Why Robert Galbraith has to be JK Rowling – and vice versa

Who’s the pseudo-icon? Little, Brown

As her second Galbraith novel is published, JK Rowling once again finds herself in the public eye for something other than the book just out. Her enormous donation to the Better Together campaign attracted a lot of attention, much of it unsavoury. Which has again raised the debate as to how far an author is allowed to be a private person.

Writers now are expected to be readily available to their public in many ways: literary festivals, appearances on chat or review shows, book launches, signings in bookshops. To which must now be added an online presence and an almost constant supply of bon mots.

How far this makes the person who churns out the signatures and opinions into public property is a topic that has certainly been well aired. But it’s worth considering in terms of what it says about how much the readers of these books need to know who wrote the book in their hand. And this in turn leads to the matter of pseudonyms.

Strikingly, the reviewer of The Silkworm for The Times wrote an appraisal of The Silkworm that refers in the main to Robert Galbraith as the author, honouring the conceit that the series is written by the man whose name appears on cover and allowing Rowling to remain in the background. The same cannot be said for the picture editor, who decided to set a large photograph of a rather long-suffering looking Rowling at the top of the review.

The picture editor seems to concur with The Telegraph, who scarcely bothered with the novel, being more eager to remind the reader of the furore surrounding the leak of Galbraith’s identity as Rowling last year. It seems rather a shame that readers of these reviews are not allowed to collude with the fiction of Robert Galbraith’s existence. There is a long and respectable tradition of authors, readers and critics persisting with literary pseudonyms even when the true identity of the author is common knowledge – Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, Lemony Snickett – so the persistent desire to unmask Galbraith certainly isn’t normal.

That Galbraith is Rowling is no secret. It is openly admitted on Rowling’s website. But Galbraith also has his own site where Rowling is not immediately in evidence and this offers something of a clue to the nature of writers and alter egos.

Galbraith is not simply another name for Rowling, but another personality, or at least could be. Certainly that is the tease offered by The Independent, whose review begins with speculation on whether Galbraith shares Rowling’s views on Scottish independence, before going on to collapse the two authors into the one creator of Harry Potter. For goodness’s sake reviewers, give the woman a break.

But there is more to this than simple journalistic opportunism. When Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, was published under her own name, the response was mixed, to say the least. Some of the adverse reaction was shock at finding that the creator of Harry Potter could also create sex scenes and was not shy of profanity.

Beyond the mask. Little Brown

But when the same freedom of expression is revealed in a novel by Robert Galbraith it attracts less opprobrium and then, when Galbraith is revealed to be Rowling, more buyers. The pseudonym mask clearly offers Rowling some protection against accusations of betraying her Potter fans. And so the revelation of the real author behind it suggests that this process is not one of lifting the mask.

Instead, this revelation renders that mask utterly transparent, but very much leaves it in place. So Potter fans are able to buy Galbraith – only because he is “really” Rowling – without feeling they have lost “their” author.

The genre helps us to understand this paradox. The Galbraith books are securely placed within the “hard-boiled” category of detective fiction, where gritty settings, sanguine plots and grittier language are de rigueur. But this cannot be the whole answer. Rather it seems that readers like to have an identifiable personality on whom to pin the fiction they read. Know the personality, know the type of book.

And so the fact that the name on the cover is not the name of the actual writer is less important than knowing what that purported author’s name signifies. We may not judge a book by its cover, but apparently we judge an author by his or her name. Hence the value of all those book signings. And hence the famous joke of Charles Dodgson dedicating his book on mathematical theory to Queen Victoria. It wasn’t the next book by Dodgson she wished to patronise, but the next by Lewis Carroll – and he knew it.

So, things look good for Galbraith. This second novel has gained ground over the slightly patchy first one and Galbraith is being hailed for knowing his craft. Five more books have been announced, giving a (familiar) total of seven in the series.

We’re at the point now where in-jokes are being established: this latest sees a novelist killed off. Already one hears the essays being written explaining how Rowling killed off her identity as Harry Potter creator in her second Stick novel. Galbraith groupies, and surely there are already many, may well find their predictions for the series false, or disappointed (remember, dear reader, Harry did not marry Hermione) but such disappointments will be defended as proving the writer is not as predictable as critics claim.

So the pseudonym is a way out of becoming trapped in one persona – and for the readers as well as the writers. It offers the possibility of a new voice, a new turn of phrase, a new genre and above all, new critical evaluation.

What the critical response to Galbraith seems to prove is that the desire to nail a personality to an author is so strong that even when the best effort is made to honour the creation of a pseudonym and the new authorial persona it offers, those efforts are doomed to be undermined by eager picture editors and reviewers.

It shouldn’t matter; the Author has been dead a long time now and the Reader supposedly reigns supreme – but not, it seems, where pseudonyms are concerned. As a pseudonymous writer, Robert Galbraith will never be free from reviews that include at least one sly compliment on his ability to plot. And this, surely, is no bad thing for Rowling.