The Role of Anonymity in Writing

Anonymous writing is a loaded act which raises a reader’s eyebrows as much as seeing an author’s name in print does. Publishing any piece of good writing without attribution challenges the assumptions that there is worth in knowing the origins of a piece of work and that a work can, even in some minute way, not be understood without this information. It repositions authorial attribution from primary to secondary import, and it dismisses the notion that including an author’s name is a necessary formality at least, a dignity at best. When citing another person’s work, however, it is considered a grave sin to leave out an author’s name – to deny fair attribution to a source – and doing so begins a slippery slope into areas of plagiarism. Yet, when the creator himself votes in favor of his own anonymity, the dynamic changes entirely. What has crossed an author’s mind to make his piece separate from his name, to make the name of the author irrelevant to the subject matter?

There are multiple sides to this coin. An author might write anonymously because he or she believes that there is a kind of purity in the work itself if it is understood at face value, without the degree of consideration that would unavoidably result from its association with an author. This effect is certainly accurate. One’s perspective is influenced and colored by knowing a bit about the originator of a product. Does it not change one’s experience, even slightly, of appreciating J.K. Rowling’s writing after learning something about her background and life? The content no longer stands entirely alone. This foreknowledge can be for better or for worse. It is odd to open F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and overlook the stereotyped description of Meyer Wolfsheim. How can one simply read the book and not question the author’s own possible prejudices? In the opposite direction, if one already has knowledge about a particular author, how can one avoid searching for traces of his character in his writing? How many dissertations have been written to excavate and reveal homosexual undertones in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray? And perhaps fairly; these all become varying degrees of grayness themselves, and the reader, once knowing something about the author, can easily read into his writing to a fault, claiming to see ideas and intentions embedded in a text that was never created with such things in mind.

The Bible itself struggles with these very issues of attribution. Why must one keep referring to Bava Kama to learn who the chachamim, the Sages, considered to be Biblical authors? Many times the reader must then trust the sages, for without them most explicit attributions are lacking in multiple Biblical texts. Questioning authorship becomes warranted and unavoidable. Perhaps such anonymity functions to disperse and confuse discussion of attribution, rendering it unimportant and irrelevant, or perhaps it is a very polemic against giving acknowledgment of authorship undue importance. Perhaps it makes a statement that attribution and content are not intertwined.

In modern writing, lack of attribution seems to serve a different function. Living in a culture that, both beneficially and detrimentally, values the confessional, the exhibitionist, and the evocative of the personal, many people feel urged to divulge their secrets and confess their sins. The Internet becomes a lively hub, providing anything and everything from personal blogs to articles to forums specifically requiring usernames, pseudonyms in essence, for people to write from a distance. Articles in this very publication have been penned while their authors’ names were glaringly excluded. These writers are not simpletons. They live in society and are aware of the true quality in human nature. One cannot read an article about sexual escapades or female masturbation without striking a relationship with the author. This relationship could be characterized by a sense of relief, with the reader feeling grateful that someone has shared his or her experience and understands a certain perspective; the relationship could also be one of resentment, a sense of shame that the author would ever write as he or she did. The author certainly risks the possibility of being judged for better or for worse, and further risks being adversely affected by a rude face-to-face confrontation. Yet, can a person, should a person, voice his thoughts with a bag over his head out of fear that his unpopular opinions might penetrate into others’ perception of him? One cannot “anonymously” attend a protest where people will see one’s face and disapprove of one’s stance. Having and voicing opinions puts oneself in a scary and daunting position, but doing so is a task, an essential part of forming oneself and cultivating a true identity. One positions himself as the Other, and that position is not an anonymous position.

Writers, authors, creators: when presenting a piece of your work, think deeply about the consequences of including or excluding your name. Remember that for all the slack you might receive for your ideas, there might be even a single soul who relates, one who is inclined to contact you, one who would even simply like to give you the credit you deserve for sparking conversation. Remember that anonymity tends to draw attention to a name’s absence, not to decline it. We can envision a standard in which the norm would be to publish anonymously, and the concept of seeing an author’s name would be just as aberrant and surprising. However, revolutionizing the concept of authorship in that way is content for another non-anonymous article. In the meantime, be purposeful when drawing attention to your own authorship, through your name’s absence or presence.