x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Required reading: Writers who use pen names

The debut crime writer Robert Galbraith is in fact literary superstar JK Rowling. We look at other famous literary pseudonyms, perhaps including George Eliot, George Orwell, Mark Twain.

Mary Ann Evans published under the name George Eliot because she thought that the literary establishment would not take a woman seriously.
Mary Ann Evans published under the name George Eliot because she thought that the literary establishment would not take a woman seriously.

The promising debut crime writer Robert Galbraith, the author of the crime novel The Cuckoo's Calling, has been unmasked. He (or rather, she) is really JK Rowling, the billionaire author of the Harry Potter series.

Rowling apparently wanted to publish without the "hype and expectation" that accompany any publication under her own name. She did just that; but the experiment made for a salutary lesson in the realities faced by unknown novelists. The Cuckoo's Calling was praised by critics but sold fewer than 500 copies before its author was revealed: it's now at No 1 on the Amazon charts.

Rowling is not the first successful writer, of course, to turn to the anonymity of a pen name - Stephen King published as Richard Bachman, Ruth Rendell as Barbara Vine, Agatha Christie as Mary Westmacott and Anne Rice as Anne Rampling. Here are some other examples of writers who have used pen names.

• Today, Mary Ann Evans is regarded as one of England's greatest novelists. But when she first published in Victorian England, few realised that she was the true author of works including Middlemarch. Evans published under the name George Eliot because she thought that the literary establishment would not take a woman seriously. She stepped forward when speculation over her identity became intense - and after a man, Joseph Liggins, claimed to be the author of her works.

• The English polemical writer George Orwell is far less well known as Eric Blair. Blair - an Etonian born into an upper-class English family - based his pen name on the Orwell River. It also, perhaps, leant him a psychic distance from his upper class background: necessary to write radical fiction such as Animal Farm, an allegory on the Stalin-era Soviet Union in which farm animals overturn their grasping farmer but soon destroy the animal utopia they have created when the pigs famously declare: "All animals are born equal, but some are more equal than others."

• Already read The Cuckoo's Calling, and looking for more crime fiction? The Booker prize-winning novelist John Banville writes crime fiction under the name Benjamin Black. Holy Orders tells the story of a murder in 1950s Dublin.