Books

Michael Nolan
Closing the book on anonymity

When The Saturday Paper launched in March 2014, we chose to experiment with publishing book reviews anonymously. As with everything else, we wanted to test the orthodoxy of our culture. More correctly, these reviews have been pseudonymous, with writers retaining a consistent set of initials. We wondered, in light of the country’s highly concentrated literary community, if bylined reviewers – particularly when authors themselves – could be candid in their assessment of others’ work when faced with frequent professional and personal contact. Were reviewers pulling their punches so as to avoid awkward encounters with publishers or fellow panellists at writers festivals? Were we missing out on the expertise of writers shy of such discomfort? Were we missing honest assessments of new writers, in the interests of being supportive, or established writers, in the interests of not challenging the reputational status quo? And does anything say “cosy scene” like being unsure of whether to give a review credence if you don’t know the identity of the person who wrote it?

We think the experiment succeeded, albeit modestly. While we did attract some writers new to criticism, many also reviewed with attribution in other places. Most of our reviewers reported that a byline would not have changed what they wrote. I might suggest that anonymity brought a subtle difference to the scope of their considerations, in that they might have allowed that some elements of a book didn’t quite work, a measure of consideration they might not have chosen to raise otherwise. But with these modest effects observed, we have decided the experiment has run its course. If we have a small and cautious literary culture, pseudonyms are not the answer to it. In future, our book reviews will be attributed.

The use of pseudonyms prompted what we regard as a healthy moment’s reflection on how this all works. We always maintained that it was an experiment in the culture, and so these are its findings. Initially, dissent seemed to centre on the assumption that anonymity would result in excoriation: reviewers hidden in concrete bunkers triggering distant nuclear explosions. But rather than unleashing masked villains upon Australian letters, our reviews have rarely been scathing. At least one reviewer confessed they felt anonymity meant the need to temper their criticism. There’s something malignant in the suggestion that human nature is given to maliciousness unless held publicly accountable. It also dismisses the paper’s editorial control of what it publishes – as though there would be no checks on the presumed firestorm we were inviting. This speaks to the second, more considered, criticism of our decision – that it was cowardly to review anonymously. The implication is that no responsibility was taken for the views being expressed. This overlooks the authority of the newspaper masthead, manifest here in the same manner as with an unsigned editorial. The paper’s editors exercised their skill and judgement in bringing the reviewers’ writing to the page. The newspaper stands by what it publishes and is open to criticism and complaint.

Consider the nature of public accountability, too. If it was reasonable to fear anonymous reviewing would descend into nastiness or vindictiveness, perhaps we can acknowledge the tenor of discourse that anonymity brings to social media, and wonder if wishing to remain unacknowledged might not be cowardice but reasonable protection against the nasty, damaging pile-ons that can be directed to writers personally. Is it heresy to suggest it ought not be considered compulsory for writers to directly communicate with individual readers to explain themselves further, to answer accusations or to simply weather hot-headed disagreement?

The Saturday Paper extends a warm thank you to all past reviewers for their participation in our experiment, and for their perspicacious and entertaining contributions to our books pages. Some will continue on these pages under their own names, others have chosen not to. We look forward to continuing to publish lively and absorbing book reviews in the new year.

— Michael Nolan, Books editor

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 22, 2018 as "Closing the book on anonymity ". Subscribe here.