Years ago, when I was serving as an anonymous hack on the Times Literary Supplement, one of my duties was to pen sprightly paragraphs for a weekly books column. The idea was to mop up publications which were not considered worth full-scale reviews but which nonetheless had to be ‘covered’ by a journal of record such as ours. Things like: A Dictionary of Spy Writers or The Balladeers’ Handbook or Henry Williamson: My Friend. Usually, there was a brisk supply of such material and it was easy enough to knock out the required eight or nine paragraphs per week.
Sometimes, though, there would be nothing: no Murderer’s Who’s Who, no Yorkshire verse, no New Zealand little magazines. To guard against such barren stretches, we invariably had one or two ‘timeless’ items on the go: foreign stuff, mostly, since no one knew when that was out of date, but now and then something solidly domestic – jokey items on the philosophy of crossword puzzles, or shrewd, relaxed meditations on what ought to be done about the Regions/Writers-in-Residence/The Open University. You could always find a current peg for material like this – 40 per cent of ‘on the one hand’, 40 per cent of ‘on the other’, and a final, plangent 20 per cent of ‘It is to be hoped that ...’ Child’s play, really, provided that you remembered to change the names and dates.
To liven things up (it must have been a Friday, after lunch) we decided to compose a spoof poem and submit it to one of those ‘Poems Wanted’ publishers who advertise in all the weeklies. To a literary editor, the phrase ‘Poems Wanted’ has an outlandish, almost eerie twang. I can’t remember how our poem went but it was made up of extremely well-known lines out of, I think, the Faber Book of Modern Verse. It might even have read:
April is the cruellest month
It makes me think
Continually of those who were truly great
So it’s no go
My honey love, it’s no go my poppet
It might even have been titled ‘Do not go gentle into that good knight’. The point is, we were almost begging to be rumbled.
Anyway, we sent the thing off under a daft pseudonym and, within days, back came a cordial acceptance. The publisher (call him Arthur Daley) would be glad to include our ‘splendid’ composition in Best Poems of 1969, or whatever year it was. The catch (described by Daley as the bonus) was that we would be expected to purchase eight copies of the book when it appeared. Although it wasn’t spelled out, the deal was clear, no purchase, no publication. We calculated that with, say, two hundred poets buying eight copies each, this rather shoddily printed anthology would chalk up a decent profit before a single copy reached the shops, if shops indeed figured in Mr Daley’s plans.
So we wrote it all up, mingling tired mockery with almost-prim reproof, and bunged it into the column during a slack week. There was much applause all round, as if we had dealt the philistines a telling blow. For my part, I was at first simply glad to have filled the space with something that had been quite fun to do. Later, though, I did begin to wonder. After all, who had we damaged, if damage had been done? Not the publisher, certainly: poetry might be a tidy little earner if you play it right but Arthur could as easily switch to monogrammed nappy-liners or one-legged tracksuits. By the time our piece appeared, he had probably already diversified, moved on. No, the most likely victims of our little jape were the two hundred ‘poets’ who had no doubt been quite happy with the way things were – only too eager, probably, to fork out for eight copies of a book they could pass on proudly to their grannies, ex-husbands, and the like. These sensitives were now exposed as shoddy self-deluders. Auden understood about the real, the hidden and depressed, readership for poetry: these poets of 1969 were even more hidden, more depressed and very likely ate in even nastier cafeterias than the types Auden had in mind. They had probably never even heard of Auden. Who were we to bully such harmless dabblers into rough self-knowledge?
After a day or so spent musing along these pious lines, it dawned on me that I must surely be suffering from hoaxer’s backlash, that sour and anxious sensation I remember seeing on the faces of a gang of bloods at my Oxford college just after they had finished booby-trapping a swot’s room, and on the less well-bred faces of my barrack-mates in the Air Force when they sent the weediest of our colleagues out on a fake-date with the CO’s daughter – what fun it had been watching the poor slob dab after-shave into his armpits, and how blissful the moment when, with a chuckle that could only be described as ‘debonair’, he decided finally to wear the flowery tie and not the striped ...
Do all hoaxers end up feeling a bit wretched, after the event? Did the inventors of Ern Malley experience a few spasms of discomfiture after their spoof poet had taken the Australian literary scene by storm? I suppose not – after all, this was a high-minded hoax, an act of Criticism, really: its authors could boast that there was nothing in it that was petty or vindictive. And what about Dr Johnson’s pal, the awesomely resourceful George Psalmanazar whose fraudulent study of Formosa got him a job at Oxford, teaching missionaries to master his faked-up Formosan tongue? George was made to suffer for his cheek, and in time he did repent – but he too could surely have pleaded that his jests had served a highish purpose.
Higher, certainly, than the purpose served by our own most recent literary hoax. I have before me a press hand-out from the firm of Michael Joseph:
WE BELIEVE THAT NEVER BEFORE HAS A CELEBRATED WRITER OF FICTION SO SUCCESSFULLY DISGUISED HER IDENTITY AND CREATED SUCH AN EXPERIMENT IN PUBLISHING AND NEVER BEFORE HAS A WRITER AT THE HEIGHT OF HER POWERS WRITTEN TWO SUCH POWERFUL AND MOVING BOOKS IN ANOTHER PERSONA
The story is now well-known. In 1982, a writer who called herself ‘Jane Somers’ submitted her ‘first novel’ to three London publishers. Two of them – Cape and Granada – turned it down. The third, Michael Joseph, published it in 1983 – under the title The Diary of a Good Neighbour; they said that Jane Somers had already written some romantic fiction and was well-known as a journalist. The book got ‘mild reviews’, according to my hand-out, and ‘sold moderately’. It was published in America, and translated into three languages. Earlier this year, Jane Somers’s second book appeared, entitled If the Old Could, and shortly afterwards it was revealed that Jane Somers was just another name for Doris Lessing. Now both books are reissued in a single volume under Lessing’s name – with a rather dotty introduction explaining why she had gone to all this trouble.
