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J.K. Rowling and the Case of the Sexist Nom de Plume

J.K. Rowling and the Case of the Sexist Nom de Plume

Author: Victoria Brownworth

July 22, 2013

When J.K.Rowling was revealed as the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, published under the pen name Robert Galbriath, my initial response was simply, Wow. But two seconds later (literally, because I was reading my morning news via Twitter), I saw a tweet from Guardian Books (one of the best literary review sites around, do read it) where they referred to Rowling writing under a “false name.”

That got me angry. Noms de plume, as the French say with such élan, are de rigeur in publishing and have been for a few centuries now. The term “false name” irked me–the implication of dishonesty being clear. Why was Rowling–following in a long literary tradition–dishonest when male writers doing the same thing were not? That set me on a rant at Guardian Books for what I called blatant sexism.

A few hours after the big Rowling reveal, @WomenWriters ( sent out a query asking how angry should we be about Rowling. Angry about the Guardian? I asked.

No. That Rowling used a pseudonym. A male pseudonym.

Oh. That.

I seem to be one of the only female writers in the world who isn’t angry with Rowling for pretending to be Galbraith. (In fact, I’m annoyed on her behalf with the people at her solicitors who leaked the information she’d struggled so hard to keep hidden–it wasn’t their secret to reveal.) Of course her sales at Amazon for The Cuckoo’s Calling have shot up a literal 500,000% as of July 19, if you can get your head around that number. Rowling/Galbraith’s publisher has issued a new print run of 300,000. But it seems as if–given she has more money than God as it is–Rowling was far more interested in the critical response to her crime novel and in writing, as she said, “without expectation,” than in the actual sales. Now she has both: great reviews and another boatload of money.

Yet Rowling was explicative: she wanted to be reviewed for herself. Even if that self was an invented one.

In an interview with USA Today on July 16, Stephen King, who authored books under the name Richard Bachman, said it’s an impossible secret to keep for long, but added, “Jo is right about one big thing–what a pleasure, what a blessed relief, to write in anonymity, just for the joy of it. Now that I know, I can’t wait to read the book.”

King and many others–no doubt some just to complain more about the book and about Rowling.

What Rowling did was not new, of course. It’s just that she happens to be the best-read writer in the world at present. Pen names are a literary tradition–not just for the currently famous like Rowling and King. Pen names have been around as long as publishing. (America’s most famous pseudonymous work was a little treatise called The Federalist Papers, actually written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay.) And for just as long, women, including lesbians, have been using men’s names to publish their work pseudonymously.

The reasons have been manifold–from wanting to be assured of being published to be wanting to be “taken seriously,” as many women writers asserted. There was also the need to maintain one’s reputation, as writing was considered unseemly for a woman.

For lesbians, writing under a pseudonym was protection: a man’s name on the cover meant the author couldn’t possibly be a lesbian and therefore would not face the opprobrium of writing a lesbian novel in the pre-Stonewall era and the problems that might ensue. Obscenity trials were still happening, after all.

Sappho herself was pseudonymous–her actual name lost to history. Louisa May Alcott published under the name A.M. Barnard. Colette has become a popular name for girls in the present, but at the time she adopted it, it was actually the surname of the bisexual author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall, author of the best-known lesbian novel of the 20th century, The Well of Loneliness, also used her surname as her nom de plume. (Although when she was brought up on obscenity charges in 1928 for the book, it was under her full name.)

Barbara Grier, Naiad Press co-founder and editor of The Ladder, published under the name Gene Damon. Marijane Meeker published her lesbian pulp fiction under the name Vin Packer. Meeker’s famous young adult novels have been published under the androgynously initialed M.E. Kerr. Alice Bradley Sheldon published her science-fiction under a name well-known to anyone who reads in the genre: James Tiptree, Jr.

One of my favorite lesbian novels of all time is The Price of Salt by Claire Morgan. I recall how stunned I was to discover that Claire Morgan was actually Patricia Highsmith, author of Strangers on a Train and the Ripley novels. Highsmith only revealed herself as Morgan a few years before her death in 1995. At the time she wrote The Price of Salt–which sold over a million copies when it was published in 1952–she did not want to be known as a lesbian writer.

The Price of Salt was one of my early discoveries of lesbian fiction, purloined along with a handful of other lesbian pulp novels from a hidden bookshelf at a house where I babysat as a teenager. Among those other books were novels by Ann Bannon whose real name was Ann Weldy and Marijane Meeker’s Vin Packer books–all women for whom writing under their own names might have been calamitous in the 1940 and 50s.

Most often in publishing history pseudonyms have been chosen to protect or advance an author or the work itself.

