Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Mudflats, meet Publius, Junius and Boz

Have you ever heard of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell?

How about George Orwell?

George Eliot? Boz? Junius? Voltaire? Lewis Carroll? Clive Hamilton? Publius?

How about Silence Dogood?

My guess is that some of these names are familiar to you - authors - and some not. They are all pen names - names the "real" authors chose to use, for whatever reason, instead of their given name.

When I heard that our state representative, Mike Doogan, had "outed" one of my favorite Alaskan political bloggers, AKMuckraker of Mudflats, my first thoughts were that Muckraker just didn't deserve it (won't tell you my second thoughts - they were about Doogan and mostly unprintable.)

I've met Muckraker (and I'm keeping with the wish for not publicizing name, gender, etc. despite the fact that it's out there) on a several occasions, and I think knowing how kind and passionate Muckraker as a person is would stop any decent person from wanting to cause harm.

But if I'd never met Muckraker, I would not want to cause harm on the basis of the writing at Mudflats. Both a talented writer, and astute observationalist, there is a reason Mudflats is so popular. In a time where nearly all Alaskan blogs were posting about Palin, Mudflats was one that stood out. You just need to read the blog to see why.

I was going to just post some links to other blogs who were commenting on the Doogan/Mudflats outing - I wasn't sure there was much more I could say. What's more, I didn't think Mudflats needed any kind of defense from me - Muckraker would (and is) doing just fine.

But one theme keeps getting rehashed, and I felt a need to address it, both as a blogger, and an avid reader. Although blogging is a new medium, there is a theme that keeps arising that anonymity is somehow a new thing.

We are, I'm afraid, standing on the shoulders of anonymous giants. The history of writing is full of anonymity and creative pen names.

Of the names I mentioned above, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell were the pen names of Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte. "Boz" was an early pen name of Charles Dickens, and Clive Hamilton an early pen name for C.S. Lewis. Mark Twain - well, he didn't go to great lengths to conceal his identity, but had different reasons for his pen name.

Doogan states, in his public "outing" of Mudflats on his newsletter, that his "own theory about the public process is you can say what you want, as long as you are willing to stand behind it using your real name" is stupidly ridiculous. The very founding of this country's "public process" is riddled with anonymous writing. The Federalist Papers, anyone?

Just for a quick history lesson, the Federalist Papers were written by "Publius," later known to as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. Actually, I'll just refer to them as "old school bloggers." The Federalist Papers are maybe one of the best examples of writing forms very similar to blogging. They were written with obvious opinion, and an obvious intent to persuade. They were written in articles, and in formats trying to get them out to the public at large - not for elite consumerism. And they were written anonymously.

Pen names of authors are chosen for plenty of different reasons - and through history most people are willing to accept that. Whether it is because the author wants true anonymity (Jane Austen, for instance) or because an author is trying to get around the prejudices of readers by concealing gender (J.K. Rowling, George Sand) or because they are concerned about protecting a career (C.S. Lewis/Clive Hamilton, Lewis Carroll) - they all have reasons. Some reasons are good, others not, but most of the public is satisfied not having to dig that up.

Why? Because it is the ideas, the style, the story - the writing - we are buying into, not the name. Names can prejudice a person right from the start. Women authors, especially, have known this. Pride and Prejudice was meant to be enjoyed, spark thought - it should not matter whether Jane Austen wanted me to know her name and all her family business. For that matter, I don't know a single thing about Barbara Kingsolver except the name on the cover. But I recommend her book, "The Poisonwood Bible" to anyone who loves literature.

But that's fiction, right? When you're in the "public process" it's different?

Tell that to Ben Franklin - author of "Silence Dogood" letters. Or the aforementioned Alexander Hamilton. For that matter, George Orwell is now known for his (very political) fiction books, but in his day he was quite prolific in (nonfiction) articles and political writing. Voltaire's persistent opinions and writings kept getting him imprisoned. Daniel Defoe knew just how many enemies political writing can get you, and frequently adopted different pen names. Junius is a political writer we still don't know the "true identity" of a few hundred years later. It doesn't make any difference in the ideas and impact of his/her writing.

