In 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.