Bits and Bobs

Can you believe it!? The conference is exactly a week away! I know that some of you are from the area, but for those of you who are joining us from across the pond or across the country, I’ve put together a tiny list of things that might be interesting to see or do if you have extra time during your stay. Keep in mind, this is only a small sampling of what’s around – feel free to take inspiration from Lewis and Clark and explore guided by intuition and serendipity.


Newcastle University Map

The conference will be held in the Armstrong Building, which is accessible from Queen Victoria Road. The main entrance will be open, and the conference will be on the first floor (up one flight of the marble stairs). There will be signs in the building to direct you to registration. Campus maps can be found here: 


Getting around Newcastle

  • By foot. Newcastle is a very walkable city and things tend to be much closer to each other than they might appear on the map.
  • By Metro (train). The closest stop to Newcastle University is Haymarket. If you are coming from Central Station, you can hop on the Metro and take it to Haymarket. More info on fares, schedules, and other stops are listed here:


Places to go and things to see/eat

  • Quilliam Brother’s Tea House: If you only have time to squeeze in one extra thing, and you like tea, sunshine, and happiness, then Quilliam’s is the place for you. This is one of my regular haunts when I’m on campus.
  • The Red House: Pies and beer. On the quayside. In a seventeenth-century building. What more could you want in life? (Except maybe a basket of puppies) PS its vegetarian-friendly 🙂
  • The Biscuit Factory: The UK’s largest, independent contemporary art gallery. It’s a lovely space with a great artwork; I always leave feeling inspired.
  • Newcastle Castle: I think this is self-explanatory?
  • The Lit and Phil: One word: vellichor. This is the largest independent library outside of London and you don’t need a membership to stop in and take a browse around.
  • The Great North Museum: Newcastle University’s neighbor and home to a great exhibit about Hadrian’s Wall.
  • Tynemouth: Only a 20-ish minute trip on the Metro, this seaside village was home to Harriet Martineau for a few years and is full of great little restaurants and shops. There’s also the old priory and, of course, the beach!

Keynote Titles

Exciting news! Our keynotes have announced their topics for the conference, which range from methodology to contemporary writing to the eighteenth century.

Professor Terry CastleThe Price of Being Pat:  “Claire Morgan’s” The Price of Salt and Patricia Highsmith’s Carol 

Professor Helen Berry: Anonymous Print and the Management of Public Reputations

Dr Marcy L North: Anonymity in a Digitized Archive….in a Digitized World

Juliet Jacques: What’s in a Name: Auto-fiction, Anonymity, and Authorship

In addition to hearing these brilliant presentations, there will be an opportunity to purchase a selection of our keynotes’ publications and have them signed after each paper.


Please consult the conference programme for details regarding when each keynote will be speaking.

Collective Writing and the Hierarchies of Naming

 “If you look at a city, there’s no way to see it. One person can never see a city. You can miss it, hate it, or realize that it’s taken something from you, but you can’t go somewhere and look at it and just see it empirically. It has to be informed, imagined, by many people at a time. It’s an everyday group hallucination. This novel is modeled on that phenomenon. 150 writers, professional and amateur, have contributed to it…using the old Hollywood screenwriting system whereby a studio boss had at his disposal a “stable” of writers working simultaneously to crank out a single blockbuster, each assigned specific functions within the overall scheme.”

This announcement opens the preface of 2004 cult novel Reena Spaulings, by Bernadette Corporation. Born from a desire to “get rid of ourselves”, this collective novel aspires to destroy, parody and communize the novel, the city and the author. Collective writing certainly interests us when we think about anonymity. Who is ‘Bernadette Corporation’? Is it one, two, some or all of the ‘150 writers’ purported to have contributed to Reena Spaulings?

From its inception in 1994, Bernadette Corporation have ‘authored’ a series of New York nightclub events, a magazine, a fashion label and a handful of experimental films. Starting as a loose group of friends (some known core members are Bernadette Van-Huy, Antek Walczak and John Kelsey), Bernadette Corporation always aimed at poking fun at the solo artist, the visionary author, in film, fashion and literature. Choosing the term Corporation as a way of exposing the economic drive of these fields, they produced work that was meant to uncover hypocrisies, contradictions and inequalities from within the system, without taking themselves seriously nor having a very precise political trajectory.

