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JK Rowling casts light on nonsense of the book industry

It is useful to be reminded, every now and then that, even in apparently respectable parts of the culture, the basic rules of showbusiness 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 has cast light on the inbuilt nonsense that is part and parcel of the books industry.

Writing under deep cover, Rowling wrote a thriller, using the pseudonym 'Robert Galbraith'. It was turned down by publisher after publisher and, when it did finally find a home, it sold only moderately. Then, last weekend, her cover was blown and Galbraith/Rowling's thriller went straight to the top of the bestseller list. This has also been done by authors in the past.

In the early 1980s, the venerable Doris Lessing wrote a book under the pseudonym of 'Jane Somers', only revealing that 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.

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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.

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 with themselves. 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.

What JK Rowling has discovered is that, when the image trap closes in on you and you become public property, much of that hard-earned creative freedom will be lost.

Robert Galbraith will help Rowling, 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.

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