Sunday, January 13, 2008

Books as Matters of Life or Death

Robert McCrum highlights an aspect of John Mullen's book on literary anonymity missing from the extract printed in yesterday's Guardian which I discussed yesterday (and thus gives a different impression of the stress of the book: see how important it is to read books properly and for yourself?)

McCrum describes how Mullan shows that initially anonymity was a response to the fact that 'books could be a matter of life or death' since
for the first three centuries after the introduction of the printing press, writers who challenged religious or political orthodoxy (and what is the use of a book that does not risk a contrary opinion?) were in mortal danger.
(And I really like that rhetorical question, slipped in so slyly between parentheses) : what is the use of a book that does not risk a contrary opinion?)

It was only when books, in particular novels, became 'entertainment for middle-class readers' that anonymity could become the kind of relished game described in yesterday's extract.

McCrum's conclusion, which seems to be his own rather than Mullen's (I guess we should read the book to see) is the same as mine (below). He says this:
In principle, anonymity, once a lifesaver, should guarantee a means of escape, a measure of privacy and some enhanced authenticity. Today, in the frenzy of hype and vanity that surrounds most book launches, there can be no privacy. Is this good for books? I rather doubt it.
In fact, in a world where the 'authenticity' of the author is at such a high premium, it's going anonymous or pseudonymous that can be the really scary thing, because of the general outrage at such a notion and the opprobrium when a masked author is unmasked, as Primary Colors author Joe Klein discovered, and as I also did myself.
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