Monday, 12 August 2013

Nom de Plume and a Furious J.K. Rowling

It is not easy being Joanne, as in Joanne—J.K.—, Rowling. In 2008 Rowling was named as the twelfth richest woman in the United Kingdom. She is also, in all probabilities, world’s richest author, with her fortune estimated at more than 500 million pounds, thanks to her phenomenally popular Harry Potter series of books, the first of which was published in 1997. Rowling went on to publish five (or is it six?) further squeals of the novel, all of which became super-duper hits, were made into films (where a wooden faced boy played the lead role, an ugly boy was his side-kick, and a pimply girl was his love interest) which, too, became hugely successful.

The Harry Potter books were phenomena. Children and their parents would queue outside the high street bookshops overnight to get their hands on the novels as soon as they were available. The target audience of these books was young teenagers. However, the novels also became hugely popular amongst many adults, at least in the UK. An ex-girlfriend and a long-term friend of mine were obsessed with the Harry Potter books and films, and would read and watch them (respectively) repeatedly. I would be repeatedly exhorted to give the books a try and labelled as snobbish for my persistent refusal to accede to the requests. In the end just to shut them up I read one of the books, which, it was put to me, was the “darkest” of the series, the implication being someone like me (even someone like me), who was a bit limited in his imagination, would find something of interest in this novel. The novel was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Don’t ask me what the novel was about; I don’t remember. If you belong to the legion of Harry Potter fans you’d probably know it already. The book was a waste of time. The story-line was not riveting. I guess all the books in the series follow the same theme: Harry has great powers of magic; he is some sort of messiah except that he does not know it (yet); the villains are after `him and he gets into some sticky situations; however, just as things begin to look a bit grim for him, he unleashes one of his crackerjack magic tricks and saves the day (yawn). If the subject matter was not enough to deaden the brain, the monotonously, hypnotically dreary prose put me into a trance; my brain just couldn’t work. When I informed my ex-girlfriend and friend that I found Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban less exciting than  Antique Road Show I was accused of being prejudiced. “Prejudiced about what?” I asked. “You are prejudiced against children’s literature,” the ex-girlfriend hissed. (She was a good hisser. She also liked to read, in addition to Harry Potter novels, fantasy fiction in which a twelfth century Zen master, who is adept at Kung Fu techniques Jackie Chan would give his right arm to learn, time-travels and lands in twentieth century Stafford-on-Avon; or underworld novels; or erotica of busty middle aged housewives in rural Norfolk who dream of rolling in the hay with the local pig-farmer while rubbing themselves senseless in the bath.) Not daring to voice the opinion that calling children’s books “literature” was a bit like describing eating  in your local MacDonald’s branch  as a Michelin star gourmet experience, I said, “That’s because it is written for children, and I am an adult.” “I rest my point,” the ex-girlfriend hissed adjusting (without much difficulty) her face in a position of sneer.

I haven’t read another Harry Potter novel, since. ‘Life is too short to read Harry Potter,’ I say if anyone asks me (no one does) if I have read "Harry Potter". (I have found that it is a good strategy to start any confession about omissions with ‘Life is too short to . . .’ It suggests that while you are ignorant, it is by choice; you are choosing to stay ignorant because the matter does not interest you; it is beneath your consideration; not because you are too thick to understand and therefore appreciate the matter; there are better, more important and more interesting, things clamouring for your attention.) These novels were written for young teenagers for a reason, which adults would do well to remember.

In 2007 Rowling published the last of the Harry Potter novels, and soon declared her intention to write novels for adults (which suggests that even she thought that the Harry Potter novels could only be enjoyed by those adults whose mental development was arrested at the age of eleven.)

