Rowling by another name

Restive star writers seek freedom from the grind in pseudonymity

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published: July 17, 2013 4:12 am

Restive star writers seek freedom from the grind in pseudonymity

Public access seems to have become the default privacy setting of human communications,but among writers,the foremost communicators,privacy is still valued. So it is a pity that J.K. Rowling has been outed as the person behind the persona of new crime writer Robert Galbraith so soon,when he is only one book old and had just begun to be noticed. It would have been interesting to see him develop a unique voice,which could have spoken about a whole new world.

Could John Creasey have created George Gideon,the classic Scotland Yard cop of the 1960s and ’70s? Not right away. He had to create the pseudonymous author J.J. Marric first. And Marric created Gideon,who became Creasey’s best-known character,thanks to TV dramatisations and a John Ford movie,Gideon’s Day.

Writing bestsellers can be a grind. Commercial publishers are risk averse and believe that there is safety in giving readers more of the same. It’s a bit like the caste system. A writer who has tasted success in psychological thrillers is discouraged from trying her hand at humour. And a humourist writing a thriller would be too hilarious to contemplate. In reaction to this pigeonholing,restive star writers seek freedom from the grind in pseudonymity,which allows them to start over again,to experiment and develop other voices. Voices that may become compelling at some time,though initially,they give their publishers’ accountants the willies.

In India,the land of “pet” names,it’s good form for writers,particularly poets,to start their careers with a pseudonym in hand. Maybe it’s because our literary culture loves cults,which need resonant,evocative names to keep the flame lit. Or maybe it’s because such names travel better and wider. Consider these names: Raghupati Sahay,Balai Chand Mukhopadhyay and Sampooran Singh Kalra. Depressingly ordinary,aren’t they? With no disrespect intended to anyone who may be known primarily (and coincidentally) by these names,they sound like a retired schoolmaster,a snuff-taking homoeopath and a struggling notary public. And while intending no disrespect to teachers,doctors and lawyers,one immediately understands why the three cultural figures who were born bearing these names preferred to be known by their pen names: Firaq Gorakhpuri,Banaphool and Gulzar.

Elsewhere,a pseudonym is not assumed to start off a literary career but to branch out. Lewis Carroll was created to stand apart from the mathematician and logician Charles Lutwidge Dodson. Charles Dickens did feature journalism as Boz. Stanley Martin Lieber wanted to save up his real name for serious literature while he made a living in comics. As Stan Lee,he redefined the American superhero and co-created some of the most valuable properties ever,like Spider-Man and the X-Men.

Modern,commercial,promo-driven publishing is not structured to favour pseudonymity. It depends on book launches,talks,conversations and appearances in the media and at literary festivals,all designed to elevate the author to the status of personality. If the personality has no visible face,this ceases to be a credible project.

But sometimes,pseudonyms are fleshed out quite vividly. Robert Galbraith,J.K. Rowling’s alter ego,is described as a former officer in the military police. Sometimes,pseudonyms even have portraits. Back in the ’70s,when publishers believed that putting out more than one title a year would devalue an author’s brand,the prolific Stephen King created the persona of Richard Bachman to run the embargo. The man even had a jacket photo,though it was actually a picture of King’s literary agent’s insurance agent. But that would have been inadequate in today’s publishing culture,where public appearances are essential.

Bachman was created partly to reassure King that his success owed to talent rather than brand power,so the Bachman books were released rather quietly and,naturally,in absentia. Even so,they sold in the tens of thousands and one novel,The Running Man,was made into a movie and a

video game starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Today,as pseudonyms become rarer in mainstream publishing,such happy accidents will be harder to find. There will be less variety and fewer surprises as the freedom to experiment in private is reduced. The space opened up by pseudonyms is migrating to the internet,which has its own tradition of obfuscation. Trawling blogs and bulletin boards for fresh talent is already part of the day’s work for some literary agents. But as Rowling’s all too brief foray into a parallel life suggests,privacy is a permanent creative need. A certain kind of writer will always try to conceal some part of their identity to avoid being taken hostage by library classifications and reader expectations. Robert Galbraith isn’t J.K. Rowling’s first pseudonym. J.K. Rowling is itself a borderline pseudonym,the initials concealing the gender of the author. Her first name,Joanne,under which she had written her first book,had revealed too much. Writers who want to be free of the straitjacket of the market will always have something to hide.

pratik.kanjilal@expressindia.com

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