The Real Story of 'O': Anonymity Has Its Perils

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

In February 1663, the London printer John Twyn was sentenced to a most terrible fate: he was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Twyn's offense? He had dared to print an anonymous pamphlet that justified the right of rebellion against the king. In his jail cell, Twyn told those who begged him to confess the source of the treason that "it was not his principle to betray the author." The next day, Twyn's head was duly placed on a Ludgate spike.

As Washington watches agog at the publication of the anonymous roman à clef O: A Presidential Novel, Twyn's horrible fate is an apt reminder of the historic perils of authorship, the price of anonymity, and the frenzy it used to arouse in the early days of the printed word.

Writers once went to extraordinary lengths to remain anonymous. And with good reason. Books were a matter of life and death. Immediately after the introduction of the printing press, writers who challenged religious or political orthodoxy were in mortal danger. Translations of the Bible, especially, offered a short route to oblivion: William Tyndale, the first person to publish an English-language version of the New Testament, was burned at the stake. In 1679 England's greatest living poet, John Dryden, was so badly beaten by thugs for his supposed authorship of an anonymous satire about one of the king's mistresses that he almost died. Daniel Defoe, the British journalist and author of Robinson Crusoe, was put in the pillory.

The author of O, whoever he (or she) turns out to be—Robert Gibbs? Curtis Sittenfeld? David Plouffe?—has placed himself in a noble, if fraught, tradition. Tracking back through Anglo-American literary history we find that Shakespeare published anonymously, and Anonymous put his name to Gulliver's Travels, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and The Federalist Papers. Many of the greatest writers in the English literary canon (Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot) began by publishing anonymously or pseudonymously. Guessing the gender of an unknown author became part of the pleasure of reading.

Yet as Anonymous has repeatedly discovered, contrarian self-expression can get a writer into trouble. When NEWSWEEK writer Joe Klein was revealed to be the author of Primary Colors, the 1996 bestseller that dished the dirt on Bill Clinton, he was subject to a media version of Twyn's evisceration. Confronted by an outraged press corps, Klein found himself denying everything. Big mistake. NEWSWEEK suspended him, and CBS News "accepted his resignation." (Today he writes for Time.) Last week, challenged about O, he protested to The Daily Beast, "I didn't do it." We have to believe him. O reportedly has neither the pizzazz nor the wit of Primary Colors.

The middling response to O suggests that its anonymity may be the best thing going for it. For anonymity is a promotional game, designed to tease the public.

Today the most familiar kind of anonymity is failure, rejection, and neglect. The author of O (someone who "has been in the room with Barack Obama") has certainly nixed those demons, but we'll have to see if he can dodge the scaffold and the fate of Klein/Twyn. After the prepublication guessing games (Is it Rahm Emanuel? Is it Christopher Buckley? No, it's Mr. Nobody), perhaps it would be more humiliating to wake up on publication day and discover that no one actually gives a damn.

McCrum is the author of Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language.