UnknownWhen I start in about “The man in the golden helmet”, they try to stop my ranting with the question “What would you think if it was discovered that Hamlet had been written than someone other than Shakespeare?” I like to think I wouldn’t care. It’s fundamentally different, isn’t it? When “The man in the golden helmet” was declared in 1985 to be not by Rembrandt but by a student of his its estimated value dropped from $8,000,000 to $400,000, and visitors to the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin stopped going to look at it. It was the self-same picture, raved over for years as one of Rembrandt’s greatest, but now it was 95% less “good”! Well, that’s obviously ridiculous: the skill with which it was painted didn’t change between 1984 and 1986, all the praise the art critics lavished on it still had to be just as true, didn’t it — unless those critics really only meant “This picture is beautiful because, and only because, it is worth so much money”. Cynically I suspect many of them of saying exactly that: the whole of their training may be just a long course in wrapping that truth up in high falutin’ words. But whether a picture “speaks to you” ought not to have anything to do with what critics and art historians say about it. Now that I need glasses to read the labels in museums I find the experience more rewarding: I walk through, eye-glass-less, ignorant of the name and thus status of the painters and can look at the things I like rather than the things “they” say I should.

An interesting piece by Matthew Bown in The Times Literary Supplement of 10 April 2015 addresses the idea of artworks as the modern equivalent of religious relics. Their value, he suggests, inheres in the idea that “the master” touched them, thus making them unique. This would explain why quite pedestrian modern works, made without any apparent skill or talent (beyond a talent for getting public attention) should command such outrageous prices. And also why a van Meegeren, although indistinguishable to anyone but an expert (and often apparently to them too), should be available for a fraction of what you’ll pay for a genuine Vermeer.

This just isn’t the picture in the book world. Despite some dilettanti projects (mixing the author’s DNA with the ink, or printing the book in blood) what we readers want in a book is the content not the physical manifestation. We don’t care if it’s the Oxford World Classics, the Penguin Classics, the Modern Library, the Wordsworth Classics edition, or the hardback first edition, or even an e-book from Project Gutenberg. We just want to read it. Now if it were revealed that a tramp named Paddy O’Riley not James Joyce had in fact written Ulysses there would presumably be a drop in the asking price for the original manuscript, the author’s corrected proofs, and maybe those few inscribed first editions. Or maybe not: they might paradoxically be seen as more valuable: who knows what collectors are after? But I’m pretty sure that anyone wanting to read the book wouldn’t be at all deterred by the fact that O’Riley had used a nom-de-plume, even if it was a non-de-plume of another active author. Would it make a difference if A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Finnegans Wake weren’t written by Paddy, but by the famous James Joyce? Not much I think. Ulysses is Ulysses and it stands by itself. After all, who cares that books by Robert Galbraith are in fact written by J. K. Rowling? Or more touchingly that books by Gavin Black were written by Oswald Wynd, an almost forgotten novelist who went to university with my mother? Having a pseudonym for a different genre of your writing seems a fairly common practice.

People do tend to get rather excited when a new work by a famous author, like Shakespeare turns up: academic reputations have thus been made. But I suppose that was more a poem unrecognized, rather than misattributed. There’s a correspondence going on in the TLS now about the authorship of Arden of Faversham. Does it matter (except in the world of academe) whether it was written partly or not at all by Shakespeare? I suppose it does to the extent that we don’t feel we have to read all the works of Thomas Kyd, but if it were to be taken into the Shakespearian canon, we’d all have to engage with Arden just as much as we do with Two Noble Kinsmen.

This gets us to the one area of publishing where misattribution of authorship does matter — academic publishing, more particularly scholarly journal publishing. Here’s a case in point from COPE, the Committee on Publication Ethics. Clearly it matters in the world of research who’s actually responsible for the work. The weight readers attach to research will be correlated to the respect induced by the name of authors. Academic papers, especially scientific ones, often list many authors. Obviously hitching a ride without doing the work might be seen by the unscrupulous as a good career move. In book publishing publishers have generally provided a gate-keeping function to prevent such passing-off. If I turned up at Random House with an outline and sample chapter for Robert Galbraith’s latest, I suspect someone might rumble me — Gavin Black maybe I’d get away with. But I really don’t know what would happen nowadays if someone self-published a book under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. I wonder if the Kindle algorithms would suss them out, or whether Jo would ever discover, and/or care. I do not recommend trying this: it sounds illegal, and even if not, sleazy.