Robert Folkenflik: Anonymous has been a prolific writer over the years
Six years earlier a provincial English author writing from the village of Chawton to a relative claimed, "Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones — it is not fair. — He has fame and profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people's mouths. — I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it — but fear I must."
Scott was indemnified, as Jane Austen's letter makes clear, against the voicing of an open secret. And her joke was right on target: In a letter of the time, Scott said: "Many things would please people well enough anonymously, which, if they bore me on the title-page, would just give me that sort of ill-name which precedes hanging, and that would be in many respects inconvenient if I thought of again trying a grande opus." When he officially revealed himself in 1827 he called anonymity "the humour or caprice of the time."
Austen was herself the hidden author of "Sense and Sensibility," ("by a Lady"); "Pride and Prejudice" ("by the author of 'Sense and Sensibility'") and "Emma," ("by the author of 'Pride and Prejudice'"). Robert Griffin, who publishes on anonymity, says his favorite marketing formula of this sort is "'Discipline' by the author of 'Self-Control.'"
Men wrote some books "by a lady," and the Victorian-era cases of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and the Bell brothers — that is, the Bronte sisters — remind us that the situation is reversible. Perhaps the question of anonymity should be turned on its head, and we should ask rather why any authors ever signed their names to books in those days.
But with success male authors, and some women, began to reveal their identities in the Victorian period. Charles Dickens was "Boz" until "The Pickwick Papers" (1837). Some Victorian novelists, such as Anthony Trollope, used their real names from the outset.
In the 20th century, anonymity and pseudonymity are hardly about genteel modesty. When the new editor of the Times (of London) Literary Supplement, John Gross, announced in 1974 that the TLS book reviewers' masks would come off, it was a major cultural moment. I wrote in support, and he replied that he was "in need of every drop of encouragement" he could get because the "old guard" was protesting his change. There had been some self-reviewing (a practice of two centuries in Britain), some especially generous reviewing of friends and much malign reviewing of enemies. But after Gross changed the policy, one could no longer write a savage review of a book in TLS under the cloak of anonymity and privately commiserate with the author of it.
Some popular and highly regarded novelists today try to see if their fans' love extends beyond their personal brands by employing pseudonyms, and some compartmentalizing professors use them for mysteries. But it is the unusual contemporary novel that appears anonymously. Think of such novels as Joe Klein's thinly disguised portrayal of Bill Clinton, "Primary Colors," or the mean-spirited fiction "O" by John McCain's sore-loser strategist, Mark Salter.
Online, "nym wars" have erupted over the right to false identities on social media sites. A Syrian lesbian blogging on the "Arab Spring" turned out to be a middle-aged white man at Edinburgh University. And a shifting international flash mob of hacktivists, who briefly unite electronically for acts of civil disobedience, employ the most famous name of all unknown writers, Anonymous.
Robert Folkenflik, emeritus professor of English at UC Irvine, specializes in 18th century literature and Samuel Johnson. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
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