That wily writer known as Anonymous is at it again. In just a few weeks, his new book, O: A Presidential Novel, will hit bookstores. No one knows who has written this new story of O, but the guessing is becoming fierce. In fact, if the author is not unmasked by the publication date, I, personally, will lose ten bucks.
O: A Presidential Novel is a roman a clef, which means readers will have the fun of recognizing “characters” and “scenes” in the story as real people and real events. For those not familiar with literary terms, roman a clef is French for “you can’t sue the author for this unflattering portrayal because you are a public figure.”
It’s about time that Anonymous has come out with a new book. His last big seller (not counting the AA Bible, which is Anonymous’ greatest work, in my opinion, and a perennial good seller) was Primary Colors in 1996. Primary Colors is also a roman a clef and it skewers the Clinton administration in a devastating, though amusing and affectionate, fashion.
Primary Colors’ author was outed. He acknowledged his authorship soon after the book came out. I won’t reveal his name here because I want to honor the spirit of anonymity, and because everybody already knows it’s Joel Klein.
The two above novels were marketed as fiction– roman a clefs, political commentary, social criticism, too, but still fiction. Fiction with a message is still fiction.
I was in the sixth grade when Go Ask Alice was published. Needless to say, I didn’t buy a copy hot off the bookstore stands, as it was not appropriate reading for a 12-year-old (then) and I was attending a Catholic school that featured a nun who confiscated my copy of Love Story because it was racy and inappropriate. Yes. Love Story.
I read Go Ask Alice a few years later, when I was at a public high school and was blessed with an English teacher who wasn’t scared of controversial books. For those unfamiliar, the book was marketed as the true diary of an anonymous teenage girl who fell into a life of drug addiction. The title is a reference to the Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit.” In the book, the narrator never gives her name. Her drug experiences begin at a party, when her drink is spiked with LSD.
From the reading perspective of a 14-15 year old in a small town with no personal contact with anyone who used illegal drugs (as far as I knew), my take on the story was as follows. One minute this girl is sipping a spiked drink, and the next thing you know she’s giving daily BJs to a pimp named Big Ass. (Hey, it’s in the book.) For an impressionable girl, the line “Another day, another blow job” was much more effective phrasing than Just Say No, but you can’t put that on a billboard. Although, at this point in the war on drugs, maybe we should.
My point is, for me, Go Ask Alice worked. I was sure this girl was real; I was nowhere near her world, and I was glad for that, because her world scared the living bejeezus out of me.
So imagine my sense of betrayal when I learned that it was a hoax.
The reveal came several years ago, after I overheard the following conversation in a bookstore.
Customer: I need to know the author of Go Ask Alice.
Employee: The author is Anonymous. We have a copies over here—
Customer: I have a copy. I need to know the author’s real name.
Employee: Ma’am, it’s Anonymous.
Customer: Fine. I’ll look it up on the Internet.
Silly woman, I thought, the author is Anonymous. You can’t find it on the Internet. But of course, I went home and immediately looked it up on the Internet and found out the author’s name. Go Ask Alice was not the real diary of a real girl who drank one spiked drink and fell into a life of fear, degradation, sadness, pain and abuse. It was a “based on” a real person and a “compilation” of incidents.
I was crushed. I admit it. I re-read the book and felt more crushed. As an adult, I saw the manipulation. As a writer, I recognized that the voice was not true to a teenager. As an editor, I noted the glaring bits of author intrusion.
But back when I read it, initially, all I saw was a real girl whose life scared me, made me worry and made me cry. I believed that diary. I felt every word of it. I felt tricked. Duped. I don’t like feeling duped. Years have passed since I learned that Go Ask Alice is a work of fiction, but I still feel duped.
When writing for a young audience, authors are advised not to write down to them. Be honest and respectful of the reader while acknowledging the level of reading skill. I’ve written for children and understand this challenge, but I would also add to that writing advice to play fair with the reader. Especially a young reader.
Unlike Joel Klein and the soon-to-be-outed-author-of-O, the Anonymous who wrote Go Ask Alice was purposefully deceptive. Which burns my grits.
I can’t say that Go Ask Alice is the sole reason that I, to this day, have never even indulged in a puff of mj, but it contributed. Would I have connected to the character as strongly if I knew she was fictional? No. My heartfelt response to her was because I believed she was real. So I wonder. For Go Ask Alice, did Anonymous’ ends justify the means?