As a child I had read the Nancy Drew series voraciously. But Carolyn Keene never existed: She was actually an amalgam: a series of ghostwriters, male and female. The Hardy Boys series, attributed to Franklin Dixon, was also penned by a series of ghostwriters. And Laura Lee Hope, author of the Bobbsey Twins series? The same. Nor was I the only child mesmerized by the work of Lewis Carroll. Or rather, Charles Dodgson.

I also loved the stories of Saki, but he was really gay writer Hector Hugh Munro. Then there were my two of my favorite essayists: Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) and George Orwell (Eric Blair).

The Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, their novels now classics, staples of English literature, would never have been published were it not for their pseudonyms as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. And what of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), whose classic novel Middlemarch I have told my students can stand in for all of English novels of the 19th century, it is so perfectly wrought? Evans wrote as a man to “be taken seriously” as did her French counterpart, George Sand (Amandine Aurore Lucie Dupin). Jane Austen published under a pseudonym to protect her reputation, because a woman writer was somehow slutty in that period. I’m not sure why everyone seems to have forgotten that there are so many famous female writers who have written pseudonymously. It actually seems sexist to ask the question of why Rowling chose to do so. The question rather should be, Why do women feel they have to use pseudonyms? Or: Why are women treated so unequally in publishing that so many feel the only answer is to have a separate “male” writer’s identity?

Perhaps the women using pseudonyms are simply aware of the facts: Rowling’s fame and fortune notwithstanding, women make far less money than men for their books, have smaller print runs (it’s instructive to remember that the first Harry Potter book was published by Bloomsbury in a print run of 500 and the publisher suggested Rowling use initials rather than her given name, Joanne) and as VIDA has explicated in disturbing detail, get little attention for those books from reviewers.

The J.K. Rowling would of course have gotten a review for The Cuckoo’s Calling. But would a first-time debut author who was female–a Roberta Galbraith? Statistics stipulate the chances would be slim.

The current outrage seems Rowling-specific. Where were all these complainants over the decades of Ellis Peters’ career as a mystery and crime novelist? Because “he”–winner of the Edgar Award and also recipient of the coveted Cartier Diamond Dagger Award from the Crime Writer’s Association, was actually Edith Pargeter. A Czech translator as well as an author of non-fiction, Dame Pargeter also wrote under the names John Redfern and Peter Benedict.

And what of P.D. James, one of the greatest British mystery novelists of all time? Was her choice to use those androgynous initials not purposeful? Why no wrist-slap for Baroness James?

Rowling’s fame seems to be the pivot for the outrage over her choice: She’s so famous–literally one of the best-selling writers of all time (with 450 million books in print she’s in the top ten)–is the presumption that she should somehow have risen above what all women know about publishing to choose a female pseudonym, if she were going to choose one at all?

But let’s look at those VIDA numbers again: Those would have given Rowling/Galbraith a whisper of a chance at any reviews, let alone many reviews. And what she wanted was recognition of her work outside the skew of her fame. There’s a reason why there has to be a Women’s Prize for Fiction, after all. And no woman has ever been deemed author of “The Great American Novel”–not even Joyce Carol Oates, our most prolific woman of letters or Toni Morrison, our Nobel Prize laureate. That mantle is always bestowed on men. (And has Jonathan Franzen really written anything equivalent to Oates or Morrison? No, he has not.)

The Rowling “scandal” is instructive for what it tells us about women and writing. It was 1872 when Mary Anne Evans published Middlemarch, which has been called the greatest novel of the English language by critics other than me. Yet even today the book continues to be published under Evans’ nom de plume,her female visibility obscured for the ages.

I could be enraged with Rowling for choosing Robert, not Roberta. Or I could wonder why women are still fighting this same fight nearly 200 years after Jane Austen published some of the best-known novels of the English language, never once putting her own name to them, her identity only revealed after her death July 18, 1817.

The nom de plume may be a literary contrivance or even a commonplace occurrence. But the Rowling affair has raised the specter of women’s literary past in which the pseudonym was no mere whimsy, but essential to being taken seriously as a writer or even being published at all. And it has reminded lesbian writers that it was not so long ago that the love that dare not speak its name could not be written about with one’s own name.

Rowling doesn’t feel like the offender in this tale of the “false” name. The shabby treatment of women writers throughout history seems the real villain here.


(Photo: J.K. Rowling via J.K.

Victoria Brownworth photo

About: Victoria Brownworth

Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and A Room of Her Own, a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review and a columnist for San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. Her reporting and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, Ms Magazine and Slate. Her book, 'From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth' won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her new novel, 'Ordinary Mayhem,' won the IPPY Award for fiction on May 1, 2015. Her book 'Erasure: Silencing Lesbians' and her next novel, 'Sleep So Deep,' will both be published in 2016. @VABVOX

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