This is something that comforts me about Mudflats. My real concern was that Mudflats - in an effort to protect family, career, etc. - would stop. I am relieved to see my paranoia was wrong, and Mudflats is up and running, just as good as ever. But people who read Mudflats are buying into the reputation of AKMuckraker as a writer. Absolutely no harm has been done to this reputation (and my guess is all that really happened, for the blog anyways, was Mudflats picked up even more readers.)

I wish, for AKMuckrakers sake, that wishes for privacy had been respected, but know that, just as finding out the name of who wrote Sense and Sensibility didn't make the book's place in history any less likely - the public knowing the "real identity" of AKMuckraker won't make Mudflats any less of a quality site for public discussion.

I came across this interesting explanation of pen names by sister Charlotte Bronte, wanting to clear up the confusion of both her late sister's work.
Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell... we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.

Funny how little seems to change.

The irony of Doogan's outing is he is merely taking part in a continuation of history and writers - and he wants to play the part, not of the public who readily accept anonymity, but of the a**hole government official who can't stand the criticism and so decides to persecute the writer. Funny thing about history - nobody remembers that guy.



twodux said...

Ironic no? Mike Doogan is willing to keep the identity of the person, who revealed AKM's real name, anonymous.

That person was evidently only comfortable revealing AKM's name anonymously. If this person felt that AKM needed to be outed publicly, shouldn't they stand behind it using their own name instead of hiding behind Doogan?

Doogan wrote: "My own theory about the public process is you can say what you want, as long as you are willing to stand behind it using your real name."

Doogan seems to have different standards for himself and for everyone else. Kinda like the Governor. It's totally hypoctitical. I hope both of their careers as public servant are cut equally short.

DrChill said...

Nice post, with a new angle on what happened. I like the idea of his name being consigned to the dark pit of forgotten political hacks.

Thanks for the image.

Anonymous said...

What a great post. Thanks so much for your kind words and support. I am a big fan of your writing, and your blog and may you keep on in anonymity!


HistoryGoddess said...

Nicely written article. I am amazed that there hasn't been more outrage from media sources regarding the manner in which Doogan outed

I don't know that I ever really cared about an author's real name.
Far more important is the quality of the writing and the ideas expressed. Although I really don't know him, I sure get the impression that Doogan and some others may be very jealous of AKM's following. Pity.

hello said...

Lovely post, "Writing Raven"!

Gerbeel Haamster said...

I think the question should hinge on whether a private citizen claims to "know" things that "others" may not have access to, intimating the access is special and privileged.

This is not a journalist protecting a “source”.

Blogging is not “reporting”, no matter how many Bloggers pretend they are reporters. (Is "muckraking" reporting? I'm not sure, but I think so. Look at the Nat.Enq.)

When a Blogger (as so many of us do) crosses the line from opinion to stating supposed fact based on claims of privileged information, that Blogger has lost any expectation of legal protection of their identity.

IMNSHO, if you claim special access, privilege and expertise not available to the general public, expect to get outed.

DrChill said...

I think the question should hinge on whether a private citizen claims to "know" things that "others" may not have access to, intimating the access is special and privileged.
Confusing blogging and journalism is common.
In part its because so many people seeking good journalistic sources find blogs. That does not turn the blog into the 'newspaper' you went looking for.

Consider a person writing a diary, in a public park. You ask "May I see?" You read it, and you like it. You draw a crowd. They like it too.

The size of the crowd, the intensity of their interest and the content of the diary, do not cause the person's privacy to be lost. Privacy is a right that does not get lost when you share private thoughts and experiences.

AKM sought only to get stuff off her chest, and share her writing.

Think "diary", and "privacy."
AKM is not selling her work, merely sharing it.
BTW its not all "Newsy" you can read about visits from Brian the moose. Loose the journalist paradigm that you are are applying to blogging.

I am a little upset at the number of people who do not recognize privacy as a right, and how it protects our individual first amendment rights of free speech.

The Supreme court recognizes it. You should too.

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