The perpetrator has been revealed. JK did it.
The Harry Potter author has been unmasked as the real person who wrote a detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, earlier this year.
The sad part is, while The Cuckoo’s Calling was critically-acclaimed, compared favorably to some of the best sleuthing books of the past, it sold, by one count, only 499 copies worldwide.
That is, until someone figured out Mrs. Harry Potter was the scribe. Now the printing presses are overheating.
Many critics were suspicious from the first. It was said to be penned by “Robert Galbraith,” a former plainclothes military police officer now employed in the private security industry. But some thought it was too polished to be a debut novel from an unknown. They were right.
More interesting is the list of publishers that rejected The Cuckoo’s Calling, despite liking it a lot. They said there was no “obvious hook.” Ultimately it was accepted by the same house that released Rowling’s previous adult fiction book, The Casual Vacancy. They surely knew of the deception because the book had the same editor as her last opus.
Of course, now there’s an easy hook for marketing: it’s from J-Fucking-K-Fucking-Rowling! That hook is big enough to catch Moby-Dick, another book that had a tough start.
Ms. Rowling said she found writing under a pseudonym—and a man’s one at that—to be “liberating.” She was hoping the deception could go on longer. Alas, the The Sunday Times, those sleuths, figured it out.
So entrenched we’ve become in franchises (euphoria over the new Disney-Star Wars deal without really knowing anything about it and even though the recent movies felt tired) and familiarity over evaluation and talent (Stephen King has also submitted a manuscript under another name only to see it roundly rejected) that even the author of the most popular franchise in history (unless you consider the Bible a franchise) felt the need to write under another name—and found when she did that no one was interested.
It reminds me of a family member, whom I’ll not name, who is constantly concerned with the status of things rather than the quality. If we go to a restaurant they’ll surely evaluate it by how big it is: “They’re the largest in sales; they must be good.” They’ll praise colleagues, companies and media by how much money they earn. Someone “knows what they’re doing” if their business grossed the most money last year. I’m fairly sure they don’t taste the food when dining out. They’re counting the number of customers.
Of course marketers know this sort of thing exists, and waste little time invading all sorts of media, social and otherwise, trying so hard to get you to see things their way, with phony reviews, fake people praising products effusively, paid promotion disguised as editorial, and outright jiggering of numbers to get certain brands to aways leap miraculously to the top of any screen in almost any search.
They do this because, despite what they’ll say about caring for quality, they know it’s hype that sells. The proof is in the Cuckoo—all 499 copies of it. Sort of like the way a pair of jeans is just a pair of jeans, until Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian (or Welsey Shaw) puts them on.
Ms. Rowling said, “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”
Amen to that.
So here’s the takeaway I want you to get from this: next time you’re unhappy with the stuff that’s “out there”—all the bad summer movies, the formulaic books, the stale TV shows—seek out, and buy, something brand new from an unknown quantity, something that looks a little different from what you’ve seen before. It doesn’t have to be Entertaining Welsey Shaw, when it comes out, though that’d be nice. It can be anything. You may be the very first person to uncover the next great discovery—consider that.
In the meantime, I’ve figured out a great way to ensure that Entertaining Welsey Shaw becomes a best-seller when it’s released:
Can’t miss, right?
UPDATE: Since writing this four months ago, The Cuckoo’s Calling has nearly 5,000 user reviews on Amazon alone! This is the novel that, as I said, had sales of exactly 499 before its author’s identity was revealed. While I don’t begrudge Rowling’s success, I think it’s sad people go with the herd and trust familiar names rather than their own ability to seek out works of value so very often, whether in movies, books, music or restaurants. My impulse is usually to seek out the new and try what’s different or unknown, not what I think will give me a pre-determined experience, which, whether it actually does or not, is the reason people by the million have sought out The Cuckoo’s Calling once they discovered who wrote it. It brings to mind a famous quote from Oscar Wilde: Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.
JK Rowling is a lot like my heroine, Welsey Anne Shaw.
Welsey, who has been famous her whole adult life, wants to go out into the ordinary world and test herself. How would people treat her if she were an ordinary person?
JK, who has been famous for one thing, the Harry Potter novels, seems to want to know how life would be for her as an “ordinary novelist”? How would editors and readers receive her and her work when they didn’t know a famous person did it?
Pretty brave, I say. How many other famous people do this sort of thing? Wonder about it? Care about it? (Well, Welsey does, of course; that’s why she’s the heroine of the book.) JK Rowling, richer than the Queen of England, wants to know how she’d do as “Robert Galbraith,” a former military plain clothes detective now taken to writing crime novels.
Not very well seemed to be the verdict. Before someone at a British newspaper figured out who she was, The Cuckoo’s Calling, sold a measly 499 copies.
Now that we know it’s JK, the pages are flying off the presses. But Ms. Rowling learned something that Welsey worries about: things are very different for you when people know you’re a famous person.
