Feminist Fridays: JK Rowling, Pen Names, Feminism, and Publishing

I have a rather feminine name, and I’ve contemplated what it would be like to have a more gender neutral or masculine name many times, even from a very young age. Certain times I’ve  been called Mo. It was a nicknamed of my dad’s, whose name was Maurice, and my own middle name is Maureen. Though some people call me Molly Mo, it is only in certain circles Mo stuck as a nickname, no matter my preference.

We read a lot into names. At least I know I do, and I get the feeling everyone does too. We make lots of assumptions about not just the gender of a person, but their background and social status and personality and race and religion and sexuality and all other sorts of things about them. I like these sorts of labels best when they turn stereotypes on their heads, but I also love bold, iconic, traditional names for what they can convey. It’s something I think about in regards to my own name, the way I judge new people I meet, the names I’d give children I don’t want to have, the names I give characters I invent. And a name I’d theoretically attached to published writing if I were not to choose my own.

For lots of reasons, when people publish their writing, they often choose to pick a nom de plume.

The case of JK Rowling’s choice of the pen name Robert Galbraith for her quietly published crime novel Cuckoo’s Calling is interesting for lots of reasons. She’s already masculinized her name when publishing the Harry Potter series by using initials. But everyone knew her as a woman (and an author of children’s fantasy) when she published A Casual Vacancy. It’s completely understandable she’d want to not have the pressure of publishing a book in a new genre under her well-known name. Given this novel is crime fiction, which is dominated by male writers, it’s not surprising she’d write a under a masculine pseudonym. Lots of otherwise successful women writers have done this.

Understandably, considering how many women admire JK Rowling’s talent and success, this is disappointing to some.

Abbey Stone at Hollywood.com talked about “the problem with JK Rowling’s male pseudonym.” Rhiannon at Feminist Fiction is saddened by her adoption of a masculine name, and calls for traditional media to ask JK Rowling about her choice. The Straw Feminist thinks it perpetuates sexism. I understand and sympathize with these perspectives, but I also recognize a lot of the realities that S.E. Sinkhorn points out: Cuckoo’s Calling might not have even been published if Rowling hadn’t chosen a pen name that reads male.

I don’t think JK Rowling is under any obligation to investigate these matters by choosing a feminine name and trying to get a crime novel published as an unknown woman writer just to see what happens. I think she’s in an interesting place to do so,  but it’s not her responsibility.

Of course, it is interesting to compare the critical reception and sales numbers of A Casual Vacancy and Cuckoo’s Calling. It’s a study in the way we choose what books to read. I loved Harry Potter, but neither A Casual Vacancy nor Cuckoo’s Calling are books I would typically read and knowing the author also wrote a beloved children’s series doesn’t make it more likely I’ll read them. But for a lot of people, it does make a difference. I’m equally likely to buy a book written by Junot Diaz as I am Zadie Smith. But this isn’t the case for all people.

It’s also interesting to note that a crime novel by an unknown author is more likely to get published and read if it is written by a man, and also to be judged more favorable from a critical standpoint, than if it is written by a woman. Or at least we perceive it will be. It’s difficult to determine causality, and I certainly don’t have the numbers to prove this, but just looking at the critical reviews in literary journals, it’s obvious that men’s writing is taken much more seriously than women’s.

It’s important to have conversations about these issues and examine our own biases. But I don’t think it’s fair to judge JK Rowling’s decision as anti-feminist because we’ll never know the real reason she chose a male pen name and the issue is far more complicated than any one example. There’s no easy litmus test to gauge whether a person or action is feminist. These decisions aren’t made in a vacuum.

I wished we lived in a world where the stereotype and preconceptions attached to a name and its gender didn’t  influence the perceived quality or worthiness of a book (or a person!) but there’s no one person who can challenge that reality. It’s something we all have to do together.

My thoughts are very convoluted and my feelings ambivalent with regards to JK Rowling’s pen name. What do you think? 

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7 thoughts on “Feminist Fridays: JK Rowling, Pen Names, Feminism, and Publishing

  1. I can understand why Rowling would want to use a male name. It’s a sad fact about our society that we prize perceived male writing over female writing, but I don’t blame Rowling for it. What I do criticize her for is her use of a fake identity–not just a pseudonym–which I believe is consumer fraud (as I discussed on my blog a few weeks ago). People don’t care because it turned out that the person masquerading as an ex-military officer was JK Rowling, but they might have felt differently had it been me or someone like James Frey.

  2. I don’t think feminism was on J.K. Rowling’s mind when she picked this pseudonym. It never crossed my mind to label it “anti-feminist.” This book is for a very niche audience. It was only published in the UK. It’s a debut crime novel where the leading character has a military background. It’s sad that such things matter, but if it had a female debut name on it, those who read that type of book probably would be less likely to pick it up.

    J.K. Rowling even went on submission under this pseudonym, so it wasn’t like she pitched it to a publisher with her name and then decided to use Robert Galbraith for the audience’s sake. If I had to guess, I’d say Rowling decided to do this because of all the heat she got from A Casual Vacancy and how that was compared to Harry Potter and how people were saying it was inappropriate for her to use J.K. Rowling for an adult book. From what little she’s said on the subject, it sounds like she just wanted to publish a book without the pressure of being J.K. Rowling. I hope, if it ever comes to light who sent that tweet, it wasn’t someone at Rowling’s publisher or something that exposed the fact Robert Galbraith and J.K. Rowling are one and the same.

  3. I think the reason for taking a male pseudonym was probably so that Galbraith’s “biography” alongside the subject of the book would look more plausible. I think it is interesting how one of the ways she was discovered was because of the detailed descriptions of women’s clothes!

  4. I find this topic fascinating as well, Molly. I am someone who has three ambiguous names and on countless occasions, I have turned up somewhere where people were expecting me to be a man and/or Hispanic. I rather like when this happens because it manifests the prevalence of stereotyping people because if their names. (And I love the bonus of seeing people try to adjust to something they aren’t expecting:)) Even in college, I ended up with two other girls as roommates because whoever the idiot was who did room assignments assumed all three of us were Mexican because of our last names. Turns out we were Portuguese, Puerto Rican, and Irish/Swedish.

    I agree with you that JK Rowling had no obligation to use a more female sounding pen name, but also that it is a bit disappointing she didn’t. I am surprised that that particular genre is considered a male-dominated arena. Most of my favorite authors in that area are female–Tana French, Karin Slaughter, Laurie King, Chelsea Cain, etc.

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