1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

What's in a name?

Holger Ehling / nm
August 7, 2013

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling secretly wrote her first crime novel, "The Cuckoo's Calling," under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. She's drawn on a centuries-old literary tradition - and is in illustrious company.

A woman with the book cover of the book "The Cuckoo's Calling" by Robert Galbraith
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The book world is like a small pond with scores of tiny fish and just a few big ones. When something out of the ordinary happens, the waves in the pool can get big, as they did last month when Joanne K. Rowling was unmasked as the writer behind the crime novel, "The Cuckoo's Calling."

The best-selling author of the Harry Potter series, one of the most successful writers of our time, wrote the detective story under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

The gender game

The reactions to the revelation are divided. On the one hand, there was praise for the author, who, by using the pseudonym, removed the weight of expectation that comes with having produced so many best-sellers. On the other hand, skeptics were asking why such a successful writer chose to hide behind a male identity.

The use of pseudonyms in literary history isn't a new phenomenon, but in many cases, alternative identities have been adopted for more serious reasons: to avoid persecution. The German author Erich Kästner, for example, was banned from writing during the Nazi era, but he continued to pen works with some success under pseudonyms like Berthold Bürger, Melchior Kurtz and Robert Neuner.

Portrait of German writer Erich Kästner from April 15, 1955
Erich Kästner's name choice was a matter of life and deathImage: picture-alliance/Georg Goebel

A more recent example is the Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul, who published under his wife's first name, Yasmina Khadra.

Female writers, in particular, adopted pseudonyms so that they could publish their works in the first place. Well into the 20th century, many European countries had laws that prevented women from earning money without the permission of their spouse. George Sand (Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin de Francueil) and George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) famously protected their literary freedom by using male pseudonyms.

Even the Brontë sisters Anne, Charlotte and Emily used the male names Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell.

In the domain of crime novels

These are all examples from history, but even today, male and female writers may sometimes be pigeonholed into particular literary domains. According to the stereotype, women are expected to produce the "soft" romance novels, while men pen the paperback thrillers.

Even today, it's not uncommon for a female author to take on a pseudonym or anonymous identity in order to break into the "male" literary fields. P.D. James, the grande dame of mysteries, is one example. Joanne K. Rowling is successful in the German market with her real name, but in Great Britain and the United States, only the initials J.K. appear on her book covers.

The authorship of German crime novels is divided fairly evenly among both genders. Edgar Franzmann, spokesman for the writers' association Syndicate, notes that almost as many women as men make up the 800 authors who are members. He says he doesn't know of any female authors who use male pseudonyms.

Günter Butkus, director of the Pendragon Publishing House in Bielefeld, says he's had the same experience. "Male pseudonyms of women or vice versa are not used." But they can be a handy tool for many authors who write in a variety of genres and topics, he added.

Symbolic image of open books
An author's anonymity can add to the mysteryImage: Fotolia/falcn

Glamour boost

For German publishers and readers females mystery writers have not been an issue since the 1960s. At the time, the Edgar-Wallace Award was given to an anonymously submitted novel, "Death in St. Pauli." When the jury found out the book had actually been written by a woman, they wanted to withhold the prize money. But the author, whose real name was Irene Rodrian, went on to become one of the founding figures of the German crime fiction scene.

Though gender has since become far less relevant, authors continue to use pseudonyms. Author Cora Stephan, who successfully writes as Anne Chaplet, says her given name wasn't quite glamorous enough for the genre.

"The pseudonym was important to me because I wanted my books to be successful," she said. "I was concerned that under my real name I wouldn't be taken seriously as a crime writer. It was great to then have so much success as an unknown debut author. That was a gift."

Perhaps this was also Rowling's motive in bringing Robert Galbraith to life.