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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secret Names

Now that it has been outed that the celebrated author J K Rowling is the one who wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name Robert Galbraith, it’s time to pop the question that has always bothered the literary community: ‘Royalty cheques are made out in whose name, the author’s or the author’s author?’

Anyway, that Rowling did not bank on her established name, and instead chose to go with an anonymous appellation for a suspense-thriller clearly establishes her confidence, in the contents of the book? No, on the contents of the book’s cover, which we can all safely presume to feature some young girl in some state of undress.

Okay, I am into exaggeration. But crime bestsellers, in the times we were growing up, had to have a curvy lass on the front cover and the biggest suspense that the book held for us was whether the girl would have a role in the novel’s plot or not. Mostly, she didn’t. But we took that in our literary stride.

If this was the case of the front cover, the back one generally featured a breathless blurb, written by someone with the literary qualification of owning a thesaurus. ‘A stoical and standpat solicitor is four-flushed by friends, folly, fate and fear. What follows is a goulash of gore and greed’. This was featured along with picked-out quotes from supposed newspaper reviews. ‘A web of intrigue: Charlotte Chronicle.’ ‘Unputdownable:  San Jose Gazette.’ ‘Page-turner: Miami 3rd Cross Street Bulletin.’ The beauty of such lines is that they could be featured on the back of any book including the Yellow Pages. And, of course, there was the inevitable: “In the New York Times bestseller list for twenty weeks’. All books, almost unfailingly, sported this. How could so many books have made it to the NYT best-sellers list? Well, I think, looking back, New York Times was probably the Taran Adarsh of the book-reviewing business.

Talking of crime writers and pseudonyms, the most successful of them James Hadley Chase was an assumed name. His real name was, the trivia-minded among you would know this, William Shakespeare. No, seriously, his original name was René Lodge Brabazon Raymond. But he gave it up probably because it was so long that if he wrote it on the book, the actual story would have to be featured only in the sequel.

Going further back, John Milton was perhaps the first writer to use a pen name. He wanted to use one because — let us state facts here — grammar was not his strong suite and he was not sure whether his works would succeed in the market.  “But wherefore thou alone? Wherefore with thee Came not all hell broke loose?” is a sample line from his works, which to this day remains a puzzle as to what the author was talking about. As Milton was looking for an anonymous name, his wife, who was pretty practical in these matters, said: ‘John dear, as far as I can tell, Milton is anonymous enough. Nobody knows you with this name itself’. So he went ahead and wrote under the pseudonym Milton, cunningly hiding the fact that Milton was also his real name.

The case of Charles Dickens was slightly different. In that he used a pseudonym for — why not? — the title of his novel. Oliver Twist, if you ask researchers they will confirm this, was not the name of the book he wrote. But just to protect the identity of the lead character of the book, he went with that title. The original name, as given in passport and other documents, was, of course, Sean Connery.

The other famous story of nom de plume (literally, name of Wodehouse in French) is that of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, which, as you can see, is a wonderful name for a warehouse company but not a writer. Clemens looked for a name that would suit his erudition, depth, humour and story-telling skills. Ideally he should have gone for ‘I am anything but Chetan Bhagat’, but eventually settled for the tame and sober: Mark Twain.

All said and done, there is certain charm to having a fictitious name, especially since it comes handy while running away from your bank and creditors, which is mostly the lot of those who choose to take up writing as a career in this country.

That reminds me, I must try and use a pen name for myself. Well, now that it’s free, I think I will take JK Rowling. On second thoughts, make it J ‘KBK’ Rowling.

Also, I prefer cash for royalties.


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