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52 Books in 52 Weeks, Week 31: In Defense of Pseudonyms

08/05/2013 10:34 am ET | Updated Oct 05, 2013
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So this week's read for 52 books in 52 weeks was Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling's The Cuckoo's Calling.

Up front disclosures: I am an avid Harry Potter fan and I could not finish Rowling's first "adult" novel, The Casual Vacancy.

So it was with a bit of curiosity (and trepidation) that I approached this novel, but having seen that it had received many glowing reviews before the author's identity became known, I was game to try it. I'm glad I did.

The Cuckoo's Calling, a private detective novel about a down-on-his-luck P.I. investigating the (perhaps) suspicious death of a celebrity (whose nickname was Cuckoo), is a very good piece of detective fiction. Having cut my reading teeth on P.D. James, Rex Stout and Dick Francis, among others, I felt that she stuck well to the conventions of the genre, that the book had interesting characters and that she kept me guessing till the end who the murderer would be (or if there even was a murder).

Did I get sucked into the world with the same wonder and excitement as Harry Potter? No. But did I stay up late reading the last 200 pages? Yes. So, end result: I'm recommending this book and I'm looking forward to the next in the series.

But also: I'd like to defend Rowling's choice of a pseudonym. There was much ink spilt when it was revealed that she was the author of this well-praised yet little selling novel. Was it all some grand publicity stunt? Had she written a bad book (The Casual Vacancy) on purpose so she could release this? Had she somehow done something wrong?

To answer the last point: no. As many others have pointed out, there is a long tradition of writers adopting pseudonyms when they are writing in a different genre (or even the same genre in the case of Stephen King/Richard Bachmann). Pseudonyms are adopted by authors for all kinds of reasons, a recent one being: in order to have a second chance at a career. I know many authors who are currently writing under a second author name because they needed to do that to get further books published.

That was not J.K. Rowling's issue, of course, but at the same time it kind of was: how was she ever to know whether she would get treated fairly by reviewers (and even readers to some respect) if she kept publishing non-Harry-Potter books under that name? Did I not finish The Casual Vacancy because I expected something more, something different, from Rowling or was it the book? I'll never know the answer to that question. Conversely, I'll never really know if I gave The Cuckoo's Calling a chance simply because of who wrote it. But it wasn't her name that was propelling me along through the story: it was the quality of the writing.

Writer confession: I suspect another reason Rowling pseudonymed-it was because she had a case of the "lucky's". All writers, okay, at least this one and many others I know, associate whatever level of success they have (getting published in the first place, selling well, getting a good review etc.) to an element of luck. Why has my book succeeded when my friend, writer A, who I think is a much better writer than me, hasn't? It's a way of discounting success, hard work, and, yes, talent, but there's truth to it to, too. I have been very lucky (and unlucky) in my publishing career. J.K. Rowling's unlucky-ness (long road to publication) has been well documented, as has the immenseness of her success. Writing under a pseudonym gave her the opportunity to see if it all really was just a lighting strike, or whether it was all about the writing. She's got a mixed answer: great reviews, small sales. The story of so many of us. So, in fact, ironically, Rowling achieved an ordinary publishing career by using a pseudonym. And the sad fact is that, had Galbraith not been Rowling, there would likely (based on sales) be no book two in the Cormorant Strike series.

Lucky for us he was.

Week 32's read is The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison. It's being compared to Gone Girl. Here's hoping it's at least half as good.

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