Pseudonyms and Expectations
In April 2013, a newcomer to the literary world by the name of Robert Galbraith published a crime fiction novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling. Though it only sold a modest 1500 copies, it nevertheless received critical acclaim, with Publishers Weekly claiming that “in a rare feat… Galbraith combines a complex and compelling sleuth and an equally well-formed and unlikely assistant with a baffling crime in his stellar debut”, and The Daily Mail placing it in their Summer Reads list. Three months later, on July 14, 2013, it was revealed that Robert Galbraith was merely a pseudonym for none other than J. K. Rowling.
I think it’s great that Rowling took the pseudonym route for this novel. First and foremost, the positive critical reception that the book enjoyed before she was discovered as the author really helped prove her skill as a writer, showing that it is her writing and not her (or Harry Potter’s) name alone that can garner success. Not only that, but not attaching her name to the book also ensured that it got to escape the post-Potter anticipation that surely would have plagued it otherwise, just as it had plagued her previous novel, The Casual Vacancy. Based on what she said in her statement, Rowling herself seems to agree:
“It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback from publishers and readers under a different name.”
Hype and expectation are nasty things. When Rowling published The Casual Vacancy last year, the reception it received was positive, yet it felt hesitant, reserved, and occasionally lukewarm. Whatever merits the book had going for it, no matter how numerous or praiseworthy, were lost in the second half of the “it’s good, but not as good as Harry Potter” statement. The book suffered from the legacy that came before it (and that’s not to mention the critics who were waiting for Rowling to fail so they’d have the opportunity to claim she never deserved that legacy in the first place).
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen the damaging effect of expectations—in fact, I can name three instances other than The Casual Vacancy in the last year alone. Despite The Dark Knight Rises being nothing less than a spectacular trilogy finale, critics who felt it fell even a bit short of the previous entry, The Dark Knight, didn’t hesitate to give it negative reviews. For instance, note how this particular review even mentions the role expectations play. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is another example of an excellent film being judged far too harshly simply for falling short of an insurmountable predecessor (forget that the source material itself didn’t allow much wiggle room to begin with).
The most recent of these examples is Monsters University (read my brief review here). This film not only carried with it the burdensome demand to live up to Pixar’s many classics—including Monsters, Inc. itself—but it also happened to come after two Pixar films that weren’t so well-received (Cars 2 and, to an extent, Brave). Add that to the fact that it was a prequel many had dismissed as unnecessary, and you end up with a film that was simultaneously required to succeed but expected to fail. I found it to be a wonderful movie, and it ended up with a 78% score on Rotten Tomatoes. That would usually be considered a great rating, but in Pixar’s case, it was not good enough for many who continued to scoff at Pixar’s supposed demise.
Compare those to The Cuckoo’s Calling, which, though I haven’t yet read it, strikes me as the kind of novel that would have been unfavourably compared to Harry Potter had J. K. Rowling published it under her name, just as The Casual Vacancy was. Advertised as a book by newcomer Robert Galbraith, however, it was hailed as an excellent debut novel and garnered praise all around. Though she is far from the first author to have used a pseudonym—even Stephen King once published under the name Richard Bachman, and he recently spoke about Rowling’s attempt at anonymity—I commend Jo for her mischievous little deception. Whether she meant it or not, it nonetheless not only proved her authorship skills, but also hopefully taught critics to judge works of art not by how well they lived up to expectations, but purely on their own merits.