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.
“As an aspiring novelist and current student of an MA in creative writing, I dream of working with an editor. Not just any old editor but one assigned to me by a publishing house. For me, this is the holy grail of writing. That’s why I’m against self-publishing a book. I feel it circumvents the real business of writing, which is editing. Any writer worth their salt knows that a book goes through several drafts before it’s fit to be read.” Tasha Smith’s blog ‘Is the Editor dead?’ in the Huffington Post
The quality of editing in contemporary fiction has reportedly been in decline for some years, and a New York Timesarticle as long ago as 1998 bewailed the knock-on effects of the massive increasing commercial pressures on editorial staff in the major publishing houses. Not only were publishing house editors failing to find sufficient time to devote to the activity of scrutinising a manuscript for mistakes, inaccuracies and typographical errors, but they were also unable to devote the time to being what the NY Times described as the author’s “romantic ideal of an editor as a confessor and critic”. Increasingly, the article described, authors were proactively employing their own editors not only to help identify mistakes, but also to shape manuscripts to prevent rejection or cancellation. Now, there may be a confusion here between activities more traditionally associated with proof-reading (typos, poor grammar, accuracy) and more stylistic attention to flow, pacing, unnecessary elaboration and so on, but it is the notion of the editor as critic which stands out.
Two years ago, Salman Rushdie publicly criticised JK Rowling’s editors for not being more ruthless in the fashioning of her longer Harry Potter books, saying “editors let J.K. get away with too much because no one wants to challenge the ‘goose that lays the golden eggs….The long books started to have long passages that any editor would normally have the courage to cut'”. What is being suggested here? That Rowling’s books would somehow have been less commercially appealing had they been ruthlessly edited for length and her detailed descriptive style? That Rowling’s literal Continue reading →