DO READERS NEED to be told what is good fiction and what is not? Consider a world where JK Rowling could call herself Joanne Rowling, author of Harry Potter, or her book The Casual Vacancy could have been critically analysed without referencing what she had written before? Did those who wrote harsh criticism of her adult novel get smug satisfaction for pulling the hugely successful author down?
Either way her book was always going to be a number one bestseller for curiosity value if nothing else. Last week, the UK’s Sunday Times revealed the infamous author had written a book under a different name, a man’s, no less. So, is it a master stroke and marketing dream writing a crime novel under the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, and what exactly has she highlighted?
What’s in a name?
Writing under a man’s name has liberated her. I wonder is it the fact that the book only sold 1,500 copies that pushed for the lid to be lifted.
Ms Rowling may feel a certain sense of approval that her work achieved merit under a different pen name but she has nothing to prove to herself or anyone. Despite the huge marketing machine that made her Harry Potter novels massive success, she gave hours of pleasure to millions of readers no matter what the critics thought. That is the true merit of being a good writer.
But I ask the reading public to consider the real Robert Galbraith, because he is out there and so is Joanne Rowling. Consider their plights for a moment before you decide to purchase your next read. JK is going to cash in hugely now as her coup has created enough excitement and nobody is going to criticise a work that has already been given the critics seal of approval because surely that would be admitting that the Emperor’s New Clothes were really his birthday suit.
Not a feminist issue
It is sad that she had to use a man’s name to achieve critical acclaim in this new genre but this is not a feminist issue as there are plenty of successful men writing women’s fiction under female pen names. What it does say is that readers and critics can pigeon-hole authors depending on their names and herein lies the problem.
Prejudice exists and petty snobbery and standards are rife in all forms of the arts – especially literature. For anyone who doubts this perhaps consider the experiment carried out by The Washington Post in 2007. One of the world’s most acclaimed violinists, Joshua Bell, played in a subway station at rush hour on his $3,500,000 violin.
The pieces he played were by Bach and he had played them two nights previously to a packed theatre where seats were $100 a piece. However taken out of context few noticed him play in the subway. Even fewer stopped to throw him a coin. In fact it was only the children who had no pre-conceived opinions on good or bad music that seemed to be interested in what he was performing. One little child who stopped was the most anxious to listen but was pulled along – no doubt he is of similar spirit to the little boy who laughed at the Emperor’s New Clothes.
The experiment carried out by JK begs two major questions. Do we need to be told what is quality art or literature as we get older? And how does the real Robert Galbraith feel? After spilling his heart into a novel, crafting it for hours, finally getting a publisher to take it and after getting that publisher to market it as hard as possible and putting it in the hands of top reviewers – is he meant to be delighted to sell 1,500 copies?
In this day and age he would not work back his advance which was probably somewhere between £5,000 and £10,000 – if he was lucky. Not exactly a fortune for a year or more work. So spare a thought for the real Robert Galbraiths out there that don’t have a trump card like JK and be true to your own taste – not what you are told is good art.
Michelle Jackson is the author of five bestselling novels and co-author of What Women Know – a book of wisdom for women. She is a teacher, travel-writer and panellist on TV3 Midday. For more information see www.michellejackson.ie . Her new novel is 5 Peppermint Grove and available in all good bookshops now published by Poolbeg press €9.99.