In Pursuit of Pseudonymity

A lot has been written about J.K. Rowling’s unmasking as the writer behind The Cuckoo’s Calling. The novel was published back in April under the identity of Robert Galbraith — supposedly a former military police officer writing his debut book. Sales of the book were slow.

Until this week, that is.

On Sunday, the wizard was let out of the bag. Harry Potter junkies looking for their next fix pounced, quickly making Cuckoo one of the top selling titles on Amazon and prompted the printer to rush a second printing to meet demand. All of this sounds like good news for the British author, but I suspect she wasn’t planning to have the curtain pulled back on her charade.

J.K. Rowling suffers from what I like to call “Iconic Character Syndrome.” When a writer creates a character that comes to define an entire genre, they become trapped by their creation. Readers, hungry for more, will only accept more stories in the same universe. In J.K. Rowling’s case, the Boy Who Lived poisoned the well for all of her future work. Her first post-Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, was met with middling reviews and lackluster interest; not because she’s a poor writer, but because anything that isn’t Harry Potter can’t measure up.

Another famous author suffered from the same problem — a character that overshadowed his creator. In 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the world to consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. The character went on to be featured in three more novels and 56 short stories. The character was a critical and commercial success. For years, Doyle couldn’t write fast enough to meet the appetite of his readers. Growing weary with his literary masterpiece, Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes in 1893. But finding it difficult to sell anything else, was forced to resurrect the detective eight years later.

So, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Rowling had turned to a secret identity to continue publishing. Without the leak, she could’ve shrouded her work in the Galbraith invisibility cloak — an escape from her fantasy past. Of course, it’s also possible that she leaked her true identity herself in order to boost sales of the book. But as a fellow writer, I can understand the desire to create a pseudonym. I even have one — my real life initials as opposed to the name I use in every day life. Creating a new name can help you create a new persona and lets you experiment as a storyteller.

A pseudonym is freedom. For me, my “J.W. Eberle” pseudonym gives me the gravitas that “Jonny” lacks. For J.K. Rowling, her “Robert Galbraith” can turn a famous fantasy author into an unknown detective novelist. It’s too bad someone had to spoil the mystery.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Flagstaff, AZ. You can follow his musings on the art and craft of writing here and on his Twitter feed. Thanks for reading!

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