In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was common for female authors to use male pen names so they'd be taken seriously as writers. One would think that this particular chapter of history had closed, but J.K. Rowling's explanation of why she used a pen name to write Harry Potter is a depressing reminder that sexism is everywhere and the literary world is no exception.
In a recent interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Rowling revealed that her publisher wanted to conceal her gender from readers.
"My publisher, who published Harry Potter, they said to me, we think this is a book that will appeal to boys and girls," the author recalled. "And I said, oh, great. And they said, so could we use your initials?"
Rowling, whose real name is Joanne, explained that publishers wanted to "disguise" her gender for the sole reason that Harry Potter would appeal to both male and female readers.
Of course, Rowling's gender didn't stay a secret for long and she's now one of the most recognisable people in the world.
"The book won an award and I got a big advance from America and I got a lot of publicity," she told Amanpour. "So I was outed as a woman."
Rowling added that she likes her initials and she wouldn't necessarily have minded using them as her pen name, but she takes issue with the sexist reason she was asked to do so. Nevertheless, she managed to bring attention to sexism while remaining totally gracious about the matter. Rowling told Amanpour that, because she was so grateful for the opportunity to have her book published, she would have written under any name. "If they told me to call myself Rupert, I probably would have done to be honest with you," she said.
And now that J.K. Rowling is a household name, she actually likes having some separation between her public and private lives. "Now, I actually quite like having a pen name, because I feel that's...like an identity and then in private life, I'm Jo Murray. And it feels like quite a nice separation."
Rowling certainly deserves praise for her graciousness and, in the end, it turned out that using a pen name worked out very well. But the reason she was told to use a pen name in the first place is completely unacceptable.