period surveyed). Given the difficulty faced by first-time authors in making sales (even critically acclaimed - The Cuckoo’s Calling as written by Robert Galbraith had only sold around 500 copies since April) perhaps it’s a wonder more ambitious women aren’t playing the "male for sales" game.  And yet, it’s also telling that they aren’t. Being allowed to admit to being female clearly matters to a great number of women writers. 

Of course, what the affair of The Cuckoo’s Calling really reveals is that, ultimately, celebrity trumps gender when it comes to literary success. Since Rowling was revealed as the actual author, the book has soared to the top of the Amazon bestseller list.

But few successful, talented, published authors, of whom there are so many, ever achieve Rowling’s level of fame. So the message seems to be: if you want to get published, and sell well, be a man about it.

Find out what the critics thought of The Cuckoo's Nest (before they knew it was by J K Rowling).

J K Rowling, incognito, at Wimbledon in June 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times