Boyd Tonkin: Alter egos, doppelgängers and the lure of the second string

The Week in Books

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As in a classic whodunit on the page, so with the mysteries of the literary world. Only in hindsight does the most obvious clue hit you in the face. Which other figure in modern public life used to publish under the initials "JK"? US economist, historian and diplomat, the late JK Galbraith conceivably lent his surname to Ms Rowling's nom de plume. Then again, "JK Rowling" was itself a kind of pseudonym. Just as, 165 years ago, the Brontë sisters first published as Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell to dodge the unladylike taint of authorship, so for the Potter series she drew a veil over Joanne to bypass the reluctance of young male readers to pick up girly books.

Pseudonyms are as ancient, and as diverse, as literature itself. In many accounts, the novel in England begins with a certain "Daniel Defoe" - a serial user of pseudonyms and just plain "Foe" before he added the posh prefix. The most straightforward kind of literary double life involves the creation of two or more brands or strands for a single author, with no subterfuge. Most elegantly, a simple "M" separated the much-missed Iain Banks, novelist of childhood, Scotland and so much else, from the SF voyager into distant galaxies. Sometimes the twin identities can begin to overlap: arguably, that has begun to happen with Ruth Rendell and her, originally darker, alter ego of "Barbara Vine".

On occasions, the second string may drown out the first. Madeleine Wickham did well enough with the six romantic comedies that followed The Tennis Party in 1995. But it was her other life as "Sophie Kinsella", writer of the Shopaholic series, that pushed her to the top of the charts. Now, those earlier titles have been repackaged with covers that proclaim their authorship as "Sophie Kinsella writing as Madeleine Wickham". Creepy, no? This reverse takeover by the more celebrated doppelgänger strikes me as the perfect subject for a Gothic chiller in the vein of RL Stevenson or Henry James.

Rowling's concoction of "Robert Galbraith" seems to belong on that rack of disguises aimed to vindicate already-successful writers in their own - and others' - suspicious eyes. Does fame, perceived as too fast or too fluky, breed the drive for anonymous acclaim as the final proof of worth? Studied since the 1970s, the "impostor syndrome" afflicts high-achieving people – perhaps women more than men - who at some level believe that they remain frauds and fakes despite public renown.

This self-doubt can persist up to the very zenith of a literary career. In the early 1980s, Doris Lessing tried to publish two novels under the name of "Jane Somers". Her usual UK publishers turned down the first. Later, Lessing explained the ruse as the outcome of her desire "to be reviewed on merit, as a new writer, without the benefit of a 'name', to get free of that cage of associations and labels that every established writer has to learn to live inside". Rowling has now said almost exactly that in relation to The Cuckoo's Calling. Possibly, however, that initial rejection was exactly what Lessing sought.

"Robert Galbraith" still has some way to go before he/she matches the French prince of the nom de plume, Romain Gary - whose own life (born Roman Kacew in Vilnius) reads like fiction. In 1956, Gary won the Prix Goncourt (which you can only be awarded once) for Les racines du ciel. In 1975, quite undetected by judges or critics, he won it again as "Emile Ajar" for La vie devant soi. In retrospect, Gary-watchers did of course find clues as to the pen behind this most spectacular of masquerades. As Rowling did, as hoaxers always do, Gary - a pun-loving English speaker - grasped that the icon in disguise has to leave the door to discovery just a little… ajar.

Disrespectful, divisive: a prize with attitude

The new Folio Prize for fiction (on whose “Academy” I serve) has announced its jury for the first award in 2014. Drawn by lot from the academicians and adjusted for balance between genders, and UK and international judges, the team is chaired by poet Lavinia Greenlaw and includes Sarah Hall, Michael Chabon, Nam Le and Pankaj Mishra. Chabon refers to great fiction’s “crucial disrespect” for boundaries; Hall notes it “can be divisive as well as edifying”. Dull and bland, I trust, this prize will never be.

In court with the real Galbraith

How widely should writers – and their agents – consult before they settle on a choice of pseudonym (see above)? One piece of evidence in favour of “Robert Galbraith” not being a corporate PR stunt cooked up by JK Rowling’s publisher, Little, Brown, can be uncovered in 15 seconds on the net.

For an actual Robert Galbraith is, in fact, no stranger to action in the courts. A family-law attorney in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Mr Galbraith specialises in divorce. He “understands that these cases are already infused with a great deal of emotion”, and “refuses to take advantage of emotion”. Instead, he will “skillfully pursue a positive resolution through negotiation whenever possible.

However, he understands that trial may be necessary. He will aggressively seek the results you need.” It sounds as if the real Mr G should already star in his own series of books.