who is ‘anonymous’?

Given that I write about issues of anonymous, collective, and pseudonymous authorship, a headline this morning couldn’t help but grab my attention.

Guessing Who the Anonymous Author of ‘O’ Is” (New York Times, 2011.01.19)

This headline is terrible, and not just in terms of grammar and flow (not to mention catchiness). By terrible, I of course mean that I would rewrite it. Let’s try this.

“Media Freaks Out Over Not Knowing Who Wrote Work Published Anonymously; Writers Overcompensate By Insisting Loudly That They Didn’t Do It” (I have no idea if my capitalization is right. So maybe you can burn me for grammar too!)

The article begins with this great statement that pretty much sums up the attitude of journalists and critics toward a kind of entitlement to making a direct connection between attributed author (here, “Anonymous”) and a single writer or team of writers.

The publisher of “O,” an anonymously written novel about a 2012 presidential campaign, made a brazen request of journalists and other writers in an e-mail on Tuesday: if anyone asks whether you are the author, please decline to comment.

I couldn’t have made up anything better. It’s brazen! The nerve of that publisher to emphasize the authorial identity of “Anonymous” as complete in itself rather than something that demands to be linked to the private identities of the writer(s). Of course, it’s not just the possibility of “Anonymous” in itself being an author: it’s also the context of past political novels (here, Primary Colors) attributed to that very same author, although here the “Anonymous” is quite different in that it is tied to a completely separate political novel.

I often ask when studying writing in the 1880s and 1890s, what did it mean to read a work that has no writer’s name attached, and one attributed only to Anonymous?


It means that the writer could be multiple; he or she has no gender; and he or she could be anyone. A political insider, a journalist, simply a novelist. We don’t and can’t know. (Unless, in our climate obsessed with linking author to writer, it comes out sooner rather than later.) There is a certain relief that comes with knowing: we can now contextualize that text “properly” in the details of a private individual’s biographical details.

I was thinking about this relief that would come with knowing in our literary moment, which teaches us to expect something that this book is not giving us. (Brazenly, even.) The brazenness of the act of writing as Anonymous highlights a great tension in reading and reviewing. We can’t relax until we know who it is, until we can give the text meaning and value based on that writer’s public or private life.

We get upset periodically when it’s revealed that a work that purports to be autobiographical in fact turns out to not align with the details of a writer’s biography. We are betrayed. We believed the writer’s assertion that he or she, the “author,” and the narrator are all one and the same. We want to believe this, I think, very badly. By “we,” I mean “people in general who write, review, and read while taking this framework of writer=author=narrator for granted.” Of course, we do not always assume that the narrator of the work is the author; far from it. But we are quick to believe when someone claims that this is so, and it is practically a literary crime to offer this as the context of a work when in fact we can prove it is not.

I think about the time I study, when this lack of correspondence between writer, author, and narrator – and even more importantly, simply between writer and author – was the norm rather than the exception. One can sometimes hardly keep track of a writer’s pseudonyms, and they are so often used without any explicit connection to previous ones. Of course, this happens now as well. But our investment in linking Stephen King (the writer who we conflate totally with the authorial name “Stephen King”) to “Richard Bachmann” is far, far deeper than readers and writers in the late 19th century in Japan seem to have. The consumption of works under names that do not have an established link with a specific historical person – even if the understanding is that a particular pseudonym is probably used by the same person that uses the more common “Koyo Sanjin,” for example – is a different situation entirely. The name linked with the title gives us more information than the writer’s name, such as in the case of collector Awashima Kangetsu writing under the pseudonym “Aikaku-ken” (which translates directly to “I love Saikaku”). Rather than knowing that it’s Kangetsu behind that name, it’s the name itself that tells us, “this work is trying out the style of Saikaku, and is influenced by my reading of his texts – and also my personal love of his work and investment in his literary value.”

In the current literary climate, however, we would place much more value in knowing that it’s Kangetsu behind that name: we could and most likely would contextualize his Saikaku-influenced short stories within his life as a well-known collector, a well-known affiliate of Ozaki Koyo and the Ken’yusha group, and as a colleague of other collectors such as Miyazaki Sanmai and Uchida Roan.

Despite all of this, however, I think there is a great deal more meaning in “Anonymous” than in knowing a writer’s name. It marks the novel as being in the same literary and political space as Primary Colors and makes a heavy allusion to that other novel. It highlights our value on insider status, and the threat of writing on the ability to be a trusted insider who can gain and convey information to us. And honestly, given the general panning of the novel (although who knows: a lot of that was in denial of writing it), it protects the writer(s) from literary charges and emphasizes a reading based on the events and characters portrayed in the novel. Given that many of them seem to be caricatures of living individuals involved in politics these days, that lack of author=writer detail perhaps serves the goals of the novel better than any meaning-imbued pseudonym or any attribution of a writer.

But above all, we want to know more than anything: who can we hold responsible for this? And I think that that in itself is so much of the tension that this novel causes.

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