Friday 19 July 2013

The Cuckoo’s Calling: Has J.K. Rowling created her most interesting character yet?

"When is a famous author not a famous author? When he or she chooses to write under a pseudonym, of course.

It is possible to think of many reasons why fame, the holy grail that most artists pursue, could also become a liability for a writer (or an actor, or a musician...). Quite simply, fame can deaden opportunity – and, correspondingly, initiative – for a creative person who wants to do anything new and...creative. At times, an author’s, or artist’s, achievement in a given field can have such a profound impact on the mind of the public, and create such apparently unforgettable associations, that the author can never be truly free to undertake anything innovative again. Imagine Raymond Burr’s “Perry Mason” as a criminal (which was one of his early acclaimed roles, in Alfred Hitchock’s 1954 “Rear Window”), George Orwell as a lyric poet (is it possible to be dystopian and lyrical at the same time?), or William Shatner as a Shakespearean actor (though Patrick Stewart managed both Star Trek and Shakespeare). These examples, and countless others like them, show how difficult it is, even for a creative artist, to change – and, conversely, how many artists, to remain artists, may deeply desire and seek out creative change throughout their careers. It is a strange paradox.

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


Andrew Robinson said...

I find it interesting that misleading advertising is perfectly acceptable when it comes to printing the name of authors on books. While I don't propose changing this, or feel any sympathy for a high-brow consumer of literature might feel their reputation has been sullied by being tricked into reading a work by a popular author rather than an obscure new talent, I do wonder if they would have any legal redress open to them too?

Mira T. Sundara Rajan said...

This is a fascinating question! It seems to me that publishing under a pseudonym (or anonymously) could amount to a misrepresentation. But, would it be actionable? What is the harm caused by the misrepresentation? Especially in a case like this, the reader has bought something of "lesser value" because the name of a famous author was excluded. The worst harm (as you note) might be embarrassment to the tricked reader!

Dosti SMS said...

Found it rather slow and uninspiring. I would have dropped is after the first 10 chapters or so, had it not been Rowling's book. I found the novel strangely colourless. The setting was depressing and characters boring.

The worst aspect, however, was the profanity. What in God's name was the lady attempting? After writing seven tomes of kids fiction, she has jumped right to the other extreme. Half the characters sprout the f-word in have their dialogues. Very distracting.

Sure, we shouldn't compare it with Harry Potter, but the end result is so disappointing. It's no surprise that she published it under a pseudonym. The JKR brand has taken a hit.

Unknown said...

The novel cannot make readers bound to reading and i feel monotonous after reading.
Love msg

Gurvi Jain said...

What i personally about the book is very humdrum. No interest created during the eading.