Tuesday 16 July 2013

J. K. Rowling, The Cuckoo's Calling, and the Ethics of Pen Names

In case you've been living under a rock in regards to the literary world over the past few days, the internet (and presumably all those other old media sources that I never bother following any more) has been abuzz with the news that J. K. Rowling has recently published not just one, but two new books. It just so happened that The Cuckoo's Calling was published under a pseudonym, and remained quietly anonymous for several months before we all found out about it. You can read the full story here.

So what does this all mean? A prominent point of discussion in regards to this story has been the critical praise, but low sales figures of her anonymously published novel -- something that stands quite at odds with the commercial and critical response to her other post-Potter release, The Casual Vacancy.

What interested me the most, though, was a discussion that cropped up over on kboards about the backstory to the pseudonym she used. Robert Galbraith, Rowling's alter ego, is described as follows:

After several years with the Royal Military Police, Robert Galbraith was attached to the SIB (Special Investigative Branch), the plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. The idea for Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who returned to the civilian world.

The point of contention that sprung up amongst several of my fellow authors was the idea of concocting a false backstory for her pen name, particularly relating to the use of military credentials.

Now, to me this is largely a non-issue. When it comes to writing fiction an author could claim to be the Pope for all I care. As long as they can tell a good story, I'm happy. Being familiar with dozens of other erotic authors who employ various different pen names and personas (along with all the traditionally published authors who have done the same over the years -- let's not forget that Stephen King's Richard Bachman had an entire fictional family and fake author photos!) this just isn't something that registers as an issue for me when you're dealing with something as simple and harmless as fictional storytelling.

However, the discussion did give rise to a very interesting question in regards to how much authors can stretch the truth when creating a pseudonym, and where we draw the line with it. Obviously writing non-fiction and claiming to have based it in factual experience is a clear no-no, but at what point does a made-up backstory become unethical for a regular old storyteller?

One of my fellow authors mentioned that Galbraith's military backstory lent a credibility to his writing that could have been interpreted as a sneaky marketing ploy. While I don't believe Rowling's intentions were that sinister, it's still a very valid and concerning point. If you're going to make up a pen name, why not spice it up with some more imaginary details to hook potential readers in?

I've always refrained from putting things like "Claudia King is a classy sex goddess who has been through a string of handsome lovers and a lifetime of sexual experience" in my author bio, but I have to wonder -- would it help my sales if I did? If I concocted an imaginary persona dripping with intrigue and charisma, would it be a smart move for my career? And, more to the point, would it be ethical for me to do something like that?

In a world where so many celebrities and public figures are largely a product of PR and marketing, is presenting an embellished version of yourself to the world simply a smart move for an aspiring author, or is it a sneaky way to mislead your readers into buying your books? As much as I preach the lines between fiction and reality, I'm sure there are some readers out there who would take my word as authority on various sexual practices if I claimed they were all inspired by real-life encounters.

It's definitely an interesting topic, and a grey area that has no clear lines of division at this point. There are little white lies like pen names (spoiler alert: my real name isn't actually Claudia!) that authors use to preserve their privacy, and then there are claims to experience that stray into the territory of misleading your readers.

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