“Stolen Valor” or No Big Deal? (More on J.K. Rowling As “Robert Galbraith”)

HoRoGalIn J.K. Rowling as “Robert Galbraith”: Is it Consumer Fraud?, I argue that Rowling’s false biography is more than a mere pseudonym.  That Rowling pretended to be ex-military officer “Robert Galbraith” to sell her latest novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, is unethical and possibly even consumer fraud. It’s wrong to lie about the origin of a book for personal gain; does it make it even worse that Rowling purported to be a military officer, someone who volunteered to lay his/her life on the line for his/her country?

We may debate the merits of specific military actions, but the high regard a society gives its soldiers has ancient roots. In Book XII of Homer’s The Iliad, for example, Sarpedon, the King of Lycia, speaks to his cousin about the material benefits and enhanced social status they gain from their military service:

Glaucus, you know how you and I
Have the best of everything in Lycia—
Seats, cuts of meat, full cups, everybody
Looking to us  though we were gods?
Not to mention our estates on the Xanthus,
Fine orchards and riverside wheat fields.
Well, now we have to take our stand at the front,
Where all the best fight, and face the heat of battle,
So that many an armored Lycian will say,
‘So they’re not inglorious after all,
Our Lycian lords who eat the fat sheep
And drink the sweetest wine. No,
They’re strong, and fight with our best.’

Classics scholar Stanley Lombardo interprets this passage (and its his translation) as showing a series of “bargains and calculations on which [Sarpedon’s] society rests,” with those who fight for their country receiving the honor they deserve.

In modern times, at least in the United States, where I live and where Rowling’s book has been sold, we do not quite provide our veterans with the type of benefits Sarpedon mentions in his speech — for proof, look only to the over 120,000 veterans who experience homelessness at some point during the year. However, there is also no question that we tell ourselves that we revere our soldiers for their sacrifice, even if it’s with little more than a Facebook status update on Memorial Day.

Consistent with that respect for veterans, our society discourages and punishes those who try to capitalize off of the sacrifice of others. For example, in 2005, in the Stolen Valor Act, the U.S. Congress made it a criminal act to lie about the award of military decorations or medals, with an enhanced penalty for lying about receipt of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Seven years later, in a plurality opinion in United States v. Alvarez, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the Stolen Valor Act as a violation of the First Amendment because, in the absence of any clear financial harm from the lies, it wasn’t clear why the Act was necessary: “The Government points to no evidence to support its claim that the public’s general perception of military awards is diluted by false claims such as those made by Alvarez.” That is to say, the Court held our society’s respect for decorated soldiers is so great that a few “charlatans” here and there would not diminish it.

Congress and President Obama recently passed a new version of the Act that is limited to instances where a person lies about military honors “with the intent to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit.” I don’t know about comparable laws in the UK, but I don’t doubt their reverence for the military, considering that both Princes enlisted.

Rowling didn’t lie about military honors, but her fake biography claimed that “Galbraith” spent “several years with the Royal Military Police,” “was attached to the SIB (Special Investigative Branch),” and “left the military in 2003.” According to the biography, the main character of The Cuckoo’s Calling “grew directly” from these experiences.

According to Rowling in the FAQ portion of the “Robert Galbraith” website, she falsified “Galbraith’s” military record because:

It was the easiest and most plausible reason for Robert to know how the Special Investigation Branch operates and investigates. Another reason for making him a military man working in the civilian security industry was to give him a solid excuse not to appear in public or provide a photograph.

There are two problems with this explanation. First, as I wrote about before, Rowling’s claim Robert “knew” how the Special Investigation Branch works is simply false; Rowling does not directly “know” anything about the Special Investigation Branch. Second, her rationale for “making him a military man” is nonsense. If an author doesn’t want to appear in public or provide a photograph, no one cares. Rowling wanted to profit off the elevated status of and intrigue associated with military officers. This was the biography that Rowling and her publisher, Little, Brown, and Company’s Mulholland Books, thought would sell copies of the novel, and it amazes me that they didn’t think twice about assuming a false military background.

So, what do you think? Did Rowling and her publisher misappropriate the valor of soldiers to make money? Would it have been an equivalent deception had “Galbraith” merely purported to have civilian experience? Or is it no big deal either way?

*This post stems from a comment from author/blogger Rick Wiedeman.

**Image: A composite of portions of three covers, Homer’s The Iliad, Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, and Rowling’s The Goblet of Fire.


  1. The false bio seems problematic to me too, but I wonder if it had been less grand if it would have bothered me. For example, if she had said she was and English professor or journalist. To create a pseudonym and invent an eccentric character around him/her would seem like an interesting conceit for a writer too, which leads to the question how much deceit is too much?

    1. It’s hard to know where to draw the line. Not all deceptions are false advertising under the law (at least under US federal law). So, for me, the issue is whether the deception is likely to influence purchasing decisions. If her bio had said, “Robert Galbraith is a writer living in Edinburgh (or some other place),” then I don’t think it’s a problem because such a generic bio, even with the pseudonym, is less likely to influence purchasing decisions. I think the same is true if it said English professor or journalist. It’s deceitful, but far less likely to induce someone to buy the work, particularly if it doesn’t claim that the idea for the main character grew from experiences the author doesn’t actually have.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. You really made a very good argument. I never realized there was so much ‘law’ to impersonating a military person like there is with impersonating a police officer. For different reasons and results to the crime, but it sill goes to the respect of the profession. No doubt, what a dumb thing she did with this move. I am surprised the publisher would be on board, or even be the one making the bio. It seems they should be a more responsible watchdog.

