Mys­tery writ­ers and their mo­ti­va­tions

Richard King

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

UN­LIKE bal­loon an­i­mals and woodoven piz­zas, most works of lit­er­a­ture are cre­ated in private. Writ­ers re­quire soli­tude and soli­tude en­tails in­vis­i­bil­ity.

To be sure, the writer is a furtive crea­ture, scratch­ing or tap­ping away in his study, emerg­ing only in­ter­mit­tently to smoke a cig­a­rette or buy a bot­tle of scotch. The study, the den, the con­verted loft space: th­ese are his nat­u­ral habi­tat. The com­pen­sa­tion for this self­en­forced monas­ti­cism is that the writer gets to see his name if not in lights, then at least in print. A rea­son­ably pro­lific au­thor will pro­duce a book about once ev­ery two years, at which point he is thrust, be­wil­dered and blink­ing, into the glare and blare of pub­lic­ity.

The old book is sent on its way at a launch, a new one is de­cided on at a lunch. In­ter­views and re­views ap­pear in the press. Briefly, the writer is the cen­tre of at­ten­tion. But the real prize, the ex­is­ten­tial jack­pot, is that clus­ter of let­ters be­neath the ti­tle or, in ex­cep­tional cases, above it.

Why, then, would a writer choose to sign his work pseudony­mously or not sign it at all? If art, as some an­thro­pol­o­gists tell us, is a form of dis­play, of show­ing off, then why not mark your ter­ri­tory? Th­ese are the ques­tions posed by John Mul­lan in his ab­sorb­ing study, Anonymity: A Se­cret His­tory of English Lit­er­a­ture . Nor is he short of raw ma­te­rial out of which to fash­ion in­ter­est­ing an­swers.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prej­u­dice, Mary Shelley’s Franken­stein, Henry Field­ing’s Joseph An­drews and the Waverley nov­els of Wal­ter Scott are just a few of the mas­ter­pieces sent into print with­out at­tri­bu­tion; all were what that ‘‘ ad­dict of anonymity’’, Daniel De­foe, called ‘‘ Apollo’s bas­tards’’.

From mis­chief to mod­esty to po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency: the mo­tives for pre­serv­ing an incog­nito are many and var­i­ous, Mul­lan ar­gues. Of­ten it is a form of self- pro­mo­tion. In­deed, if one point emerges most force­fully it is that fi­nal con­ceal­ment is rarely the aim; anonymity is a veil rather than a mask. Cer­tainly this was true of Jonathan Swift, whose cor­re­spon­dence with his fel­low Scrib­le­ri­ans makes it clear that the au­thor­ship of Gul­liver’s Trav­els had the sta­tus of an open se­cret. Au­thor at­tri­bu­tion was part of the fun. The writer, pre­tend­ing ret­i­cence, ‘‘ was but the hun­grier for ad­mi­ra­tion’’.

Anonymity is also cre­atively use­ful. Like Swift and his cir­cle, Scott en­joyed the spec­u­la­tion anonymity at­tracted. But his was also a con­struc­tive ret­i­cence, an act of creative self­dis­pos­ses­sion. Scott’s nov­els, Mul­lan writes, ‘‘ have a first- per­son speaker who is ready with lo­cal his­tory, ge­o­graph­i­cal knowl­edge and an­ti­quar­ian lore, a char­ac­ter whom the au­thor was able to re­move from him­self’’.

Sim­i­larly, Char­lotte Bronte’s pseu­do­nym al­lowed her to flex her au­tho­rial mus­cles. As Cur­rer Bell she could defy con­ven­tion and ex­per­i­ment on the pub­lic taste.

As Mul­lan writes, ‘‘ It is as if the dis­cov­ery of a ‘ fe­male hand’ in her novel is a de­nial of her imag­i­na­tion. She is not timid or de­fen­sive about this ( in her let­ter to James Tay­lor), not some de­mure recluse flinch­ing from pub­lic re­gard. There is some­thing as­sertive, even ag­gres­sive, about her re­quire­ment that her au­thor­ship be de­sexed. She dis­dains re­view­ers whose judg­ments of Jane Eyre are shaped by their as­sump­tions about its au­thor’s gen­der.’’ Bronte was chal­leng­ing a tra­di­tion of fe­male ret­i­cence. ‘‘ Her pseu­do­nym had be­come a sign of creative de­fi­ance.’’

Though Mul­lan has lots of good ma­te­rial and a lot of ex­cel­lent points to make, his or­gan­i­sa­tion leaves some­thing to be de­sired. He ad­mits as much when he sug­gests that his orig­i­nal plan to write a brief his­tory of lit­er­ary anonymity was thwarted by the re­al­i­sa­tion that no grand nar­ra­tive of anonymity ex­ists. Con­se­quently, he takes a the­matic approach, jump­ing back­wards and for­wards in time, of­ten in rather ar­bi­trary fash­ion. But a sim­pler struc­ture does sug­gest it­self, one that could have co­ex­isted with a fair de­gree of chronol­ogy within as well as be­tween the chap­ters.

To over­sim­plify, au­thors went from a sit­u­a­tion where anonymity was merely a sign of the low es­teem in which lit­er­a­ture was held to one where it was of­ten a mat­ter of ne­ces­sity, to one where it be­came a lit­er­ary con­ven­tion, to one in which the lit­er­ary con­ven­tion pre­sented new out­lets for creative ex­per­i­ment. Some ac­knowl­edg­ment of this ba­sic chronol­ogy would have been enor­mously help­ful.

None­the­less, Anonymity is a fas­ci­nat­ing book and Mul­lan proves an eru­dite guide to the 18th and 19th cen­turies es­pe­cially. I was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in his chap­ter on re­view­ing, in which he shows de­ci­sively that anonymity was as likely to en­cour­age lit­er­ary backscratch­ing as in­tel­lec­tual hon­esty. Of course, it also al­lowed you to be ruder, caus­ing many a wounded au­thor to smash up the den or con­verted loft space.

Richard King is a lit­er­ary critic based in Perth.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Eric Lobbecke

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