By Sarah Neal
By this point, we all know who J.K. Rowling is. We’ve soared through Hogwarts on our pretend broomsticks, and we’ve imagined Wingardium Leviosa-ing anything and everything in sight. But, surprisingly, we don’t all know that J.K. Rowling is actually Joanne Rowling, and perhaps we haven’t all thought to sit and diagnose why she decided to change her name. Her own website, jkrowling.com, addresses this, stating, “the use of a pen name was suggested by her publisher, Barry Cunningham. He thought that young boys might be wary of a book written by a woman.” Now, this does not suggest that Cunningham is sexist, nor does it imply that he had a problem loving her stories because she’s a woman. What this anecdote does do, however, is point out the way in which women are made to struggle as writers, simply because of their gender identity. Rowling’s publisher made the right move—he did what was right in a business sense. But how harsh must it be to have to accept that despite the fact that you wrote an amazing story, people won’t want to pick it up just because of the feminine name on the cover?
There is a definite issue with representation for women in all art forms. A movie cast with mostly women is deemed immediately, “a chick-flick,” a novel written by a woman is marketed to women solely. But all of the literary books—the classics that everyone loves—are written by men and read by all. The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities—the list goes on forever. Just think of all of the books you’ve been assigned to read since middle school, and see if you can count on more than one hand how many were written by women. And it’s the same with films. Films starring male actors (white male actors, if you want to get specific, but that opens up a whole new can of worms) gross more than those starring women. Utilizing The Bechdel Test, a formula created by Alison Bechdel which assesses a film’s gender bias by checking to see if it satisfies three simple criteria, a study found that after “analyzing the inflation-adjusted median budgets of films…films passing the Bechdel Test had a median budget that was 16 percent lower than the median budget of all films in the set.” These findings say a lot about the lack of respect women have in art. And these findings are why I was slightly disappointed when I found out J.K. Rowling had penned her new work under another male name, but my disappointment quickly shifted to understanding, and later praise, upon finishing the first installment of her newest series: The Cucukoo’s Calling.
I read The Cuckoo’s Calling in the short stint of about two weeks. It’s a page-turner like its predecessors—Rowling has captured the art of suspense. Another similarity it shares with the Harry Potter novels is the fact that it’s written (mostly) from the point of view of a male, this time named Cormoran Strike. J.K. Rowling is such a good writer that all of her characters, regardless of their gender, feel real. Hermoine is no less of an individual because of her gender, and she does not have to adhere to activities or norms that agree with her gender to be loveable to fans; Rowling writes Robin, Strike’s detective side-kick in the same vein—she’s smart, quick-witted and has thoughts of her own, and she isn’t merely there to further Strike’s story-line. She gets her own perspective narratives and has her own problems—the two of them work to help each other, as friends, rather than having Robin exist solely to flesh out Strike.
It’s understandable that Rowling wanted to use a pseudonym for these novels—she likely wanted unbiased reviews, people who didn’t just pick up the book because it had her name on the cover. But the choosing of a male pseudonym speaks to the history of how she became J.K., rather than Joanne. It speaks to an industry that says women can’t write fantasy or crime novels, and it speaks to a society that deems women’s art to be lesser. Again, Rowling was doing what she needed to do to sell her books—that’s business. But it cannot be accepted as the standard.