In 2012 Rowling published Casual Vacancies, her first adult novel and the first novel since the Harry Potter series, under her own name. The book sold over a million copies despite the mauling it received from critics (what do they know, eh?) and has apparently been adapted by the BBC for a television series. I remember reading that Sikh religious leaders in India announced that they had received complaints from unhappy readers (presumably Sikhs) about Rowling’s portrayal of the character of a Sikh teenage girl in the novel. The girl is apparently described as a hirsute and with large mammaries. I do not know what it was that the Sikh religious leaders found offensive. (Maybe it is a physiological impossibility that Sikh women are big busted, or hirsute, as stipulated in the religious scriptures.) The Sikh religious leaders announced that they would carefully read the novel and determine whether the novel insulted their great religion; and, if it did, petition to the Indian government to ban the book in India. I don’t remember reading anything more on the matter (which suggests one of the following possibilities: (1) the Sikh religious leaders were satisfied that Rowling did not insult Sikhism despite the Sikh girl in the novel having big tits and abundant  facial hair; (2) the Sikh religious leaders began reading the novel and became suicidal themselves reading about the bleak England with myriad social problems such as drug abuse, rape, child abuse and poverty, and were advised to abandon the reading in the interest of their mental health; they were, therefore, unable to reach a decision as to whether their religion was insulted; (3) the Sikh religious leaders can’t read English and are waiting for a Punjabi translation to become available.)

In 2013 Rowling published a crime fiction novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling under the nom de plume Robert Galbraith. Why did Rowling decide to publish her novel under a pseudonym (and a male one at that)? It is tempting to think that after the global success of Harry Potter novels Rowling wanted to find out how a novel of hers which did not boast her name would be received. There is something in this theory. When a new novel by a successful author is published the hopes and expectations soar which, the author might think, conspire to the novel being unfairly treated, being (unfavourably) compared with the previous works of the author. (Apparently Casual Vacancies was unfavourably compared by some critics to Harry Potter novels, although quite how an adult novel dealing with grim and weighty social issues be compared with a fantasy children’s novel depicting the exploits of a boy wizard is unfathomable to me.) Maybe Rowling wished The Cuckoo’s Calling to be viewed on its own merit and not be hampered by its author’s world-wide reputation. (Perhaps Martin Amis could take a clue from this. It has become fashionable these days to pan a new Martin Amis novel, the consensus amongst the critics being Amis has not written anything worth reading since The Time’s Arrow.) It is also possible that Rowling wanted to find out how a new novel of hers under a different name would sell. I am sure many novelists would dearly wish to be in her position. You have earned so much money, you have become so wealthy, that you want to find out whether your new offering would sell without your name. You would want to find it out when you are in that happy position where it does not matter a jot, financially, whether your novel sells or not. 

Occasionally a writer might adopt a pseudonym when he writes a novel in a different genre. The 2005 Booker Prize winner John Banville published a crime thriller under the pseudonym Benjamin Black after his Booker victory. I heard Banville a few years ago in a literary festival. He said that he decided to write under a different name because he did not want his readers (both of them) to look for the same thing in his crime novel as in his literary novels, which, I thought, was a slightly overblown way of putting things. (Banville came across as a nice bloke; a little pleased with himself and utterly convinced about his place in the literature (top rung), but nice all the same.) In Banville’s case the pseudonym was announced publically (I think) around the time of the publication of his crime novel, and, if I am remembering correctly, the novel (Christine Falls) also mentioned that the name of the author was a pen-name of Banville (which, if you think of it, defeated Banville’s stated  purpose of using the pseudonym to manipulate readers’ expectations.) I suspect Banville, despite his numerous literary triumphs, is not in that happy position of not being bothered about whether or not his new novel sells; and the public announcement of his nom de plume, soon after his booker triumph, could have been an (understandable) attempt to cash in on the publicity.

So Rowling wrote a novel under a pseudonym. Why a male pseudonym? I read in WikiPedia that she was advised to drop Joanne from her name before the publication of the first Harry Potter book, apparently because it was felt that teenage male readers might not wish to read about a teenage boy wizard if the author was a woman; hence the gender-neutral initials J.K. It could be that the genre of crime novels is dominated by men, therefore Rowling chose a male pseudonym (which suggests that she was interested in the book selling; alternatively, she was taking every precaution that she would not be associated with the nom de plume).

