Watching Book-TV on CSPAN the other night I caught the end of a lecture by Elaine Showalter, author of the recently published The Vintage Book of American Women Writers and professor emerita of English at Princeton University, on the challenges to women writers through the centuries. She had some interesting things to say about how an audience’s perception of an author influences his or her success or failure. (Remember Deconstruction and the notion that the author is of no importance? LOL?)
Briefly she told the story of Alice B. Sheldon, who, raised in a family of intellectuals and writers, turned to writing in her fifties after a career that had included African safaries, two marriages, a stint in Army Intelligence during WWII, several years spying for the CIA in the Middle East, plus a PhD in Experimental Psychology (sounds like a typical writer’s CV). Alice’s genre of choice was science fiction, where she made a splash under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. In a tough, “masculine” voice, she made quite a name for herself, or rather, himself. After a decade of hiding her sex, she was finally outed in 1977, but continued to write as Tiptree until 1987 when she died at age 72 in a suicide pact with her 82-year-old husband.
There seems to be a divergence of opinion on the effect the change of perception of who she was had on her audience: Wikipedia says there was none, while Showalter says that once she was identified as a woman, she lost most of her audience. In any case, whatever the truth, the point I wish to make here is not about how an audience perceives an author or how that affects the success of his or her work, it’s about to what lengths some members of an audience will go to find out what they want to know about an author. “Deconstruction” to the contrary, it seems that knowing who is writing something is almost as important as the writing itself.
According to Wikipedia:
though it was widely known that “Tiptree” was a pseudonym, it was generally understood that its use was intended to protect the professional reputation of an intelligence community official. Readers, editors and correspondents were permitted to assume gender, and generally, but not invariably, they assumed “male.” . . . “Tiptree” never made any public appearances, but she did correspond regularly with fans and other science fiction authors through the mail. When asked for biographical details, Tiptree/Sheldon was forthcoming in everything but gender. . . .
After the death of [her mother] in 1976, “Tiptree” mentioned in a letter that his mother, also a writer, had died in Chicago––details that led inquiring fans to find the obituary, with its reference to Alice Sheldon; soon all was revealed.
So “all was revealed” to “inquiring fans.” Clearly the popularity of Tiptree’s stories had raised a fan base, aka audience, who wanted to know more about who was writing the stories that pleased them. Told only what she chose to reveal, evidently it wasn’t enough. Obviously there was a group of Tiptree fans who, having sniffed an evasion, were dedicated enough to track down the facts about him/her through the obits in a Chicago newspaper.
What, where, who, why and when?
One of the questions that dogs the authorship inquiry is: When did it first arise? Stratfordians invariably date it to the latter half of the 19th century when “cranks” like Mark Twain and Walt Whitman began to publicize it. Long study has left me with the opinion that, however sparse the evidence, the question of who was writing the plays is as old as the plays themselves, that is, it’s as old as the versions produced by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men when they began their rise to success in the late 1590s, the ones that, once they began getting published, bore the name Shakespeare.
I believe that once we begin to examine the emergence of the name Shakespeare while keeping in mind the likelihood that every step forward in its use was forced by the questioning of an audience who were at least as hungry to know whose voice they were hearing from the Stage as were the fans of James Tiptree Jr. to know the truth about him.
Back in the sixties there was a rather sorry weekly TV program based on the old comicbook superhero, The Green Hornet––not something I would normally have bothered to watch. But one day happening to tune it in while turning on the TV I was captivated by the young guy playing the part of the Green Hornet’s sidekick, Kato. Most unusually for that time, he was a genuine Asian, and Wow! was he ever compelling! I became a regular observer, cursing the directors when I had to sit through a half an hour of the dolt who played the Green Hornet, with no sign of Kato. Sadly the program lasted only one season, so it was some years before the actor who played Kato, one Bruce Lee, forever changed movie fights, and the after school lives of thousands of American schoolboys, in Enter the Dragon.
I venture to suggest that, in the 1590s, as the London Stage grew from infancy to power, a particular audience grew along with it, one that, even as Broadcasting has overwhelmed most of its original audience, has stuck with it ever since. Intelligent, thoughtful, appreciative of art, attuned to greatness, this core audience owed no allegiance, no vow of silence, to the Court or the Inns of Court communities. That there was such an audience, one that reacted to the brilliant swordplay in Hamlet––just as I and millions like me would react someday to Bruce Lee’s fight scenes––should go without saying. And that this audience, like James Tiptree Jr.’s fans, wanted to know who was doing the writing and was not afraid of asking, should also go without saying. It’s simple common sense.