Robert Galbraith’s “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” newly atop the local bestsellers list, is by all accounts a fun read, a taut thriller “so well written,” one Amazon reviewer proclaimed, “that I suspect that some years down the road we will hear the author’s name is a pseudonym of some famous writer.” Posted in July, less than a week before the book’s true author was revealed to be J. K. Rowling, that comment was both prescient (if mistaken on the time frame) and revealing: An unknown author couldn’t possibly thrill us like someone who has already proven herself worthy of our admiration.
Carmela Ciaruru, whose book “Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms” examined the phenomenon, says the Galbraith revelation fits into an old tradition of pen names. Publishing under a pseudonym with the goal of hiding one’s identity is, she says, “kind of a 19th-century trick.”
While writers in the past sometimes published under assumed names in order to overcome social obstacles or forge a new identity — such as George Sand, George Eliot, and the Brontë sisters — these days it’s more commonly a ploy to allow prolific authors to manage multiple brands.
“It’s very rare that writers genuinely will try to hide and not get the attention,” Ciaruru said.
There are those who believe Rowling was in on the unveiling of Galbraith — despite her statement that “being Robert Galbriath has been such a liberating experience!” — but Ciaruru has a more compassionate take. “I think she turned to the pseudonym for a very old-school reason: to start over again, to be fresh, and not have all this baggage,” she says. “Imagine trying to create a new work if you’re J. K. Rowling.” (Empathy has its limits, though; Ciaruru also points out that “it’s hard to pity an author who’s a billionaire.”)Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at email@example.com.