Be that as it may The Cuckoo’s Calling was published earlier this year under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, and, not associated in any way with the author of the Harry Potter novels, attracted decent (if lukewarm) critical reviews, and sold very modestly. I read on the net that the novel was offered by Rowling’s agent, initially, to a different publishing house (from one that published Casual Vacancy). The publishing house rejected the novel. After this rejection the novel was offered by Rowling’s agent to Rowling’s own editor, who, thus, must have known about the identity of its author and, therefore, was unlikely to reject it. (Why did Rowling choose not to submit the novel anonymously to another publishing house instead of going straight to her regular publishers?  I guess there is only so much rejection one’s ego can take; and the thresholds differ.) 

Last month it was announced in The Sunday Times that Robert Galbraith, the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, was none other than J.K. Rowling.  Overnight the novel, promoted by Rowling’s publishers (Little Brown) as a “classic crime novel in the tradition of P.D. James and Ruth Rundell”, which had sold a few hundred copies in the UK and America until then (which apparently is a respectable number for a debut novel), jumped up 5000 places on the Amazon list and became number one best-seller on Amazon’s Kindle list; it also reached the number one position on other lists such as the print books list and the Barnes and Noble’s print list.

It would appear that Rowling was not planning to announce that she was Robert Galbraith when she was exposed by The Sunday Times, and was not hyperventilating  about the fate of her detective novel, which until then—there isn’t a kinder way to put this—had barely made a ripple. There was no conspiracy behind the outing of Rowling (famous author writes a book anonymously—sales are crap—author’s real identity is dramatically revealed). The truth was prosaic. A lawyer working in the law firm that represents a number of celebrities (Rowling amongst them) told the best friend of his wife, an idle housewife in Surrey, in a private conversation, that The Cuckoo’s Calling was in fact written by J.K. Rowling. The idle housewife then spilled the beans on twitter. (Why did she do it? She did it because she is an idle housewife. That’s what idle housewives do. They gossip; they babble; they spill the beans for the empty thrill it offers. Expecting idle, gossipy housewives and mothers to keep a secret is like asking Dawn French to look after your pie; it’s not going to happen. George Osborne, the loathsome British chancellor of Exchequer, said recently that women who choose to be housewives are making a life-style choice and should not be in receipt of child benefits. In light of the evidence provided by the idle housewife from Surrey I am inclined to think that there may be something in what this pasty, podgy, arrogant turdbag says.)

J.K Rowling was apparently upset (picturize her, if you can, slapping her hand on her forehead, as if the waiter had f**ked up her cocktail for the seventh time in a row); she was distressed; she was disappointed (picturize her, if you can, clucking her tongue, as if the John Dory she ordered was roasted a tad too much so as to render it a tad too dry); she was furious—more furious than an American footballer who has been called a pussy; she was very angry—madder than a factory full of hatters on acid. Here she was, luxuriating in the knowledge that, without the back up of her celebrity name, The Cuckoo’s Calling had sold less copies than a V.S. Naipaul novel; and now she was faced with the dreadful prospect of the novel becoming an overnight best-seller. Oh, the horror of it! The poor woman had no choice but to sue the lawyer, who had made the fatal error of letting the idle house wife from Surrey on the true identity of the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, believing that she would keep the secret (more likely he was bragging, as they all like to do, I imagine, about their celebrity clients), and the idle housewife from Surrey. The firm, the lawyer and the idle housewife from Surrey apologized unreservedly; the firm agreed to meet Rowling’s legal cost (no bonus for the lawyer this year) and also pay damages to Rowling. Rowling announced that the damages received would be donated to a soldier’s charity as would be the royalties for the next three years (which is very generous, but shouldn’t she have donated the money to the victims and families of the victims, of countries, which happened to be rich in natural resources, to which Britain along with her master, America, decided to export democracy, which meant that British soldiers were forced to kill (very unfortunate) hundreds of thousands of civilians in collateral damages?).

In a statement Rowling said: “To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. I had assumed that I could expect total confidentiality from Russells [the lawyer’s firm], a reputable professional firm, and I feel very angry that my trust turned out to be misplaced.

One expects that the publishers (Little Brown) share Rowling’s sense of betrayal and outrage and are frothing at the mouth now that they have to commission 300,000 extra copies to keep up with the demand. A real kick in the teeth. (Kate Mills, publishing director of Orions, who rejected the novel, said that the novel was “perfectly good”, “certainly well written”, but “didn’t stand out”. I bet she is still happy about her judgment and is not at all ruing that her publishing company missed out on a blockbuster.)

