In 1930, The Nation magazine ran an article entitled “The Cult of Anonymity.” The piece followed a small group of Parisian writers who had pledged to publish their work without names: “to curb the exploitation of personalities” and to establish “the art as an ideal, not the ego.” A few years earlier, the British novelist E.M Forster’s pamphlet “Anonymity: An Enquiry” had lashed out a professional authors’ “insistence on personality,” and called for a return to a past when anonymity was celebrated. Almost forty years later, French philosophers rekindled the debate. In 1969, Michel Foucault asked, “What is an Author?” His more bombastic contemporary, Roland Barthes, proclaimed the named author dead on arrival.
It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.
Up through the 17th century, authoring books was a less-than-classy enterprise. A published novel? How uncouth! For that reason, many works were published anonymously or pseudonymously. But for me, what is more interesting is that these books were printed, purchased, read and critically reviewed—even though readers had no information about the works’ provenance. In other words, anonymity did not negate credibility. Authorship was not a condition for authority.
The (very few) historians working in this area speak of a “transformation of readers’ expectations” around 1800: some time shortly after the French Revolution, when the modern publishing industry was in its infancy. By 1850, books needed authors. They still do. And it is this that our French philosophes were reacting against. If anonymity was obsolete by the 19th century, it was remembered with nostalgia in the 20th.
What of now? Once again, the publishing industry is transforming. And we seem torn: insistent on an elusive right to express ourselves anonymously, even as we bask in the heydays of the “age of personality.” Anonymous ‘mommy bloggers’ get cult followings. But I tend to scrutinize the Wikipedia bios of journalists before I make a judgment on their work.
Identity matters, and it doesn’t. What is sure is that our obsession with provenance—our tendency to ingest an author and his/her words hand in hand—is a relatively new invention. And one I’ll continue to explore.
- anonymusing posted this