I’ve just finished listening to the audiobook of J. K. Rowling’s pseudonymous mystery / thriller, The Cuckoo’s Calling – narrated by Robert Glenister and attributed to the fictional author Robert Galbraith. I will start by saying it’s a thoroughly enjoyable book, and that I’m very pleased to have been in on the secret prior to reading it, because there are hints of Hogwarts I might have missed otherwise, like the victim – Lula Landry – can’t help but remind one of Luna Lovegood, and the accented voice of Cormoran Strike, our erstwhile detective, when performed by Robert Glenister, resonates with hints of Hagrid. This is not a review of the book; I have other things on my mind, but I have to say, I loved the characters, the story, and the narration, as I would expect to, the work having been created by a favorite author. The mystery is handled deftly, solved without the need to write the detective out of a corner, or have him beaten half to death by half the population of the pages (as happens in so many other mystery novels). Thoroughly and utterly satisfied with the read.
That brings me to the crux of the matter, though. I almost didn’t get the pleasure, or the opportunity. The book, first released as a novel by Robert Galbraith, would likely have slipped past me unnoticed. It received what your average novel with a slight leg up might see – came out in hardcover and got a short bit of press, and then began to fade quietly into obscurity, despite solid, positive reviews. All of this changed, of course, when people learned that it was J. K. Rowling behind the pen, and that she’d managed to put one over on the literary world. There are now more reviews of the audiobook on Audible.com than I have sold of my last book…and considering the low percentage of listeners who take the time to rate, or review, the numbers become staggering pretty quickly.
A couple of things occur. I am betting that Rowling’s agent and publisher were never as enthusiastic about this as she was. I am guessing they tried to tell her how hard such a transition to another genre was going to be. I am also guessing it was their idea for the book to come out under a pseudonym. I’m of two minds on this.
For one thing, I am fairly certain that it is doing as well as it is partially BECAUSE of the revealed secret. The sad fact is that the subject of my post here (which I promise to get to eventually) is as evident in readers as it is in publishers and editors. If this book had come out as a mystery novel by J. K. Rowling, it would have done well, but it probably would not have been the phenomenon that it is. Many people would have nodded and smiled, but waited in hopes she’d come back with more Potter. It’s happened to others – John Grisham, and “The Painted House” which is one of his best books, and also slowest performing. The truth is; the “branding” everyone is so hot to create for authors is a two-edged sword, because, by definition – you are branded.
I have mentioned this before, but never attacked it head on. Limiting an author to what an editor, an agent, or even the public expects and wants to hear from them is a horrible, soul-sucking thing. Only at the very top end of publishing, the Kings and Koontz’s of the world, can the bonds be broken, and in most cases it’s because the author’s name has grown so powerful it’s a genre unto itself. Anyone mid-list and below with even moderate success who comes to their agent or editor with something completely different is probably going to be ignored, harangued, or at the very best, forced into a pseudonym – where the book will be treated like any first book and forgotten, and the editor / agent will say SEE? Of all the evils and horrors of the world of publishing as it has grown over the years, bloating, shifting control to agents (who are supposed to work FOR writers) giving marketing control over content, when marketing as often as not wouldn’t know a book if it slapped them in the face but DOES know the lowest-common-sales denominator, and, of course that’s more important than quality, the forcing of authors into “molds” is the most insidious and has probably cost us the most in terms of wonderful, forgotten books.
Writers are artists. They perform at their optimum capability when creating what they need to create, not what someone wants to sell. The farther you stray from this truth, the more generic and cookie-cutter the work becomes. I have not been categorized – not really – because I’ve yet to have one of my books take off. I am certain that if one of them does, that is what I’ll be known for, and judged against, and shelved by… and I will have to fight against that because I simply enjoy writing what excites me too much to go back to writing what someone else thinks I ought to.
J. K. Rowling is my hero because she did what she wanted to do, and then, she made it powerful. She put herself and her name behind it and said “This is what I wanted to write,” and it is GOOD – and I love her for that. I only wish she had not needed to prove the worth of the book by hiding it under another name, and that publishing, the reading public, and life were not so caught up in the notion that you have to buy the known quantity. The movie with the top actor. The book with the biggest name-brand and associated with the history of that brand. The car some idiot drove too fast in a movie that is (in fact) nothing like the one you can buy…
You should all go and read The Cuckoo’s Calling because it’s a wonderful book, and because a talented author wrote it. You should not read it because she wrote Harry Potter… but because you recognize and appreciate her talent. You should not have to make that choice, but the world has put it in front of you… How many people read 50 shades of crap, just because there was a big hoopla over it, and in SPITE of the almost absolute agreement among critics, authors, and readers that the writing wasn’t good? How many people – also despite all of that – will go and buy the book on writing written by this person who by all accounts writes poorly – because it has her name on it? How many of you – honestly – who read or are reading The Cuckoos Calling would have done so if J. K. Rowling had been on the cover originally, and there had never been a secret, or a big deal made of the revealing of that secret?
The question is, of course – can writers make their way writing what they want to write, and can readers learn to pick books – not because of advertising hype, or “branding” - but because of quality? Or will publishing, despite it’s changing face, always make buying books as much like buying cereal as it is like art?