You might wonder why Rowling thought she was entitled for compensation. She suffered no material loss as a result of this disclosure. If anything the sales of her novel received a boost when the idle housewife from Surrey babbled. (The idle housewife received no thanks for her kindness; into the bargain she—rather, one expects, her very annoyed husband, seeing as the woman is idle—has to cough up money to pay another idle woman (OK, she writes novels, but is that real work?) who is already worth hundreds of millions of pound and does not need the money. That should teach the idle housewife, the one who does not write novels, that is, a lesson. I’d suggest she find herself a job in the local county council library.) But, I guess, this is not about money. It is about Rowling’s entitlement to privacy, which was breached by the bragging lawyer and silly housewife. Imagine if you can the distress this revelation caused to the millionaire writer. It is not easy to recover from such a setback. It is very appropriate that Rowling received compensation.

What the whole affair proves, if proof be needed, is that being a writer of fiction is a very brave (or foolish) career choice. Chances are your work will not be accepted by publishing agencies if you are not an established author. If it does, chances are the book won’t sell .This is probably more true of literary fiction than genre fiction. (I find it significant that Rowling chose to publish the literary novel under her own name, but the crime fiction under a pen-name.)

To summarize: a famous author publishes a crime novel under a pseudonym. The novel sells moderately. Until the author’s name is leaked. The novel’s sales rocket. More publicity for the author (and her hitherto moderately selling novel).Then the author sues the persons who leaked her name and wins damages (more money). The author donates the money to a charity (the chief executive of which, I expect, will give himself (or herself; let’s not be gender-biased, here) a salary rise) and earns more brownie points.

J.K. Rowling might have been left speculating (as regards her novel written under a pseudonym) what might have been, what she wished had been, indeed, what would have been but for a boastful lawyer and gossipy housewife; and contrast it (ruefully, of course—because neither the windfall of sales nor more publicity is adequate compensation for the breach of trust and trauma caused to one's sensitive and delicate constitution) with what did happen. But I doubt it.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Book of the Month: Paper Houses (Michele Roberts)

The prolific British novelist Michele Roberts (once nominated for the Booker Prize for her novel, Daughters of the House), also the receiver of the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts des et Lettres awarded by the French government, declares that she is a woman damaged by Catholicism. For most of her life, judging by her warts and all memoirs, Paper Houses, Roberts has tried to reject her Catholic upbringing, and, with it, the middle class Tory values of her parents. Roberts’s father had a working class background; however, the family had become middle class when Roberts and her siblings grew up.

When Roberts returned to London after finishing her degree course in Oxford, at the start of the 1970s, her aim, to begin with, was to train as a librarian. However, much to her parents’ dismay, she gave up on the idea and announced that she was going to earn her living by writing (the young Roberts believed that she had a flair for poetry). She also hurled herself into the Bohemian lifestyle embraced by many young men and women from middleclass backgrounds. This involved, based on the evidence supplied by Roberts, living in squats, holding ultra-leftist feminist views, joining marches and demonstrations against the Capitalists, contributing to radical magazines, participating in Street theatres, smoking dope and (occasionally) snorting cocaine, letting one’s hair down in wild parties, and sexual promiscuity aplenty.  There is rather a lot of sex in the book, as Roberts informs the readers about her various sexual exploits. By her own admission, Roberts did not learn to come for a long time and worried that she might be frigid. However, once she learned how to, she laid down her carpet, so to speak, for the inspection of a cavalcade of men and women. It was all, one supposes, part of experimenting with freedom and a desire to push the envelope, engendered by the liberal values prevailing at the time. Roberts, to her credit, has avoided falling into the trap of overdoing it. Thus, when she narrates an incident, where a fellow commune member and husband of one of her friends, in a sexual experiment, makes Roberts and another woman lie on his either side and fingers their clitorises,  if the intention was to titillate, it is expertly camouflaged by the matter of fact tone. Curiously, for a writer avowedly big on workings of the mind—there are countless references to Roberts ‘diving’ into her unconscious to procure material for her fiction—her responses to the sexual encounters are banal and clichéd.  This is not to suggest that Roberts is dissimulating when she says she enjoyed sex, nor that she should have invested the encounters with feelings she did not experience; it is just that Roberts, who analyses everything—to death, you might be excused for thinking at times—is content to luxuriate in superficialities (‘I thoroughly enjoyed it’) while describing her responses to sexual acts which pop up on every other page in the first half of her book. In the memoir Roberts recounts her own struggles with breaking the taboos and talks, deftly blending Freudian psychology with her Catholic upbringing (which she found repressive) about the disapproving ‘Mother Superior of her mind’, repeatedly chastising her and stifling her creativity for a long time by telling her that she was wicked and no good. Perhaps the punitive superego is still at work. Towards the end Roberts turns overtly analytical and—probably from the knowledge indirectly gleaned through her own therapy—analyses her relationship with her father, and arrives at the (not altogether surprising) conclusion that what she must have really wanted to do was to have a physical relationship with him.

