It’s well-known that many authors prefer to distance themselves from their art – but do readers let them get away with it? Pen names, solitude, social withdrawal, and media avoidance are just some of their strategies. While many have attempted anonymity, few have maintained it. Better Reading brings you a list of the most elusive, mysterious writers – many whom you will no doubt recognise.
No list of mysterious authors would be complete without mentioning the roaring literary success of Elena Ferrante, an Italian novelist (presumably female) who has earned widespread recognition for her Neapolitan Quartet, a collection of potentially autobiographical novels that follow the lives of two young girls growing up in Naples while trying to comprehend the volatile world around them. But even though Ferrante’s wild popularity is relatively new, she’s preserved anonymity since the release of her first book in 1992 and made public statements through her publicist claiming she couldn’t write without remaining invisible. In that time plenty of investigative journalists and Italian literary critics have tried (and failed) to identify the true Ferrante, and it has become a sort of privacy-transgressing game of cat and mouse.
Well, even though this one isn’t much of a surprise anymore, it was admirable that J. K. Rowling didn’t depend on reputation to sell books, even though she was quickly found out. In 2013, Robert Galbraith, allegedly a retired member of the Military Police, hit the crime fiction scene with debut The Cuckoo’s Calling, which received great acclaim – and this was all before anybody found out the author’s true identity. But it didn’t take long for people to figure it out, and by the time Rowling’s publicist confirmed the pseudonym sales quickly increased from around 500 books to 140,000 within days. Her follow up book The Silkworm was still released under the Galbraith pseudonym despite her unmasking, but the venture into a different genre has earned J. K. Rowling a new, yet enthusiastic, audience in the world of crime fiction, proving she truly is a master of the craft.
When it comes to isolation from the modern world, Thomas Pynchon takes the cake. Known for staggeringly dense novels that flow effortlessly between high-brow and low-brow, covering all topics from metaphysics to cartoons, Pynchon is by no means your Sunday evening by-the-fire read. But his personal life has remained guarded from the public eye since the 50s – in fact, the last known legitimate photograph of Pynchon was taken during his High School years in New York. Since then, he has published some of the world’s most highly regarded books, including his masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, V., and the recently movie-adapted Inherent Vice starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
A band of American journalists suggested that Thomas Pynchon was the pen name for author J. D. Salinger (who we’ll talk about later in this list), a theory published in a New York newspaper that received the notorious reply from Pynchon himself – ‘Not bad. Keep trying’. Others thought his books were too fantastic to be written by one person and therefore must be the brainchild of numerous writers. All throughout the 1990s, news photographers literally patrolled New York city in search for him. They managed to snap a couple of photos of Pynchon with his family, and received furious grumblings from the author, who no doubt enjoys solitude without being hounded by the media.
Known by everyone on the planet as the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, lauded as one of the greatest books ever written, Harper Lee is another elusive character. As a young, ambitious woman she wrote a landmark piece of fiction inspired by semi-autobiography and the perilous racism and gender expectation in America’s Deep South. But, curiously, Lee proclaimed she’d never write another book . . .
. . . that is, until the controversial release of Harper Lee’s ostensible sequel, Go Set a Watchman. Although publishers marketed the book as a follow up to her original masterpiece, there were many narrative inconsistencies and confusing representations of familiar characters, and so what become the more likely theory was that Go Set a Watchman was the draft version of To Kill a Mockingbird. To make matters worse, Lee’s lawyers and publishers were publicly criticised for pressuring Lee to publish the book during her time of deteriorating health. These claims, however, remained unfounded, and for all intents and purposes it was reported that Lee was happy with the publication.
J. D. Salinger
After the massive popularity of Salinger’s moody The Catcher in the Rye, he quickly retreated from public life, feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by it all. He remains one of the most notorious ‘reclusive’ authors to this day, with wild rumours that he apparently stopped publishing stories because he resented public attention, and instead burnt them in his fireplace once completed.
Yep, it’s good old Stephen King, who apparently started writing books under the pen name Richard Bachman because he’d written too many under his own name, and therefore the market was flooded with far too many King books. Some of the hilarious things King did for the Richard Bachman phase included writing the foreword to his own books, now collected as The Bachman Books.