Their novel revolves around Reena Spaulings, an unremarkable young girl who is discovered working in a museum and is turned into a model.  The character is rendered blank and anonymous by the writing process: anyone can rewrite her at will and, as the preface announces, “her thoughts and actions are not spanned by any author’s mind. Who pulls her strings?” In this process, Reena becomes a symbol of the loss of mastery, self-knowledge and coherence of the modern subject, ‘authored’ and written over by discourses of power.

The book has now gained a cult following and the nameless gallery space where the writers would have their meetings has been re-named Reena Spaulings and is ostensibly ‘directed’ by the fictitious Reena. The popularity of the project meant that someone had to be appointed to account for it, despite the anonymity of the group. John Kelsey, for instance, is interviewed here so that he can help readers gain insight on the novel’s writing process:

“There wasn’t ever the idea of writing a skilful novel,” Kelsey says. “We asked non-writers and non-English speakers to contribute. A group of us worked on it constantly, kind of like an editorial board, and we gave precise instructions: give us dialogue for two characters in an elevator; describe the scene backstage at a Strokes concert in Central Park.”

While this statement illuminates the construction a text that does its best to lose its author, can we avoid restoring here the authority of Kelsey as the source of the work, or at least the mastery of the “group of us” positioned above the others who execute their orders? This dynamic suggests that perhaps authorship cannot escape hierarchy, and returns us to the political appeal of theories that wished to destroy the author’s dominance, like those of Barthes, Foucault and Derrida, who murderously attacked the controlling subjectivity supposed to be the origin of the text.

The difficulties of maintaining anonymity, and its democratizing effect along with it, become clear as an individual is not simply chosen as a spokesperson, but comes to be regularly associated with the work. In the preface that I quoted at the beginning, the contrast between the anonymity of the collectively imagined city and the studio boss controlling his employees already sketches the tension between an agency that deliberately shapes a work and an anonymous crowd whose unmediated voices we are supposed to be hearing. This same tension manifests itself as the novel needs to be accounted for in the press and the details of its making are revealed. Another review of the novel gives an even more authorial picture:

“An editorial team, including artist Jutta Koether and actor/poet Jim Fletcher, have conceived a general framework of chapters, which are being written by some twenty collaborators over many months before being assembled into a finished narrative by BC”

Here we are told more names, the authors are reduced from 150 to 20 collaborators, and  emphasis is placed on the controlling phases of planning and assembling the work. As it turns out, the collective writing process certainly guarantees the anonymity of some – but not others. The hierarchy between those who are named and those who are nameless makes  the collective appear less like an equalized mob or an expression of the spirit of the times achieved by relinquishing individual power, and more like the usual structure of  creative industries, where some receive credit for their work and are seen as having agency while the anonymous labour of others is obscured.

Anonymity is not only a question of identity in theory but a also question of power. On the one hand, the history of Bernadette Corporation certainly provides material for interesting reflections about the anonymous identity of the group – for instance, does the fact that the collective bears the name of member Bernadette Van-Huy lead us to think of her as the origin, even if John Kelsey appears to be the primary spokesperson and other members, like Emily Sundblad, impersonate Reena directly when someone asks for her at the gallery?  On the other hand, the successful career of John Kelsey and other artists and critics associated with Bernadette Corporation reminds us that anonymity can sometimes just become a way to get one’s name out there.

– The Implied Author


Even as I’m writing this it feels irrevocable. Every character typed is like a digital stain that somehow – either by an arcane computation of numbers or some mark in the code I can’t see – links back to me. An inescapable expression of a private thought in a private moment that can never be fully rescinded, can always be accessed by those who know how to navigate the online lives of other people. At some point, we all started to fret these traces of ourselves: comments left on an article years ago, chat histories with flings and fubus, teenage sketches and the maudlin poetry of middle-age. We never stop confessing, of course, pressed ever on by a near-Catholic compulsion toward divulgence. But from time to time this one thought wakes us in a clammy sweat from troubled dreams of the analogue: the time of the anonymous confession has passed.

