Mystery writers and their motivations
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.