‘What’s in a name?” muses Juliet from her balcony, unaware of Romeo listening below. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” It’s one of the most famous lines in English drama. But would anyone quote those words if William Shakespeare hadn’t written them?
Many authors dream of fame, fortune, and a vast readership. An author who has all three may dream, paradoxically, of the freedom to write without them — of publishing a book that can be judged only on the quality of the prose.
That was J.K. Rowling’s motivation in publishing “The Cuckoo’s Calling” under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith in April. The crime novel earned enthusiastic reviews, and some readers said it seemed too skillful to be the work of a rookie. When the Sunday Times of London, working from an anonymous tip, asked if “Robert Galbraith” was really the author of the Harry Potter series, Rowling fessed up. “I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience,” she said. “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”
Rowling isn’t the first famous author to adopt a pseudonym. The highbrow Irish novelist John Banville, for instance, writes detective yarns under the name Benjamin Black. As Banville, he has said, he can produce only a few sentences a day; his alter ego cranks out crime fiction far more quickly. Nearly 30 years ago, Doris Lessing created a stir when she revealed that she was the author of a book published under the nom de plume Jane Somers. She said it was her way of “escaping from the cage of my literary reputation.”
Would Rowling’s fiction be equally appealing by any other name? Despite the warm reviews, “The Cuckoo’s Calling” found only a few hundred buyers. Then Rowling’s cloak of invisibility came off — and a bestseller was born.