JK Rowling proves we are most ourselves when we pretend to be another

An awareness of the expectations of others is the enemy of storytelling

Share

It is useful to be reminded now and then that, even in apparently respectable parts of the culture, the basic rules of show business apply. Image is all; an ounce of publicity is worth a pound of content, however brilliant it may be. Only the most self-deluding book publisher, for example, could argue with a straight face that the words written by an author are what matter most in the modern world of publishing.

Not for the first time, the sane and sensible JK Rowling, inset, has cast light on the inbuilt nonsense that is part of the books industry. Writing under deep cover, Rowling wrote a thriller using the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. It was turned down by publishers and when it did finally find a home, it sold only moderately. This weekend her cover was blown, and Galbraith/Rowling’s thriller went straight to the top of the best-seller list.

It is a favourite game of chippy authors to reveal the lottery of editorial selection by submitting work which is not as it seems. In the early 1980s, Doris Lessing wrote a book under the pseudonym of Jane Somers, only revealing she was the author after it had been widely rejected. Rowling’s plan was altogether more personal. As a writer, she was trying to escape from her own reputation.

Acquiring a public image may be a huge professional advantage to a writer (or actor or politician), but it comes with a price-tag attached. The enemy of honest, true communication and storytelling is self-consciousness, a distracting awareness of the expectation of others.

It was why the poet Ted Hughes argued against having photos of himself made available by his publisher. “It is fatally easy to acquire, through other people, a view of one’s work from the outside,” he wrote. “As when a child is admired, in its hearing, for something it does naturally. Ever after – that something is corrupted with self-consciousness. It does not need admiration to do this – half-true description and analysis is quite enough. I have seen many talented people ruined by just this.”

One can see the liberation provided by an alter ego most clearly in comedy. When Barry Humphries, Steve Coogan or Ricky Gervais take on the persona of Dame Edna, Alan Partridge or David Brent, the least attractive part of their real public image (self-importance, chippiness, smugness) falls away. They actually look happier too, more at ease. They may be playing a monster or a fool, but in doing so they have become more themselves by being someone else.

It is often why people start writing in the first place, seeing it, often rather dangerously, as a form of therapy, an escape from the oppression of self-consciousness. To let your bad self out of its cage, and follow happily as it roams about doing its worst, can be oddly cheering. In fact, if we could find a forum in which politicians could escape into an alternative reality – Eric Pickles as a smooth seducer, George Osborne as an SAS sniper, Yvette Cooper as a stand-up comic – there would be less rage and frustration in public life.

What JK Rowling has discovered is that when the image trap closes on you and you become public property, much of that hard-earned creative freedom is lost. “One can either see or be seen,” as John Updike wrote in his great book on the subject, Self-Consciousness.

Robert Galbraith will help her, just as Barbara Vine once helped Ruth Rendell to write different, and usually better, books under a new name. Inhabiting another person is a great gift of the creative life, and not even the madness of our image-obsessed culture can take that away.

If you’re aroused and admit it...

In a recklessly brave new book, the American writer Daniel Bergner has advanced a theory of female desire which is likely to discomfit both men and women.

The idea that it is intimacy and commitment which attract women, as opposed to the less discriminating approach of men, has more to do with social fear and pressure than reality, according to Bergner’s What Do Women Want? In fact, it is women who are more likely to be churning with primal, transgressive need than men.

The book details how a group of women were asked to view a series of erotic scenes and to rate their arousal on a keypad. At the same time, their actual physical responses were measured. There was a marked difference between the two.

The women claimed to find only a few of the scenes of erotic interest; their bodies were telling an altogether different story. Men, by contrast, knew all too well what excited them.

Why is it that even when we are shown to be more in touch with our sexuality – rather a good thing, we were always told – we still manage to emerge as less complex and interesting than women.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 Teacher Required in Grays

£21000 - £40000 per annum + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 tea...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show  

When an Aussie calls you a ‘bastard’, you know you’ve arrived

Howard Jacobson
The number of schools converting to academies in the primary sector has now overtaken those in the secondary sector – 2,299 to 1,884 (Getty)  

In its headlong rush to make a profit, our education system is in danger of ignoring its main purpose

Janet Street-Porter
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee