"When is a famous author not a famous author? When he or she chooses to write under a pseudonym, of course.
This issue arose in an interesting context over the past week. A few months earlier, a mystery novel by a new writer had been published. The author’s name was Robert Galbraith, and the book, entitled The Cuckoo’s Calling, was shaping up to be a decent commercial success. But, perhaps more importantly, the critics said that the book was good – perhaps even too good to be true. As Sarah Lyall of the New York Times noted in her coverage of the story, some readers felt that the book “seemed almost too assured and sophisticated to be a first novel.” In a journalistic coup by the Sunday Times of London, the true author of the book was revealed to be, not Robert Galbraith after all, but a well-known writer – none other than J.K. Rowling, herself, the famed author of the “Harry Potter” series of books.
Why would the woman who could lay claim to being one of the most famous writers of our time want to write under a pseudonym? Apparently, to act out a sort of literary fantasy. Writing under a pseudonym would allow Rowling to write in a new genre, free of public expectations – an experience that the writer called “liberating” (quoted by Sarah Lyall, “This Detective Novel’s Story Doesn’t Add Up,” 14 Jul 2013, New York Times online, available here).
It is interesting to note that most copyright laws actually recognize this urge towards creative privacy, and some even offer it protection under the rubric of authors’ moral rights. The moral right of attribution, the most widely recognized of all moral rights in the world, allows authors to claim authorship of their works, and to be associated with their works by name. The right to write under a pseudonym, or anonymously, may be explicitly protected (as in Canada, for example: see the Canadian Copyright Act, S. 14.1(1), available here), or implicitly inferred into copyright statutes, including the Berne Convention (see “The ABC of Copyright”, a Handbook of the UNESCO Culture Sector (2010), 32-33. The authors then controversially suggest that forgery, “the right to object to any wrongful attribution” is not covered by the attribution right: “The possibility to defend one’s name against usurpation by third parties, does not, strictly speaking, falls (sic) within the category of authors’ moral rights but rather forms a part of the general category of personality rights to which all individuals are entitled, regardless of whether they are authors or not”: see “JK Rowling ‘anger’ at legal firm over pseudonym leak,” BBC online, 15 July 2013). It is a slightly subversive right, not only allowing authors the possibility of diverting public interest away from their works (the practice of ghostwriting could be seen as a way of asserting the right to pseudonymous or anonymous authorship, while the right to write under one’s own name becomes legally “suspended”), but also, providing a shield to protect authors from retribution, whether by individuals or, potentially, the state. As such, it could be seen as an aspect of free speech, or, indeed – as in Rowling’s relatively mundane case – freedom of creativity.
At first glance, it seems curious that the publisher of “Galbraith”’s novel was willing to play this game. Notwithstanding the positive reviews, sales of the new book were modest – a mere 1,500 copies. Why would the publisher be willing to forego the potentially significant earnings from sales of a Rowlings title? Was it an experiment in relationship-building, where the publisher valued its relationship with Rowling enough to indulge this fancy, while anticipating future projects that would be commercially viable? Was it an elegant form of forgery that tempted the publisher, in the assurance that revelation would ultimately follow, and create a public sensation? Was it a clever marketing ploy, designed to play with public expectations of the publishing business? Some speculation that the leak may have been engineered by the publishing company, itself, has now been put to rest – rather, Russells Solicitors has taken responsibility for the leak, which was said to have originated in private communications involving a partner at the firm (“In a statement, it said the wife of one of its partners, Chris Gossage, had told her best friend, Judith Callegari, that Robert Galbraith was really Rowling”: see “JK Rowling ‘anger’ at legal firm over pseudonym leak,” BBC online, 15 July 2013).
Regardless, one thing is certain: in the internet age, there are no secrets. Rather like Audrey Hepburn’s princess in the classic film “Roman Holiday,” Rowling may have enjoyed her holiday from fame, but the return to reality should be sweetened by the capital that she and and her publisher are now poised to make out of their curious thought-experiment. In the process, Rowling may have created one of her most fascinating characters ever".
This post was composed by Mira Sundara Rajan and posted on her behalf by Jeremy