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The Artist Is Not Present: Anonymity in Literature

Read Sunday, 27 Jul 2014

The current issue of The Lifted Brow has banned the first-person, as a stand against the trend towards the author regularly taking place at the centre of a story, whether their presence is relevant or not.

David Donaldson’s essay, from the Ego Issue, traces the rise of the author’s identity in publishing, looking at the place of anonymity in literature, from Homer and Austen to J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith and political novels like Primary Colors.


It was a sheepish Kate Mills, fiction editor at Orion Publishing, who tweeted that she had unknowingly ‘turned down JK Rowling’ after reading and saying no to The Cuckoo’s Calling. Mills’s astounding admission came after The Sunday Times revealed that the crime novel described by Mills as ‘perfectly decent, but quiet’ had been written by the Harry Potter author. ‘Anyone else going to confess?’ Mills tweeted.

The book, which follows a man named Cormoran Strike, a military veteran turned private investigator, as he investigates the suspicious death of a supermodel, did get published by another publisher, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, who was ostensibly a former army man. It initially received good reviews but only moderate commercial success, yet once the ruse was revealed, sales on British Amazon pushed it from #4159 to #1 overnight. Rowling had hoped to maintain her mask a little longer, telling The Sunday Times that ‘being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience! It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback from publishers and readers under a different name.’

The discovery of the novel’s true author was itself the result of some private sleuthing. Richard Brooks, the arts editor for The Sunday Times, followed an anonymous tip-off on Twitter and uncovered that both Rowling, the literary colossus, and Galbraith, the crime fiction debutant, shared an agent, editor and publisher. Handing the text over to a pair of ‘computer linguistic experts’, key similarities between Rowling and Galbraith’s writing emerged: both liked using Latin phrases, and both The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Casual Vacancy (Rowling’s first book after Harry Potter, published under her own name) contained scenes of drug taking and, supposedly, a disdain for the middle class. Eventually Brooks asked straightforwardly whether the authors were one and the same, and received a response from a Rowling spokesperson that Rowling had decided to come clean. Some were quick to accuse Rowling and her publisher of conspiring in a commercial stratagem, though it seems Rowling’s chief motivation really was to escape the grand expectations attached to her brand.

Unveiling anonymity in literature has a long history, exciting people in nineteenth-century Europe much as it does today – though it has often threatened to eclipse appreciation of the works themselves. After all, audiences wonder, why spend all that time and effort writing a book only to reject public recognition for your hard work?

Many of history’s famous authors published anonymously at some stage or another. The Communist Manifesto was originally anonymous. Same for all Jane Austen’s major works. Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens began their careers publishing anonymously.

In historical terms, Rowling’s desire for objective evaluation of her writing after a mid-career genre change is unusual, given that few authors ever attain such celebrity status Rowling. (Though the charge that anonymity was used as a marketing ploy is not new: George Eliot was accused of doing the same in 1859). Rowling – having sold more books and pocketed more coin than most writers would dare contemplate – perhaps can relax in the luxury of testing out new personas just because she feels like it, knowing that any time her cover is blown the story will shoot to the top of the bestseller list anyway.

Some have a philosophical objection to the so-called ‘cult of the author’. In 1980 Michel Foucault opted for anonymity in a Le Monde interview, part of a series with leading intellectuals, arguing that the synecdochic power of the famous name undercuts serious consideration of the ideas presented. Foucault yearned for a relationship between the author and reader in which ‘the surface of contact was unrippled,’ – that the words be taken on their own merit, decoupled from the persona of the author.

There is a line of Marxist thought, led by the Italian Amadeo Bordiga, which rejects named authorship as a bourgeois construct that erases and privatises past intellectual labour, leading to the veneration of a few men over the mass of workers. (Incidentally, Bordiga was the last Western communist to criticise Stalin to his face and live, having done so at a Comintern meeting in 1926). Marx himself connected anonymity to free speech, seeing it as allowing an amorphous public criticism of the state. By contrast, named authorship was a function of repression, giving the state tools to track down dissenters and imprison them. Explaining why they refuse to be photographed, one of the authors of Italian writing collective Wu Ming Foundation (Wu Ming being a Chinese term for anonymous, literally meaning ‘no name’) told an interviewer: ‘Once the writer becomes a face that’s separate and alienated (in a literal sense), it’s a cannibalistic jumble: that face appears everywhere, almost always out of context.’