The explanation is in two halves: one half is severe and public-spirited, the other is girlish and bewildered. On the public front, Lessing contends that she has revealed important truths about the state of publishing and reviewing: it’s all so mechanical and yet it’s all so name-fixated – by means of her hoax, she has established that a known author gets more respect than an unknown. Well, thanks for telling us. She also wanted to help these said unknowns by demonstrating that even somebody as gifted as herself could, when rendered nameless, be treated with institutional disdain. And, as if all this were not sufficiently confusing, she (parenthetically) rather liked the idea of exposing the shoddiness of her regular reviewers. ‘Some reviewers complained they hated my Canopus series, why didn’t I write realistically, the way I used to before; preferably The Golden Notebook over again? These were sent The Diary of a Good Neighbour but not one recognised me.’ That’s pretty shoddy, you might think; after all, these people are supposed to be her fans. A sentence or so later, though, Lessing herself lets these (and, I should say, all other) dunces off the hook: ‘it did turn out that as Jane Somers I wrote in ways that Doris Lessing cannot ... Jane Somers knew nothing about a kind of dryness, like a conscience, that monitors Doris Lessing whatever she writes and in whatever style.’ And it is here that the girlishness intrudes. What she seems to be saying now is that when Doris Lessing becomes Jane Somers she stops being Doris Lessing; it is only afterwards that she becomes Lessing enough to blame people for thinking Somers is not her:
Some may think this is a detached way to write about Doris Lessing, as if I were not she, it is the name I am detached about. After all, it is the third name I’ve had: the first, Tayler, being my father’s; the second, Wisdom (now try that one on for size!), my first husband’s, and the third my second husband’s. Of course there was McVeigh, my mother’s name, but am I Scots or Irish? As for Doris, it was the doctor’s suggestion, he who delivered me, my mother being convinced to the last possible moment that I was a boy. Born six hours earlier, I would have been Horatia, for Nelson’s Day, what could that have done for me? I sometimes wonder what my real name is; surely I must have one.
This is territory remote from the public-spirited, and rather more interesting, but Lessing doesn’t linger there for long. The drift of her preface is that she has somehow done everyone a favour. But what, in the end, has been achieved? Publishers and reviewers can hardly be reviled for not having ‘heard’ the authentic Lessing cadences. As she admits, she wasn’t using them. Nor can they be blamed for not doing well by the aspiring Somers. Having now read both novels, I am surprised that the fledgling didn’t have a rougher ride. In fact, if Lessing has proved anything, it is that she has a gift for manipulating the very machine she has laboured to ‘expose’. In hype terms, thanks to the hoax both titles are now doing very nicely.
Far better, certainly, than they deserve. The first novel has some arrestingly beastly descriptions of old age, but creaks horribly when it tries to describe the innards of a swinging woman’s mag. And the heroine’s stylish metropolitan know-how is registered with gauche unease. The second book takes a few wild swings at feckless youth, but its main artery is Mills and Boon:
And then, my life with Richard. It really is another life, and I fly into it, my heels winged. Sometimes I arrive at our rendezvous with my hands full of flowers, somewhere to put my joy. Richard laughs when he sees them, straight into my eyes, so that my eyes dazzle with it, like too strong sunlight. He takes flower after flower, putting them in my hair, my belt, my buttonhole. I stand bedecked and people look, at first ready to be critical, but then getting the benefit of the spin-off of our enjoyment.
It’s true that the character doing the talking here writes romantic novels (she is, indeed, called Janna Somers) and it is just possible that we are meant to think that she’s gone off her head. But not really – here is another character (the sophisticated magazine’s sophisticated editor) on his newborn child:
Janna, this is my fourth, and God forgive me the best! I know you shouldn’t like one more than another, and in a sense I don’t, they are miracles. I simply can’t believe it, how utterly amazing and marvellous each baby is, each in its own way ... When little Caroline was born – although I had seen it all three times before and every time it was just the most perfect thing – when this little being appeared, and they put a towel around her and put her straight in my arms, because I am afraid poor Phyllis was not with us at just that moment, she opened her eyes and looked at me. She wasn’t crying or shocked or anything like that – I know now because after all Caroline is my fourth
He burbles on like this for four pages – he has forgotten, for four pages, that our heroine is childless; the whole soliloquy is a set-up for Janna to surprise herself with a sudden unstylish burst of tears. ‘Then he was up in a bound, and he had his arms about me. “Oh Janna, don’t don’t, I am so sorry. Of course, I had forgotten, you haven’t had children, oh poor Janna, I am sorry, how awful of me.” ’
It is at moments like this – and there are lots of them – that one begins to wonder if Lessing hasn’t perhaps pulled off a hoax within a hoax – a new way of packaging old pulp.