    1. Yeah, I’m surprised the publisher would permit/encourage this type of blatant lying, but I suppose the lesson is that they’ll do anything for money. Even if there were a consumer fraud lawsuit, it probably wouldn’t make a dent in Rowling/Little Brown’s profit. This is one of those perverse examples when lying is “worth it” (unless you have a conscience). It makes Rowling a terrible role model for other authors and for children, and it makes me very suspicious of everything Little Brown publishes.

  3. I have no problem with pseudonyms, but I do have a problem with false biographies. I agree that not having an author photo is no big deal (at least it wouldn’t impact my book purchase). Overall, it was silly. Why not build on your fan base as you branch out into new genres?

    Clearly she gained credibility in the genre through the false background, which reeks of fraud. The funny thing is, only her insecurity necessitated this. Apparently it’s a good book, and was doing fine — not Harry Potter fine, but quite fine for a debut crime novel.

    Thanks for the conversation… it really is interesting stuff.

    1. Author bios impact my purchasing decisions, but author photos don’t. Basically, I think Rowling’s response to that FAQ is just more lies, but she gets away with it because she’s JK Rowling. No one seems to care that she lied to them to make a profit, making her an incredibly bad role model for other authors and also for children (who otherwise adore her for Harry Potter). It’s a shame.

  4. This would make a good question for law students! It’s surely a matter of degree and in this case I feel that no one has suffered and Team JK has just messed up rather stupidly. I was interested to read that the Supreme Court can overrule Congress – I’m pretty sure the UK Parliament can’t be overruled in that way.
    I understand there’s no UK equivalent to the Stolen Valor Act.
    That’s a great passage from the Iliad AMB and altogether a very interesting post, thank you.

    1. I imagine that there are few people out there who mind that the book they thought was written by Robert Galbraith is actually written by the world famous JK Rowling. So, it’s unlikely to result in a consumer fraud case, but there might be someone out there who reads crime novels, isn’t a huge Harry Potter fan, and really did purchase the book because he/she thought it was based on the author’s actual experience. Any lawsuit, though, probably wouldn’t even make a dent in Rowling’s and Little Brown’s profit. So, either they were supremely stupid by promoting a book under a false biography without thinking about it carefully, or they made a calculated decision to lie for money. Either way, it makes Rowling a terrible role model for other writers and for children (who otherwise love her for Harry Potter), and it makes me suspicious of everything Little Brown publishes.

  5. I don’t think that J.K. Rowling did this intentionally to hurt the veterans, but it just wasn’t as well thought out as I would have hoped for. It seems like the wrong questions were asked. Rather than asking, “Why wouldn’t Galbraith appear in a photograph?”, the real question would/should have been, “Is this morally acceptable?” It’s a curious case where a lot of thinking was used, but just in the wrong direction.

    1. Yes, she should have considered whether this was ethically acceptable. I’m amazed she did it with the blessing of her publisher (the fake bio might have been their idea initially; I don’t know), and now I’m suspicious of everything that comes out of Little, Brown. As for Rowling’s intent, I think it was to deceive people into buying a novel from an unknown author by using the reputation of veterans to her advantage. For example, I think few people would have been favorable toward an author bio that included employment experience at Blackwater. It would have been just as deceitful, but probably less likely to sell books. She chose the military background to make a profit.

  6. Do you think maybe she’s made enough money now she has too many people around her that don’t question her anymore? Just seems like the average person might have said, “Wait, so why are you creating a completely false persona? Do you have any military experience?” It’s borderline as bizarre as when Garth Brooks decided he needed the alter ego of Chris Gaines—with similar results. People are going to find out, so why go to such efforts?

        1. My bro was a huge Garth Brooks fan, so he showed me the whole Chris Gaines movement. It didn’t last long, I think mostly because of how serious Garth was taking it. I think if he’d been a little more tongue-in-cheek about it, it may have worked, but instead he came off looking like a schizo…

    1. I can’t understand how a group of people would come to a consensus to lie like this, so maybe it did come directly from Rowling. Maybe she is surrounded by a bunch of people who just say “yes” to her all the time. It was terribly unethical, but it looks like it’s one of the examples where lying ends up making a lot of money (she doesn’t come across as quite a good role model anymore). She doesn’t need the money, but making money and selling books are achievements (even if it won’t change her standard of living), and maybe that’s why she did it.

  7. “If an author doesn’t want to appear in public or provide a photograph, no one cares.”
    I think it IS a big deal, and it would have mattered either way, but it’s way worse because it involves a lie about military service. The men and women who serve in the military deserve more respect than that. She might make a lot of money off this stunt, but it was a really bad move, in my opinion.

    1. Yeah, I just can’t believe Rowling and her publisher did this. I’m curious to know if Little Brown regularly allows/encourages its authors to lie or if it’s just an exception for Rowling. She doesn’t deserve special treatment, even if the “cost” of lying (even if it is consumer fraud) is less than the money they’re making in sales. I’m going to view everything that comes out of Little Brown with suspicion.

  8. I guess it was not about the money. I think, she’s not after the fame and attraction which causes distraction to an author’s mind.

    1. You’d think someone as wealthy as Rowling wouldn’t care about the money, but considering how hard the wealthiest families in the world fight to control taxes even though it won’t affect their standard of living, perhaps the motivation isn’t to make more money for spending purposes but to make money (or sell more books) as a sense of achievement. Thanks for the comment!

      1. Yeah, what you just said can be one of the possibilities! But you know, how new authors especially the authors of crime fiction nowadays, struggle, is very hard for them to get a book published.

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