JK Rowling: Name versus Talent

On July 14th 2013 unknown author Robert Galbraith was catapulted into the limelight. The writer of the well received crime debut ‘The Cuckoos Calling’, despite a surprisingly skilled first time novel there hardly seemed any reason for much media attention. That was until it was discovered that Robert Galbraith did not exist. The Sunday Times revealed the great secret behind Robert Galbraith and suddenly, JK Rowling found herself exposed.

Within hours, sales of ‘The Cuckoos Callings’ soared, shooting from a humble 1500 copies to dominating top sellers lists. With Rowling’s name now attached, what had been a small debut now flourished into a success expected of her name. However for Rowling, climbing the charts had never been her intention. For she, like successful writers before her, had purposely chosen to write under a pseudonym for a reason.

Is it talent or a name that sells?

Rowling is not the first writer to choose to take up the pen in another persons name. Her choice to use a pseudonym is similar to horror fiction writer Stephen King’s brief career as ‘Richard Bachman’. Created by King to test his own success, King used Bachman as a means to publish without reputation and so answer the question that had plagued him: whether or not he was a truly talented writer or if his success was all down to luck. Like Rowling, King’s guise was eventually discovered and similarly saw sales of the Bachman books rise.

Together, Rowling and King are examples of names that undoubtedly sell. However for Rowling, that had once never appeared to have been an issue. During the promotion of her first work outside the Potter series, Rowling shrugged off suggestions of using a penname, responded to questions about potential comparisons and criticism with a ‘what will be, will be’ attitude. It was an easy stance to take, considering the differences between her novels. ‘Harry Potter’ was a series surrounded by wizardry, whereas ‘The Casual vacancy’ was a drama set in a small English town. As far as differences go, the two were seemingly at different ends of a scale. If Rowling had banked on these differences to dismiss comparisons, she was wrong. ‘The Casual Vacancy’ debuted to mixed responses. Mixed with praise was an obvious sense of disappointment from critics, with many of them citing a lack of ‘magic’ within the novel, which was perhaps expected.

Rowling’s name, for all the success it has given her, is also her curse.

‘Harry potter’ needs no introduction. A literary juggernaut and incredibly long lasting success story, the series catapulted Rowling, giving her the sort of praise that’s hard to rid oneself of. Where the entertainment world questioned the difficulty the child actors of the film adaptations would have in distancing themselves from such well known roles, at the same time JK Rowling suffered similarly. Here is an author with seven books to her name, with an incredibly well established readership, each and every one of them clamouring for more. Whatever she did next, the move was never going to be easy.

It seems clear that many were unable to differentiate between ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘The Casual Vacancy’. Many appeared to have bought into the novel instantly, solely because Rowling’s name was attached. The departure from Hogwarts to Pagford was criticised by many who read the book, simply because they hadn’t expected something so different. There is a problem that exists for well known authors like Rowling. Their success comes from a fan base that picks up every following novel with familiar expectations- not necessarily open ones. For a reader buying into Rowling’s out-of-Potter penmanship with Potter fresh on their minds, the only outcome is disappointment. If Rowling hadn’t have had the legacy of the Potter world behind her, ‘The Casual Vacancy’ may have had a far more positive reception.

Rowling has stated herself that publishing as Robert Galbraith has been “wonderful to publish without hype or expectation”, and she isn’t wrong. In creating Galbraith, Rowling has entered a new genre without Potter following her. When publishing ‘The Casual Vacancy’, it became clear that her readers were always going to make it difficult for her to transition into other territories of writing. Despite the risks of appearing as an unknown, she’s successfully made the move. The consequent praise of Galbraith establishes ‘The Cuckoos Calling’ as a talented novel in its own right, where had Rowling’s name been attached it potentially may have not been received so well. The novel has been marketed entirely separate from the Potter series, given the chance to exist without the unnecessary comparisons that plagued ‘The Casual Vacancy’. Without her name, ‘The Cuckoos Calling’ can only be taken how it is, with no complaint of lacking in familiar ‘magic’, for it isn’t the work of the woman who created magic for an entire generation. It is the work of Robert Galbraith, crime fiction writer.

Galbraith has created the end of Rowling as the writer, opening a new chapter of success without the past to keep her down. This time, it’s the name that’s following the talent.

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