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?