The right to a pseudonym

A lot has been written about the revelation that JK Rowling published a crime novel earlier this year under another pseudonym. The secret would have been safe were it not for an error of judgement by a partner at her law firm who shared the news with a friend who was not as discreet as he hoped she would be. Indeed it is remarkable in the internet-dominated world where nothing seems to be a secret for long that the secret remained one for so long.

The irony is that on the internet, no-one is who they seem. Our avatars, gravatars, handles, IDs, usernames and profiles rarely represent us either fully or entirely accurately. We can be as selective as we like about how much we share with others. So why is it so remarkable that someone would publish a book under a name other than their own? Why is it so extraordinary that they might want to conceal one aspect of their personality in order to reveal another? Metaphorically speaking, JK Rowling is not the first person to have removed their wedding ring while on a night out in a bar. Given the perpetual eagerness of print publishers and their marketing teams to put books and authors in pigeonholes, any writer who is trying to move across genres or, perish the thought, write in more than one genre is going to find that unless they obscure their existing identity they will always be dragging their past work with them. And with that, multiple perceptions and expectations – of editors, critics and readers. Whether it’s JD Robb or Iain M Banks, many established writers have used other names to distinguish their books, and to separate them from their stablemates.

But there is also the issue of a right to privacy. Writing is a deeply personal, private thing. The battles that go on in a writer’s imagination during the process of creation are characterised by daring, risk, challenge, autonomy and identity, as much as they are by creativity, inspiration and innovation. Furthermore, writing is generally done alone, and much of the work and the battles exist in the solitude within the writer’s mind.¬†Even successful writers who have dominated a genre and spoken publicly about their writing process have a right to the privacy of that process.

And perhaps in some respect, that is what JK Rowling was trying to reclaim. The right to write in private, even when the book is published.