It’s not often that the privileged, the extraordinary, the ones living a fantasy life, desire to step outside and expose themselves to the elements. The fact that Rowling did says a lot about her and her integrity. She could free-ride off Harry Potter for the rest of her life. Certainly plenty of other artistic people continue to churn out more of what initially made them rich and famous—and loved.
But Rowling clearly wants to challenge herself. First she wrote a non-Harry Potter novel under her own name, The Casual Vacancy. It did not do spectacularly. Now it turns out she’s also written and released this detective novel, under a fake name. And it did even worse.
I don’t know about you, but this makes me respect her tremendously. I almost want to go read Harry Potter now, something I’ve avoided, not because of any snobbery, but because children’s literature has never really interested me. (Even when I was a kid I was peeking into my parents’ bookshelves to check out titles like The Outline of History by H.G. Wells and Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels. With a few exceptions, fantasy has never been a big draw for me.)
Her recent actions have shown me that JK is not just someone content with getting fat from Potterbucks. She wants to test her writer’s mettle in the real literary waters, and she wants to do it on the basis of the words alone and not the celebrity of the writer.
Awesome. Welsey would certainly be impressed.
She says she wishes the secret could have been kept up a little longer. She wanted to be free of her reputation.
Welsey shaw can relate. She’d like to be free of who she is too. In fact, that’s largely what the whole story is about.
Really, who would have thought it?
Preparing us for the launch of her first “adult” book (in the non-50 Shades of Grey sense of the word), JK “Richer Than God” (or at least the Queen) Rowling has lowered expectations, saying it may not be all that good and that she considered publishing it under a false name.
And I don’t think she’s acting phony-modest here. She supposedly has a reputation for being distant, some say even a bit haughty. I doubt she’d say anything self-deprecating if she didn’t feel it might in fact be true.
She’s as insecure as a first-time author. In part because, as far as writing for grownups goes, she is a first-time author. But partly because, I think, everyone is a first-time author every time they write.
Back when Entertaining Welsey Shaw was just a glimmer of an idea, a should-I-or-shouldn’t-I, I also considered going the nom de plume route. I mean, you’re going to give your first shot at a very grown-up thing, writing a serious novel, something you can’t really get instruction on how to do (you can follow all the “rules” and still come up with muck; you can break them and have a masterpiece), something you just have to put out there, and it will be attached to your name forever.
So of course I wanted to hide behind a pen name too. Maybe I should have. Maybe this blog was a stupid mistake. We’ll see.
It’s kind of like Welsey’s dilemma in a way, and the dilemma of anyone in the “performing arts.” You have a bad day at the office, you can’t hide. Artists make their mistakes in public.
Rowling, who has been guaranteed immortality because of the Harry Potter books, says of her opus The Casual Vacany, “The worst that can happen is that everyone says, ‘Well, that was dreadful, she should have stuck to writing for kids’ and I can take that. So, yeah, I’ll put it out there, and if everyone says, ‘Well, that’s shockingly bad – back to wizards with you,’ then obviously I won’t be throwing a party. But I will live. I will live.”
Behind the bravery of that statement lies, I can assure you, sweaty palms and a churning stomach.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Rowling, despite what seems like a flawless life. Some reviews of the Potter franchise have been unflattering, calling her work flat, her prose clunky, her stories repetitious. The San Francisco Chronicle was perhaps the most unkind, at least about the fifth book, Order of the Phoenix: “There hasn’t been this much bad faith in the air since ‘Star Wars: Episode I‘ opened…For most of the book’s nearly 900 pages, a pervasive sense of stale familiarity hangs over the entire affair…Two books in a row have now centered on which of Harry’s friends might die, and whether Harry will discover sex. This is the work of a maturing novelist?” It’s the Star Wars Episode I comment that cuts deepest to me. Say what you want about Harry Potter, at least Rowlings didn’t invent Jar-Jar.
For the record, I’ve never read anything from the series, so I have no idea if I agree with these swipes or not. I was never one for children’s books, particularly fantasy books. The Wizard of Oz, Winnie the Pooh, whatever else children are supposed to grow up on, I didn’t grow up on. I read the non-fiction on my parents’ bookshelves and at the local library (astronomy books, Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels, The Outline of History), or as much of them as I could understand, and enjoyed but one children’s book, Sam The Firehouse Cat. Hardly a classic, I liked it mostly for the jokes my father would make while reading it to me (which were rather off-color, considering my moist, pink ears).
So I have no idea if Rowling’s modesty and insecurity are warranted or not. But it’s nice to know that, even after all her fame and wealth and success, the lady still get knots in her stomach and cares what we think.
Here’s an interview she gave yesterday. This is probably not something she enjoys doing. She’s very guarded and a bit uneasy, not at all braggadocious, similar to another blonde celebrity I know of…
Frankly, I think this is great. It’s a big relief for me. JK Rowling is nervous about a book! Isn’t that like Heidi Klum finding a pimple or something?