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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Dirty little secrets and the right to write - Sam Bourne, 16 August 2012

Genomics Forum blogging team at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012
Blog by Christine Knight 

Thursday’s Book Festival session with Sam Bourne (aka Jonathan Freedland) was one I wish I could simply transcribe verbatim – a riveting conversation between Guardian colleagues Freedland and Claire Armitstead about Freedland’s fifth and latest novel. Pantheon tells the true story of a group of 125 children, the daughters and sons of Oxford academics, evacuated to Yale during the Second World War. It’s historical fiction that explores the likely possibility that the motivations for the evacuation were eugenicist – saving the children of Britain’s academic elite as part of ‘a plot to create a master race’ (to quote the Book Festival’s title for the session).

As Freedland eloquently described for Thursday’s audience, the British intellectual establishment of the 1930s and early 1940s was ‘in thrall’ to eugenics. This included well-known left-wing writers, politicians, and public figures, such as George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, and Marie Stopes, whose names in this context may come as a shock to some on the Left today. Freedland has written about this with his journalistic hat on, describing eugenics as ‘the dirty little secret of the British left’ in a piece for the Guardian in August 1997. Unfortunately (or fortunately), its publication date coincided with that of Princess Diana’s death, and Freedland’s exposé has languished in sufficient obscurity to allow for a fictionalised retelling by his alter ego, Sam Bourne, 15 years later.

Pantheon’s wartime eugenics plot is edge-of-seat stuff, as was most of the conversation, but I want to focus here on a topic that only came up in passing, at the beginning of the discussion – that of pseudonyms. Bourne/Freedland explained that his agent had insisted on a new identity when he first moved into fiction, wanting potential publishers to judge his first manuscript on its merits, and not on its author’s reputation. The story of how Freedland chose his pseudonym is actually quite prosaic – the surname literally came off the side of a bus, and the first name is that of his second child. But given that Freedland is an ‘out and proud’ Jewish journalist, I was intrigued to know whether he had considered an obviously Jewish pseudonym for his fiction writing – especially as some of his novels, including Pantheon (though less directly), deal with Jewish history and religion.

Why should this question matter, and why should it matter especially in relation to Jewish history and the Holocaust? If it matters at all, it matters because of what a name can imply about the author’s personal experience, including inherited family and cultural memories – and, building on this, her or his ‘right to write’ about a particular topic. One of the most controversial examples of a Holocaust-novel pseudonym is that of Helen Demidenko (aka Helen Darville), who took a Ukrainian pseudonym for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, about Holocaust events in the Ukraine. When the ‘deception’ was uncovered, it prompted an Australian literary scandal – Darville was vilified in the national press, and The Hand that Signed the Paper subsequently reappeared in her real name. For me personally in this blog post, it’s significant that I’ve considered disclosing my ethnic and religious heritage, but have chosen not to do so. Perhaps this indicates that I don’t think my background is strong enough to claim any special ‘right to write’ here, since I would certainly claim a special ‘right to write’ on feminist issues as a woman, and ‘identity rights’ on various other political topics, too.

 In Bourne/Freedland’s case, after that initial anonymous pass by his publisher, his real identity has probably always been well-known enough anyway that his Jewish ‘credentials’ would never be in question, even were they deemed necessary. It’s interesting that the Bourne/Freedland situation is the reverse of Demidenko/Darville’s – Freedland has taken a white-bread pseudonym that conceals, if imperfectly, his well-known religious identity and political views. Freedland himself believes, as did his publishers, that his Guardian associations might have dented his mass-market success had he published initially under his real name. One wonders whether this bias against left-wing intellectualism effectively includes, and hence conceals, a lingering bias against Jewish intellectualism. Would a novel about eugenics sell more copies with a bland, Anglo name on the cover, than one with Jewish associations? If that’s the case, it’s all the more reason to write and publish such a novel – though under what name I’m not sure.

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