Book Review: Anonymity by John Mullan

AnonymityFirst published on 23rd November, 2008 in Star2

By John Mullan
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 374 pages

AS a journalist (lately a freelance one) I have never published work anonymously but have done so using various pseudonyms. My reasons have included the desire to disassociate myself from what I consider hack jobs, and to avoid trouble in instances when the subject matter might be deemed controversial. Pseudonimity may be as effective as anonymity when used to hide the identity of the author.

Many classic works of literature were first published without their author’s names or under false names. It was so common to publish anonymously or puedonymously in the 18th and 19th century that a Dictionary of the Anonymous and Pseudonymous Literature of Great Britain was published in 1882 – begun in the 1850s, it ran to four volumes when finally completed. In 1934, additional volumes were published and in 1962, the final edition numbered nine volumes in all. Even so, the book does not list works whose authors’ identities have not been revealed – and a quick search online will reveal that there are many famous quotes that remain anonymous.

In Anonymity, John Mullan explores why many authors of English literature chose to publish anonymously. He looks at the different circumstances and motives behind authors’ decisions to hide who they were; the effect an author’s anonymity had on his or her readers; and the reaction of the public and press when the author’s identity was finally revealed.
Jonathan Swift is said to have been a mischief-maker, hiding his identity so he could enjoy the the public’s frank reaction to and opinion of his works. As he was a social satirist, Swift’s books often provoked lively response, and he was not above commenting on his own creations simply to get a reaction from readers. Scholars also speculate that Swift preferred to gauge the success of his books before admitting to their authorship. All the curiosity over the authorship of a book didn’t hurt sales either.

But just as Swift positively revelled in public speculation, there were those who honestly disliked any conjecture that linked them to the books they had published. Charles L. Dodgson, for instance, lived in dread of being identified as the author of the Alice books, going so far as to request that the Bodleian library of Oxford University delete cross-references between his name and that of Lewis Carroll.

Charlotte Bronte was also reluctant to admit that she was Currer Bell, author of Jane Eyre. She was so determined to maintain her anonymity that when, at a dinner party, the novelist W. M. Thackeray addressed her as “Currer Bell”, Bronte said she knew there were books by that person but that she was “Miss Bronte” and that she saw no connection between the two.

And yet, it must have been clear to Bronte that she had been invited to Thackeray’s party only because she was the author of a famous book. Perhaps, while she desired public recognition and such rewards that came with it – such as being invited into literary society – she was also leery of how the knowledge of her sex would affect public opinion of her novels.

At this point in time, it was still not considered wholly respectable for a woman to write books unless they were edifying and moralistic texts. George Henry Lewes (George Eliot’s lover), on realising that Currer Bell was a woman, commented, in his review of Bronte’s Shirley, on the book’s “over-masculine vigour”, which “often amounts to coarseness”, and accused Bronte of attempting to “escape her femininity”. No wonder the poor woman wished that Currer Bell should be the only name “mentioned in connection with my writings.”

Lewes put his name to his review and the identity of reviewers is not usually a secret these days with only The Economist and Private Eye practising anonymous reviewing. However, during the early days of systematic reviewing (which began in the mid-18th century in the Monthly Review), anonymity was de rigueur because, in theory at least, it was thought to be only way to ensure complete honesty and objectivity. In practice, it not only allowed reviewers to flatter close friends without being accused of favouritism, but also to be as venomous as they wished towards authors with whom they had personal beef.

However, while a bad review might demoralise and anger, it would still be preferable to execution or torture. In 1536, William Tyndale was convicted of heresy because he translated and published an English version of the first five books of the Old Testament. Mullan also describes how others were put to death as a result of writing what was considered blasphemous or seditious texts. In many cases, the authors published anonymously to avoid detection and arrest – as a result, their publishers and printers were the ones who paid the price, with their lives!

John Mullan
John Mullan

Authors tend not to publish anonymously these days. How could they hope to conceal their identities when tours, signings and keynote addresses at literary fests are part and parcel of publishing a book? Pseudonyms are more common but are usually adopted for branding purposes. For example, James Aitchinson, who wrote the saucy Sarong Party Girl books, and James Lee, author of the spooky Mister Midnight series for tweens, are the same person. No point confusing readers after all.

For most publishing houses, their authors’ names are a crucial marketing component. It’s arguable that a book by Ian McEwan wouldn’t sell half as well if it was published as a book by Joe Bloggs. In the 1980s, Doris Lessing published two novels using the psuedonym Jane Sommers. She did it to make several points, not least that the reception readers and critics give a book is deeply influenced by who the author is. Imagine if Salman Rushdie’s next novel were published anonymously or as the work of a new writer. How would it be reviewed? Would it even be reviewed at all?

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