"Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature"

There is a new book of general interest literary criticism by John Mullan out, called Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature. It's getting great reviews in the British papers, and I wish I could have assigned it back when I was teaching "Secrecy and Authorship." (Better yet, I wish I had written it myself!)

Here are two snippets from the Guardian review. First, some arguments on why authors concealed their names when they went to publish:

He's not interested in works of which we just happen not to know the authors, but in writers who consciously sought to conceal their names. Why did so many people do it? Mullan advances a wide range of reasons, from mischief to modesty. Alexander Pope printed An Essay on Man anonymously in order to trick his enemies into praising him. Mary Ann Evans used the pseudonym George Eliot because "a masculine pseudonym was a claim to authority", and perhaps also because her complex marital career made her feminine name more than a little uncertain. Dodgson, the Christ Church mathematics don, refused to admit that he wrote the Alice books because "My constant aim is to remain, personally, unknown to the world." (link)

There's also the question of why it is we place so much value on authorship:

Why do we need to attach authors' names to books at all? Doing so makes life easy for librarians of course: just imagine arranging all those novels ascribed to "A Lady". Having names on books also helps us recognise works which we're likely to enjoy ("the new Ian McEwan"). It also allows for the simple human pleasure of piecing together an author's interests through their oeuvre, and feeling that you know how they think.

But looked at from a wider historical perspective these are quite recent pleasures, and they don't have entirely innocent origins. When Henry VIII proclaimed in 1546 that the names of printers and authors should appear on all published books, it was not because he was burning to read the latest heretical treatise. It was so he could catch and burn their authors and printers. And when present-day publishers put an author's name on a title-page they do so because an author is now something like a brand-name. Doris Lessing experimentally sent The Diary of a Good Neighbour to publishers under the pseudonym "Jane Somers", and it was repeatedly rejected. When published it sold about one 10th as many copies as "the new Doris Lessing" would have done. (link)

In the end, our current emphasis on the identities of authors is a result of the dominance of the marketplace.


Joe Linker said...

Then there are a few authors who, like Thomas Pynchon or J. D. Salinger, sans photos or any other personal info. readily available, create a market of intrigue while maintaining through word of mouth marketing the credibility and reliability readers learn in school to ask for in exchange for their commitment of time and money. Can anyone remember the author “anon” in his or her entry-level anthologies? Yet songs (ballads, folk songs, popular songs, show songs, jazz standards) are often still associated more with the performer than with the writer (true also of movie scripts – often today written collaboratively, with some contributors never getting credit), but Bob Dylan may have made the greatest contribution to bringing the author and performer of songs to par on stage, yet continues to borrow from the rich tradition that arguably belongs to the mosaic, as do other writer performers, including the authors of books.

Anonymous said...

Re the importance of marketing: this is presumably why we now have the (to me) extremely odd practice of authors publishing under their pseudonyms but with their own names on the cover as well, e.g. "Ian Rankin writing as Jack Harvey" and so on. How long (if at all) was it not known that Benjamin Black is actually John Banville? Would Christine Falls have gotten nearly as much attention if the pseudonym had been better protected? George Eliot struggled hard to protect her identity precisely to allow her books to flourish without the baggage of her controversial identity weighing them down--but then she continued to use her pseudonym even once her cover was blown, which is also interesting.