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.

Show Hide image

Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide