Saturday, January 12, 2008

Literary Anonymity

This week Guardian Review prints an extract from a new book by John Mullan on the long tradition of authorial anonymity. Mullan describes how many of our canonical authors such as Swift, Walter Scott, Fanny Burney and Austen had great fun from publishing anonymously or pseudonymously, and thus paradoxically whipping up interest in their identity and therefore their books.

He notes how this once accepted tradition has fallen out of favour, and that while Scott was lauded when he finally owned up (and thus stirred up even more attention for his books), Joe Klein was condemned when he was uncovered as the author of the 1996 anonymous Primary Colors, sacked by CBS News and (with shades of James Frey) declared by the New York Times to have 'violated the fundamental contract between journalists [the novel took his journalist's view of White House shenanigans], serious publications and their readers.'

The extract does not include any comment on some of the implications of this last: the contemporary tendency and indeed desire to read fiction through the prism of what we know of the author, to read fiction as 'autobiography', the way this leads to the real-life person of the author as an - maybe the - essential component of the publication package and then in turn to a privileging of authorial youth and beauty.

How easy is it to manage anonymity now, in a world which didn't exist even for Joe Klein in 1996, where publishers require authors to blog and do videos for 'Meet the Author?' As for no-longer-anonymous plain Jane - well, she's had to have a makeover.

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