What's in a pen name?

When JK Rowling was outed recently as the real Robert Galbraith whose crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling was published as a debut earlier this year, commentators claimed it was a money-making stunt by Rowling or publisher Little, Brown. Then we learned that the source of the original leak was not Rowling, but a friend of the wife of a partner in her law firm who tweeted the truth independently. This quieted those who’d said Rowling did it for more money (I mean, really?), but for me, the more interesting issue was always how the Sunday Times, which exposed Rowling, was so sure that Galbraith, an ex-military policeman and father of two, was Rowling, and then, how a writer could adopt not only a pen name but a false identity.

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The Times relied on software approaches to forensic stylometry. While using pen names and authorship detection have long histories, software approaches are relatively new, and tension exists between those who rely on intuition and close textual analysis and those who rely on crunching the data. In Galbraith’s case, two different programs were used to analyse The Cuckoo’s Calling alongside Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and works by three well known crime writers. One program, developed by Duquesne University computer scientist Patrick Juola, looked for patterns. Juola says that while you adapt some aspects of language, including word length, to the audience you’re writing for, others are harder to change. In addition to the distribution of word length, Juola’s program looks for distribution of the 100 most common words in the language which will identify individual use of little function words. We use these so subconsciously we forget to change them when we’re trying to be someone else. It also searches for n-grams, groups of characters within and across words, that are reliably consistent to an author. The software concluded that The Cuckoo’s Calling was more likely written by the author of The Casual Vacancy than by the other authors.

Software approaches are getting better, but some still believe intuition and textual analysis will always trump. I was one of them. I read two cracker crime novels by Inger Ash Wolfe, who, according to her blurb, was a “well known North American writer.” Wolfe’s protagonist is a 62-year-old female detective with a bad back, and I knew Wolfe to be Margaret Atwood long before any real identity was revealed. Wolfe shared Atwood’s eye for clinical detail and the writing had that wry Atwood tone. Not only that, Atwood’s advice to young writers is to buy a good chair (bad back, aha!) But Wolfe is not Atwood. She’s another Canadian, Michael Redhill, who fessed up last year. Redhill had wanted a secret identity since childhood, he said, and he now rather likes being Wolfe, who writes more quickly, enjoys writing more and makes more money than he does.

So, is software the future when it comes to outing authors? No, according to Juola, who says joint approaches will always be needed. The original interest in Galbraith’s novel was readers themselves, he said, who started tweeting about why an ex-soldier would know so much about women’s fashion.

Pen names are used by many writers for many reasons including wanting to escape themselves (spend 24 hours in any writer’s head and you’ll understand why). But the other part of what Rowling did was to adopt a fictional identity. Galbraith is an ex-military policeman, we’re told, and this background and experience informed the writing of the novel. This is untrue, as is everything else about him. It’s a slippery slope, even if Rowling’s motives were innocent. Australian writer Helen Demidenko, who won the Miles Franklin with her novel about the treatment of Ukrainians during World War II, was really Helen Darville, but it wasn’t the pen name that irked readers. It was the non-existent Ukrainian heritage. We knew Redhill’s Wolfe wasn’t real from the get-go, and readers always have a right to that knowledge.

I’d wish Rowling well if I ever met her, because whatever else she does in life, she gave millions of children the gift of reading. I understand too why she might want to be someone else as a writer at times. All of that’s fine, but from now on, Galbraith should stop pretending he exists.


Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend  on 10 August 2013. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch,  tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!