Other Identities, the Fame Game

It was exposed over the weekend that JK Rowling published a detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Cuckoo was published in April of this year; the revelation may help sales, but books are judged by their debut week in the US market.

According to the Guardian, Rowling expressed regret that she had been found out. “I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience,” she said. “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.” Over at the Telegraph, Anna Maxted agreed with the pen name strategy. With Galbraith’s debut, at least the work was judged on its own merit in lieu of comparisons to its siblings.

Fans may or may not remember that Rowling’s first foray into adult-audience fiction, The Casual Vacancy, came out last Fall (2012). Critics responded favorably, but couldn’t resist pointing out it had no magic in it, or make other allusions to Harry Potter. Harry Potter is long over, and Vacancy was in no way a YA novel. I think readers would be naïve to expect either of those things.

I’m remembering Garth Brooks’ alter ego from the late 1990s, Chris Gaines. Originally, Gaines was just going to be a movie character, but Brooks wrote songs, wrote a back story,  invented this whole parallel identity for Gaines. When he appeared in person, Gaines was Brooks in different costume–thick mop of black hair, his bangs over his eyes, black eyeliner, and a soul patch. Gaines got his own Behind the Music special on VH1. While some folks liked Gaines’ songs, this darker-featured Brooks character was the butt of jokes. Brooks reflected on the experience here. Apparently it’s easier to write a book under a new identity than try to be a musician with a two identities.

So my question is, does this branding business go way too far for creative professions? Doesn’t forecasting outcomes, plotlines or styles of any future creative work (based on previous fame) get in the way of the new work’s frontiers and possibilities? Shouldn’t every novel enjoy some novelty regardless of who wrote it? Shouldn’t it be refreshing if a musician wants to deliver a new sound?

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