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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

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

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).