One of my secret joys of visiting family on the East Coast is the journey to get there: six hours, distraction-free, with no choice but to be entertained by a thick paperback. This Thanksgiving, that paperback was “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” Robert Galbraith’s debut mystery. Only this was no debut novel. Robert Galbraith is actually a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling.
I was surprised to find the “Harry Potter” author in a completely new genre, submitting herself to the mercy of critics as a “new” writer despite having earned a place as one of the definitive authors of our generation. She’s inventive and clearly capable of excelling in different genres, but in this case, she chose to start from scratch under the name Galbraith. Is our society so close-minded that we’ve created an environment unforgiving and un-conducive to careers that span multiple disciplines?
To find the answer, I thought about the career of another illustrious author in recent memory: John Steinbeck. He was already on my mind. I recently visited his childhood home and a museum dedicated to his life, located about two hours from campus. Steinbeck grew up in Salinas, attended Stanford on and off for about six years, and went on to have an expansive literary career ranging from journalism to fiction, culminating in a Nobel Prize awarded in 1962.
But I was surprised to learn that even after he had achieved success many times over, Steinbeck was quite thin-skinned when it came to criticism. Following critical disappointment over what was ultimately his last novel “The Winter of Our Discontent,” Steinbeck never wrote fiction again; he spent the last six years of his life writing nonfiction.
Rowling, on the other hand, is well known for her resilience in the tough literary world. “Harry Potter” was famously rejected 12 times before it was finally published. “The Casual Vacancy,” another novel published without a pseudonym, received mixed reviews, in part because some critics inevitably compared the new work to her Potter series and felt that the new story didn’t measure up.
So here we have two writers, both well-known, highly acclaimed and versatile. Steinbeck wrote novels as short as “Of Mice and Men” (around 100 pages) and as long as “East of Eden” (around 600). He wore many hats: marine biologist, journalist, social advocate, comedian. Rowling has written a prolific fantasy series but also produced literary fiction, crime novels and screenplays. Both, over the course of their careers, had to reckon with the legacies of their early successes and reconcile that with their intrinsic curiosities as writers. And both also had to handle reception from critics and the public and find ways to cope with how other people saw their work.
Though few of us will face the specific dilemma of writing a highly successful novel and then having to follow it up with another successful novel in a completely different genre, we will have to redefine ourselves at various points throughout our time at Stanford. One of the things they don’t tell you freshman year is that even once you’ve declared your major, gotten your t-shirt and started taking core classes in your area of interest, there’s still a whole road of choices ahead. You start discovering niches within the subject matter that broadly interest you. You start wondering which of those niches is most compelling to you and which would make for an engaging honors thesis. (And then — stop reading here, frosh — there’s grad school to consider!)
Constantly reexamining, redefining and portraying our unique interests to others is a challenge that we don’t always give ourselves credit for facing. Though it is a rewarding journey, I’ve been surprised at how hard it has been to balance my various, wide-ranging interests and move between them, all while considering my future academic and career paths.
But we would do well to remember that the constant reinvention of our academic selves doesn’t always have to be a chore or just something to reword on a resume. Rather, it’s a chance to shape new fields through our insights and make interdisciplinary connections that have never been made before. And we shouldn’t be limited by the four years we spend in college. After all, we have a whole lifetime, and all the pseudonyms we can think of, at our disposal.
Contact Melina Walling at mwalling ‘at’ stanford.edu.