It’s a problem that highlights the less noble side of publishing: as much as the writing and disseminating of literature is about a contest of ideas, the author’s personal brand plays a significant role in who actually is read and who isn’t. Doris Lessing wrote two novels under a pseudonym, ‘Jane Somers’, to demonstrate the extent to which the reading surface is rippled, for booksellers and critics in particular. The books were rejected by her long-time British publisher, received few reviews and sold only a few thousand copies – this for an author whose novel The Golden Notebook was purchased more than a million times. The experiment proved, claimed Lessing, how difficult it was for new writers to get a look-in.

Notwithstanding these examples, anonymity in publishing has become far less common. Thanks to loosened social taboos and the strengthened role personal branding plays in publishing, high-profile unmaskings are usually reserved for famous writers trying to reinvent their brands, scathing insider accounts of American Democrat presidencies (see: Primary Colors on Clinton and Story of O on Obama), or the occasional bookish fraudster (see: Helen Demidenko).

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John Travolta and Emma Thompson in the film of *Primary Colors*
John Travolta and Emma Thompson in the film of *Primary Colors*

Anonymity has primarily been used to present ideas considered beyond the pale for a person of respectable social standing, or for criticism that would have been dangerous to own. Like those who use the internet to harass celebrities and irritate the sensitive, anonymity has historically provided an invisibility cloak to those who have wanted to say something unpopular, allowing discourse to be placed in the public domain detached from the consequences of its unacceptability.

Historically, most writers have chosen to publish anonymously to prevent perceptions about the book seeping into their personal lives, recognising that the content of the book itself would undermine their social standing and damage relationships. Ironically, the fascination with uncovering the author often leads to a stronger focus on biography than would have otherwise been the case. Others have used this fascination to their advantage: several major novels of the late seventeenth century were printed anonymously, despite the author’s identity being an open secret. At least some of these authors deliberately used the ‘enigma’ of anonymity to make their work appear more controversial.

New laws promised royalties for future editions and tied the author more closely to the success of the work.

When the novel first came to prominence around the seventeenth century, it was considered a base art form, a vehicle for the relation of impious stories and gossip; many in polite society were loath to be associated with the novel, as anonymous or pseudonymous invented histories marauding as the truth – such as Robinson Crusoe, a counterfeit autobiography – and stories depicting ‘realistic’, morally dubious lives (rather than those of puritanical role models) reinforced the idea among many that fiction was the realm of lies and immoral fantasies. Bibliographic historian Professor James Raven estimates that ‘over eighty per cent of all novels published in Britain between 1750 and 1790 were published anonymously.’ Marking a book ‘Anonymous’ did not send the same signal it does today, where individualised authorship is expected.

This began to change as new copyright laws were created. Previously authors were paid a flat fee for a manuscript, but received no proceeds from further editions; once the story had been sold to the publishing company the author no longer had a financial stake in the book. New laws promised royalties for future editions and tied the author more closely to the success of the work. At the same time, the loosening of the grip of church and government over the lives of citizens meant that fewer topics were taboo, and writers were less likely to end up in prison for criticising the powerful. Thus changing notions of private ownership, along with the gradual easing of social restrictions, helped nurture the embryo of today’s cult of the author, where reading in bookstores and appearing on television benefit the writer financially.


In a world currently obsessed with naming and categorising, anonymity in literature continues to exist, however tenuously. It continues to adapt to new circumstances: in spite of (or perhaps because of) today’s strict intellectual property laws, Web 2.0 has led to a flourishing of unattributed content and anonymous criticism, redefining legal and cultural ideas about authorship. Phenomena like fan fiction, memes and political commentary websites can reach new audiences in seconds, the authors either not wanting or not needing to be identified. Instantaneous information sharing has opened up a space similar to that created by the first printing presses: plagiarism, piracy and misinformation exist and spread alongside collectively-authored Wikipedia pages, hackers pursuing social justice, and unnamed Twitter accounts relaying news from repressive dictatorships.

For all the anxiety around hunting down and flushing out anonymous authors, it seems that there still exist some media in which anonymity is possible, and thrives. Though the power of financial incentive is tied to named authorship—and the building of a personal brand—anonymity in literature still holds importance.

This is an edited extract of an essay originally published in The Lifted Brow’s Ego Issue as ‘The Artist Is Not Present: Anonymity in Literature’. You can read the essay in full there.

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