In May 1997, a Scottish woman received a call from her publisher. They thought her book would be great for boys to read, but were concerned that no boy would read it if it had been written by a woman. A first-time author desperate to be published and eke out a living, she agreed. And with the decision of one editor, Joanne disappeared and became J.K., and the passionate woman who spent years creating a fantasy world became an androgynous first-time author.
So when the author of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone received her first fan letter, it was addressed “Dear Sir.” The mistake was quickly corrected, and the then-young fan, Francesca Gray, is now a close friend. The publicity that eventually surrounded the book revealed the author as a woman, and she was accepted as such by adoring fans.
But beyond hearing the tale, Bloomsbury’s desire to assign her a male-sounding pseudonym has for the most part remained unquestioned by most people. Of course her publishers wanted the book to sell better, people have said. But underneath this rationalization is a whole set of problematic assumptions. The assumption that women aren’t as talented at writing as men. The assumption that they write a certain “kind” of book. The assumption that men will not read something written by a woman, or the assumption that somehow ten-year-old boys would see the name “Joanne” on the cover and refuse to buy it.
Of course, all those assumptions are false. (Since when do children pay that much attention to the author's name, anyway?) And J.K. Rowling is Joanne Rowling, and has become a billionaire author, so no harm done, right?
Wrong. Though there may not have been harm done personally to Jo–she succeeded in spite of the restrictions her publishers put on her–those assumptions are still around. And still powerful. And still hurting authors and others in the publishing industry. Merely because she succeeded does not mean that those restrictions are okay. They’re not.
And in fact, they’re still affecting Joanne Rowling. The Cuckoo’s Calling was a modest detective novel published in April which got good reviews but small sales. A misplaced confidence, a tweeted tip, and some automated text analysis programs later, and The Sunday Timesouted Jo as the pseudonymous author.
It’s not hard to fathom why Jo would have wanted to use a pen name. The lack of hype and interviews are a good enough start, and an honest, critical, yet fair response to her writing must have been additional reason. She has the right to be a bit angry with the lawyer who slipped her secret.
But what’s most revealing is the pen name she chose. Robert Galbraith. A man’s name. The updated FAQ on the book’s new website reads:
I certainly wanted to take my writing persona as far away as possible from me, so a male pseudonym seemed a good idea. I am proud to say, though, that when I ‘unmasked’ myself to my editor David Shelley who had read and enjoyed ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ without realizing I wrote it, one of the first things he said was ‘I never would have thought a woman wrote that.’ Apparently I had successfully channeled my inner bloke!
And here is where it gets even more problematic. This whole interaction has assumptions about gender up the wazoo. It makes me frustrated that one of the world’s most successful authors felt that she had to hide her gender in order to retain her anonymity. It makes me sad that Jo felt victorious that she had “successfully channeled” her “inner bloke” when everyone accepted the pen name for 3 months. And it makes me angry that the editor of Little Brown, David Shelley, holds horribly essentialist assumptions about how women write differently from men, not to mention that he had the gall to say it.
Apparently not even celebrity authors are immune to backhanded sexist compliments.
And if such realities are par on course even for the richest woman in Britain, how does every other female writer fare, especially those starting out in the business? Not as well as men, most likely. (Unless they’re writing romance, where female authors are preferred by the industry.)
Back in 2003, the week of the release of The Order of the Phoenix, the then-unknown-to-me Tamora Pierce was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune about the Potter phenomenon, and what it meant to an author who had been writing YA fantasy for years previously. She praised the books, for their story as well as for the effect they've had on the industry. But one thing she had to say has stuck with me for ten years:
Her only quarrel with them is the fact that the main character is male. "It bugs me when women writers have male heroes," Pierce says. Enough male writers employ male heroes, she notes; surely the female writers can offer an alternative.
Tammy Pierce has always been a feminist--both in her writing, and in her life. She wrote Alanna, Daine, Kel, Aly, and Beka because they were the kind of characters she wanted to read when she was a girl. And she's empowered a generation with those characters.
Jo Rowling has also empowered a generation--unquestionably a larger generation. She has empowered them to read, and that is something powerful that cannot be denied. But has she empowered them to change society? To fight back against what is wrong, what is pervasive, what is patriarchal, what is unjust? Somehow, I don't think so. Though the fight against Voldemort is indeed powerful, it is the fight against casual but pervasive sexism that always spoke deeper to me. Though Harry James Potter is inspirational, it is Alanna of Trebond and Daine Sarrasri and Keladry of Mindelan and Alianne of Pirate's Swoop, and Beka Cooper who have all seemed real to me.
Some might say that Jo's adoption of a male pen name is just an isolated incident. But isolated incidents are often symptomatic of the society that creates them. We need to carefully examine this “isolated incident” and question what it says–about the publishing industry specifically, and society as a whole. It’s handy to blame David Shelley, or Little Brown, or Jo, or publishing in general. But assumptions don’t come from nowhere. They’re longstanding things. And in order to break them, we need to do some serious soul-searching.
In the end, Jo Rowling has written seven of the bestselling books in history with a male protagonist, under a gender-neutral (read: male) pen name. And now she takes a completely male pen name. She is not the feminist I want her to be. Maybe it's time I accept that. Or maybe it's time that I point out that this is a perfect example of just how internalized patriarchy can become.
Originally published, minus some additions, at Feminspire.com.