Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Cuckoo's Cover-Up: or How J K Rowling fooled the literary world into enjoying her new book

This weekend saw massive books news. Literally nobody was crying out for me to offer my opinion on the matter but that's not stopped me so far. As we all know by now, on Saturday it was revealed that a book with positive reviews but mediocre sales was actually written by one of Britain's most bankable authors: JK Rowling. As cover-ups go it's not exactly the most exciting but the revelation that Robert Galbraith is actually just JK's second pseudonym has taken the literary world by storm. The BBC New website has helpfully quoted the following from a Waterstone's spokesman which pretty much sums up the general feeling: “this is the best act of literary deception since Stephen King was outed as Richard Bachman back in the 1980s”. JK insists that she wishes that the truth could have come out a little later but her publisher must be pretty happy that people found out just as sales weren't going so great. What a happy, happy coincidence.


Well I'm certainly no expert but doesn't this change how we should read the book? A great deal of the praise surrounding The Cuckoo's Calling was based around how confident and self-assured it was for a debut novel. But wait. This isn't a debut novel. This is a confident and self-assured novel by an author who has had a great deal of time to find her voice and get used to the writing process.

Now I'm not saying the book is worse considering Rowling wrote it (although I'm still not her biggest fan) but surely you can't view it in the same way you have have done had Galbraith been a real person? For example, imagine a film made by a first-time director won the Oscar for Best Director and we found out it was actually just Stephen Spielberg. Would the direction be any less accomplished? No. Would it mean that we had to judge it on a different level? Most certainly. How can it be possible that an established writer (who let's not forget made over £230 million from the Harry Potter series) can be analysed in the same way as a new writer? It might not seem fair but there is a difference between the two. A difference that needs to be recognised. Whilst the novel may still be well-written (having not read it I won't comment further on this), is it still as wonderfully put together for a writer with so much experience?

Take a look at the first and the last Harry Potter books. There is a massive difference between JK's writing style in the two and it wouldn't be fair to compare the two in the same light. Her first few books are immature, have a slightly nervy feel to them and are pretty slow-paced. The final novel, whilst longer, is pretty much always moving forwards with the plot (if you ignore the epilogue which I always do) and have a real sense of self-awareness. There is no denying the fact that she became a much better writer as she was writing the series.

So how is it fair that a seasoned writer gets to have another chance at being a clueless novice? It wouldn't be fair for any writer to expect to get a clean slate in this way because they still have a major head-start over the real beginners. She has spoken about liking the opportunity to get feedback that isn't geared towards herself as a writer. I will admit that maybe she has a point about the fact that people make assumptions on her work based on her name alone. Obviously there is a big difference between the original reviews of The Cuckoo's Calling and the mixed reaction to The Casual Vacancy (her Harry Potter follow-up). So I understand her desire to get away from it. However, I don't see how it's a fair solution to create a completely new person with a full biography to create completely different assumptions. At least one reviewer I've seen praised the ex-army officer's ability to describe women's clothes. When you consider it's actually a woman writing that doesn't seem all that spectacular, does it? Why could she not create a character who was similar enough to herself so it wasn't that much of a stretch? Context has a great deal of influence over writing (as a self-confessed new historicist I have to stress this idea) and who the author is should be considered when analysing a text.

As much as JK might not like the attention she receives with every new publication (violins at the ready chaps. She's a rich and famous author who just wants to be loved) but it only seems fair that an authors previous work should be taken into account in some part when reviewing it. It's not necessarily a perfect system but it's all about their individual voice. It's a matter of who they are as a writer and where each books sits in their personal canon. Imagine, if you can, that William Shakespeare is actually alive and writing amazing episodes of Breaking Bad or something. Whilst they might be critically acclaimed in their own right they wouldn't exactly hold up against Hamlet would they. Or maybe they would... I still haven't seen it.

It might not seem like it but this isn't even my major gripe about the revelation. It's the timing of the thing. She may want to get anonymity with her writing but, as we've seen, there is no real market for the books of ex-military man Robert Galbraith. Prior to the news on Saturday sales of the novel were anything but spectacular. Now, thanks to a timely and anonymous tweet (I wonder who that was from) the sales have gone up to an astonishing 507,000% according to the BBC News website. Is this how Rowling's future releases are going to go? Whilst she's writing the novel she simultaneously creates a biography for her new pseudonym, waits for the positive reviews to come in for a talented newcomer and waits for a few months before revealing the truth so she can make money.

Isn't this all incredibly insulting to other writers? Think of all the unsigned authors who don't get published every year or struggle to get books out. We know that at least one Publishing company rejected it (Kate Mills, fiction editor at Orion Books admitted to it) so if Galbraith was a real writer would it have been published? Rowling has proved that her name sells so it's not the greatest gamble for her publishing company to agree to make her novel under a fake name knowing that at any time they can boost sales with a simple information leak. Why bother with all this ridiculous game playing? Can't we just get down to the proper business of writing good books for people to enjoy? But maybe I'm just old fashioned this way.

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