In a literary event, promoting the memoir, Roberts described herself as a flaneur. There is certainly a lot of flaneuring in the memoir. The bits where Roberts describes her explorations of the city are the most enjoyable, not least because Roberts’s love for London, her home for well over three decades, which shines through these reminiscences. The quaint pubs and cafes, her stays in cheap rooms in parts of London which were far-flung in those days (and where local men had a strong tendency to regard young women walking alone as either lesbians or on the game; Roberts, it would appear, could not walk more than a few steps without being subjected to lecherous comments, just because she neglected to wear a brassiere) are brought to life brightly and distinctly. The reader marvels at the intensity and acuity of these recollections as Roberts describes with great vividness minutiae. (While describing an impromptu beach picnic she once had with one of her innumerable friends Roberts remembers that her breasts popped out of her skimpy top every time she rowed).

Paper Houses is a candid memoir of an intelligent, idealistic, creative, emotional person who lived through the heady days of left-wing politics in the seventies. The young Roberts, working for outré magazines of the counterculture like Spare Rib and Oz, was convinced that she was part of a revolution that would change the world. Written in the first person singular and in past tense, the emotions and thinking process are those of a young Roberts, raw and unanalyzed. It is to the credit of the older, mature, Roberts that she has not allowed hindsight to cast its retrospective influence and distort the naive idealism of her younger self which attempted to be a revolutionary feminist, novelist, poet, street theatre actor, and a bibliophile, all at the same time. Roberts was trying her best to break out of the comfortable, middle-class background, yet all her endeavours, as she is frank and honest enough to admit, were cas typique bourgeois.  When she worked in Clerkenwell, her  fellow workers, all working class women from Essex, viewed Roberts’s endeavours with a mixture of amusement and contempt: they thought  feminism was “something for middle-class chicks wanting to get into the middle-class men's world”.  For her fellow members in the various radical households she lived in, Roberts was not radical enough: they considered her “too wide-eyed and emotional” and pooh-poohed her writing aspirations as bourgeois individualism.

Roberts strives hard—too hard, you suspect—to give the impression of a person full of joi de verve. The sheer number of friends and acquaintances who appear in the memoirs is bewildering—there are so many of them, and they pop up every so often, that it is a bit difficult to keep a track. Thus, when on page 250, say, a character, say, Joe, appears, you suspect, given the familiarity with which Roberts speaks of him, that he has appeared somewhere earlier in the memoirs; but when and where? In a way it does not matter. Such is the pace and momentum of Roberts’s narrative that the reader is tempted to just go with the flow. The writing is highly impressionistic and the reader does not get insights into the workings of the minds of the procession of characters that appear; they remain, all the time, supporting characters in the big, exciting drama of Roberts’s life. You wonder whether the people were more complex and multilayered than Roberts’s breezy, passing impressions suggest. Even, the two ex-husbands—who feature prominently in Roberts’s account of her two failed marriages—remain sfumato.

Paper Houses is a quaint, nostalgic reflection on the milieu which contributed to the development of one of the important novelists of our generation. Roberts emerges from this narration as a thoughtful, perceptive and generous human being, although you wonder whether underneath all the chutzpah, (deceptively) breezy prose and wassailary tone lurk stygian emotions.