Sunday, July 28, 2013

Doris Lessing and the Perils of the Pseudonymous Novel

July 23, 2013 - The New Yorker - Posted by

In the early nineteen-eighties, a literary agent in London sent the manuscript of a first novel titled “The Diary of a Good Neighbour,” by a certain Jane Somers, to the publishing company Jonathan Cape. Cape still maintained the old-fashioned practice of employing in-house readers, and the manuscript duly appeared in their office, on the shelf reserved for agented material, guaranteeing it prompt and serious attention. Of the half-dozen or so men and women paid to sit around in armchairs perusing new manuscripts, the one who plucked it from the shelf happened to be the youngest, an aspiring poet and fiction writer of twenty-three.

He didn’t think much of it, and wrote a report saying so. After a brief discussion at the weekly editorial meeting, the book was turned down.
Some time later, it was revealed that “Jane Somers” was, in fact, Doris Lessing. She had written the book under a pseudonym, partly because she wanted it to be appraised purely on merit, partly out of solidarity with young writers, and partly to free herself from her own literary persona. (J. K. Rowling’s recent exercise in pseudonymity suggests that this may be a common yearning in famous writers.)
The revelation caused a biggish rumpus in the U.K. press. Cape was considered to have egg on its face for failing to recognize the work of one of its most eminent authors. Publishing in general was deemed to have been shown up for the pusillanimous business that people had always suspected it of being, only interested in taking on books by the already well-known. And the reader’s report was excoriated by Lessing herself as a reminder of “how patronized and put-down new writers are.”

Reader, I was that reader. I don’t remember what I wrote (presumably my report is somewhere in the Cape archive), and I don’t remember anything about the book itself except that I felt completely unrepentant about not recommending it. Cape did, in fact, publish plenty of first novels by genuinely unknown writers, and as far as I was concerned the only reason they didn’t go for this one was that it wasn’t good enough. “Good” for me at that time meant tight and clever and stylistically showy. The idea that failing to see the merit of “The Diary of a Good Neighbour” might have been a reflection of my own limitations rather than the book’s had no resonance for me at all. My mechanism of judgment was as ruthless as it was narrow.


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