May 20, 2005

Miss Lonelyhearts

I'd never heard this story before: a Church of England vicar gets his book published by a for-women-only specialty division of a publishing house by managing to leave the impression that he is a young, female Muslim of Indian origin. The hoax is discovered, and the book is "disappeared." And the world "loses" a minor literary masterpiece.

It's a great scenario, and I can imagine a pretty good novel could be constructed out of it (if one hasn't already been constructed out of it.)

If Theodore Dalrymple's version is to be believed, the vicar's downfall begins when he agrees to meet a literary agent, exposing his true identity for the first time. Up to that point, he had managed to avoid ever meeting or speaking with anyone involved in his publishing world - that can't have been easy, and would have involved quite a bit of fancy footwork. How did he avoid what must have been repeated requests for a photo, for instance? How did they manage the editing, copy-editing, etc?

My true identity is not nearly so far removed from my public one (though it is a bit removed) but I do know the apprehensive feeling of meeting "your people" for the first time. Maybe I'm projecting a bit here, but I like to think that everyone, at least to a degree, feels like a fraud risking exposure on a daily basis. If not, don't tell me: it makes me feel better to think they do. (My own publisher reportedly exclaimed after meeting me: "wow, he's normal." It was the nicest thing anyone had ever said about me, in a sense, yet somehow I couldn't avoid the feeling that I had failed.) Anyway, he must have really wanted to hook up with the agent, despite the risk. My favorite detail is his explanation for adopting the pseudonym in the first place: he did not want to receive rejection letters in his own name. There's something very touching about that, I think.

I have no idea whether Dalrymple's praise for Down the Road, Worlds Away is warranted, and it's unlikely that I'll ever find out as the book is apparently in limbo, having been erased, pulped, and excised from the literary record. His essay/review did make me want to read it, however. In the process he makes some interesting points about identity, politics, and identity politics. Worth a look.

Posted by Dr. Frank at May 20, 2005 04:18 PM | TrackBack

I'll second your post. A fascinating read.

Posted by: Chrees at May 21, 2005 12:40 AM

"Wow, he's normal."

Do you think that meant "normal in relation to the average writer I buy lunch for" or "normal in relation to what I expected Dr. Frank to be like" -- and which would you find more flattering/disturbing? FWIW, you seemed pretty normal to me, too, but then you always have to consider the source...

Posted by: Nick at May 21, 2005 04:20 AM

Yah, I've never heard of that one either...

Posted by: Leslie at May 21, 2005 08:58 AM

It's not a universal issue so much as an integrity issue. Why pretend to be someone you're not purely for career advancement in literacy? For me, it points to a "lesser" although, more creative-type of writer. It gets sticky. I think creativity, there are so many other roads to take in literature and writing that this one seems "scandalous" and I'm not sure I especially want my vicar scandalous. Although, the present day history points to them being so, in a not-so-good way. So historically, he's correct in his motives- he's just up there with "Catholic Priests who molest children" in my book, at least that's what came to mind.

Posted by: Leslie at May 21, 2005 03:48 PM

My personal favorite was meeting someone for the first time who said "Wow! you're nothing like I imagined...I thought you'd be wearing black...maybe even with a beret!"

Posted by: Shannon at May 23, 2005 08:53 PM

When you adopt a psuedonym, it's more like a shield really. One can still take credit for good accomplishments, but a nickname makes it easier to hide underneath when the going gets tough. If someone verbally attacks you online, in a review in a magazine, etc, then the mentality is "eh, it's me, but they're not really touching me 'cause that's not my name." It does make one feel a lot safer. Weird. I like that.

Posted by: Megan at May 24, 2005 11:49 PM
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