Writers and Anonymity.

A good LRB essay by John Lanchester:

Most writers of fiction are interested in anonymity. If they aren’t tickled by the thought when they sit down to write their first books, they get to that point after the first couple have come out. Writing is solitary, private, inward, and involves something close to complete control; even when there are losses of control or agency, they’re of the sort that a writer has, most of the time, chosen for herself. A story escapes the creator’s intention, or conks out, and although it might not be what the writer wanted, it’s still up to her to make the final call about what to do, or not to do.

The publication process, everything that happens around the business of getting a book into print and out into the world, is close to the opposite of that. It’s full of accidents and misprisions and external demands; it was like that twenty years ago, and has got much worse. […] I often wonder what it would be like not to have to do any of the publishing part, to hand over the text and walk away. It’s a fantasy not so much of anonymity as of refusing the publishing process.

There are writers who do that. The first great refuser in contemporary literary culture was J.D. Salinger. […] Salinger’s self-banishment wasn’t a preference or a whim, it was an existentially critical act of self-protection. I came to think that, like and admire Hamilton though I did, he shouldn’t have written that book: that if someone needs privacy that badly, and hasn’t done anything wrong, we, collectively and individually, should let them have their space.

He ends up with Elena Ferrante, about whom he makes useful points.


  1. Great reading, thanks. I think he buries the lede a bit, though: at first I thought that he was implying that the culture had changed (grown more demanding, less accepting of requests for privacy), but towards the end he makes it clearer that he believes Ferrente was forcibly unmasked because, as a woman, people in a position to reveal her identity did not respect her right to anonymity the way they would have if she were a man.

    I did smile at the Pynchon thing, though — as an Australian university student in the early days of the WWW, I can confirm that I made a fairly concerted effort to find out more about him, and didn’t get very far (in fact, I didn’t know that fact about his agent until I just read this essay!). So perhaps things have changed a bit in that it’s now easier for people to pore over vast archives on the other side of the world to find the clues they need to pierce the veil. This is of course completely consistent with Lanchester’s main thesis– everything being online is what makes it so easy for anonymous mobs to harrass and credibly threaten women online.

  2. I think he buries the lede a bit

    Well, he’s not a reporter, he’s an essayist. He may well have felt that the reader has probably been deluged with thumbsuckers about the Ferrante thing and might sigh and turn the page if he started with her, so he suckers us in by a back alley. Worked for me!


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