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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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