September 2008

Elizabeth Bachner


Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature by John Mullan

Doris Lessing, in cahoots with her agent, submitted a book to three publishers as “Jane Somers.” Two promptly rejected it. The third accepted it because it “reminded him of Doris Lessing.”

John Mullan’s Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature fills a strange void -- there aren’t many comprehensive studies of the phenomenon of anonymous and pseudonymous publication. Other treatments are compendia, anthologies (like Robert Griffin’s edited volume The Faces of Anonymity: Anonymous and Pseudonymous Publication from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century) or encyclopedias. If no brief history of anonymity existed, Mullan first assumed that “this must be due to the collective oversight of academics and critics.” But in fact,

Now I realize there are other, better reasons for the absence of any historical survey of anonymity. Delve into the uses of anonymity over the last five centuries of English literature and you find that anonymity does not exactly have a history. There is no possible grand narrative of the changing conventions of anonymous and pseudonymous publication because, at any given time, there are different reasons for it.

Perhaps, if this is true, a brief history of publication would be richer than a survey of reasons why some writers stay anonymous or pseudonymous. Because surely, that is the unifying, underlying, overlaying, grand theme of any study on this topic -- the fact that writers are forced, if they are to be read at all, to “come out,” to confront their public and the critics, either with their words, or with their very person. (The prospect of being recognized in public drove Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, to fury -- unless the public included the little girls whose airy kisses of thanks he craved.) Mullan’s look at the different reasons that writers have gone incognito covers all the bases -- the mischief of stirring up interest and controversy, pure modesty, gender-bending, fear for their lives, freedom to review with great candor (as in George Eliot’s deliciously mean 1856 review article, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”), freedom to unburden oneself of the truth, freedom to unleash pure meanness, freedom to lie, and various combinations of these. Different writers went anonymous at different times, unpredictably. Sometimes anonymity or pseudonymity was used to conceal oneself, and other times to gain tremendous power, as when nineteen-year-old Cecily Fairfield renamed herself Rebecca West, after the kickass heroine of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm

The one thing Mullan finds that truly unifies this study is the “withering of anonymity” as we moved into the twentieth century. Even in the 1800s, “the business of selling authors” was already becoming inextricable from the “business of selling books,” but now, the two are so entwined that there is little point in ever going anonymous. Authors who go pseudonymous (“Barbara Vine,” “Dan Kavanagh” and their ilk) are transparent about it, as being associated with a trashy bestseller is no longer embarrassing. The pseudonyms are merely a way to demark subgenres. If an author does go anon, as Joe Klein did to write Primary Colors, he’s met with surprising indignation and fury. The New York Times called Newsweek editor Maynard Parker’s corroboration with Klein a violation of “the fundamental contract between journalists, serious publications and their readers” and “a duplicitous book-selling scheme” -- although you have to wonder if slapping “by Michael Crichton” on a great debut literary novel by an emerging author wouldn’t be a better book-selling scheme. The “convention of reticence” that marked the early years of English authorship faded away.

I rather wish that Mullan had added some notes on ancient anonymity -- how publication worked in Ovid-era Rome, for example, at a time when writers were getting exiled to Scythia right and left. Anonymity is rich with literary anecdote, but for someone like me who’s relatively unschooled in pre-1900 English literature, it was a bit to tough to enjoy some of the references without more context and coddling. I have a feeling that readers already familiar with George Puttenham or Fanny Burney will relish Mullan’s scholarship. “A book about anonymity,” he writes, “is a book about the importance of authors, and about how and why readers need them.” I think that it might be more interesting as a book about the people who market our authors -- or deprive us of hearing from them -- and how and why we put up with them.

As for me, Doris Lessing said that she had published pseudonymously in order “to be reviewed on merit” and “to cheer up young writers” as well as to get revenge on reviewers by writing “in ways Doris Lessing cannot.”  I’m not all that young, Jane Somers, but you’ve cheered me up.

Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature by John Mullan
Princeton University Press
ISBN: 0691139415
384 Pages