All solitary secret-keepers, I think, mourn the collapse of anonymity in the digital age, and we are beguiled by strategies for reclaiming our clandestine selves. I’d like to dwell a little on two online networks that are affirming the necessity of anonymous expression and reconnecting us to our unnamed, unsigned, undisclosed identities. One is PostSecret, a growing archive of postcards scrawled with intimate secrets and physically mailed by anonymous contributors. The second is Whisper, a confessional app where users can anonymously share their admissions with strangers.


I believe you are only going to marry her because… you need a babysitter.

There is little doubt that Whisper falls into many of the same traps as traditional social media networks, in that the text-based images shared by its users become the property of the site, which can then collate them into featured-lists and articles as they like. Users are also able to elect their own username and to engage in chat with other confessors if they choose. Regardless, it demonstrates a pervasive cultural impulsion toward anonymous confession, and in 2015 reached 10 million active monthly users. While the revelations range from the hilarious to the heartbreaking, Whisper elicits a candidness from its base that oscillates between saccharine and macabre. At the same time, the element of anonymity inhibits any attempt to validate or verify each statement. We find ourselves confronted with slippery admissions that are ungrounded in any firm identity. Does this limit our sympathetic reaction? Is an anonymous confession stripped of its affective potential? The site’s popularity suggests otherwise, perhaps, and this writer is inclined to think that these questions underestimate our need to reveal ourselves anonymously and to revel in the disclosures of unknown others.

In PostSecret, though, anonymity is all but guaranteed. The unlikely bridge between the analogue act of mailing an unsigned postcard and the digital curation of these artifacts seals the site’s assurance that contributors will remain nameless and unknown. It could be that an analogue element is the only sure way of facilitating truly anonymous confessions, and certainly, PostSecret’s strategy has led to a curated image-bank that couldn’t exist elsewhere on traditional social media networks. Perhaps, also, the physical act involved in the mailing persuades us of the sincerity of these confessions. An anonymous hand that held the letter, but a hand.


i tell the story of her death as though i was there… because i should have been.

Somehow in spite of our fear of leaving digital traces, we keep on looking out on the water for the message in a bottle that will float our way; no need or opportunity to talk back, just a secret to keep.

– theafterthought

“I am not Elena Ferrante”

It is rare, in our age of social media and aggressive self-promotion, to find a public figure that chooses to remain (almost) completely anonymous. Yet this is the case of Elena Ferrante, Italian writer and author of six novels, among which is her famous four-volumes work known in Britain as the Neapolitan Quartet (2011-2014), the coming-of-age story of two girls struggling to build lives for themselves amidst the violence, poverty and patriarchal constraints of their upbringing. Following the warm reception of Ferrante’s novels by Anglophone audiences, the question of her identity has become a transnational guessing game. Obviously, Ferrante does not appear in public nor gives face-to-face interviews, and only a handful of people close to her know who hides behind the pseudonym. As she continues to gain popularity, many readers and journalists have made attempts to guess her real identity, forcing several (female and male) writers to declare “No, I am not Elena Ferrante”. Very recently, a controversial investigation of her publisher’s financial accounts seems to have finally unmasked her.

But the mask seems to me a lot more interesting than the unmasking. What does Ferrante’s anonymity do? For example, it is undeniable that anonymity can capture the public’s imagination and in this case it may have contributed to this novelist’s popularity. On the other hand, it can be difficult to be anonymous at a time when a visible identity is everything in marketing one’s work.

We can also ask: how anonymous is this ‘anonymous’ author? Clues from her novels have after all been one of the main tools for identity-hunters to construct correspondences with real-life people. The most extreme case is perhaps Italian philologist Marco Santagata, who painstakingly examined the books using the same techniques employed for the attribution of ancient texts in order to arrive at a plausible solution (which resulted only in another denial). Not only philologists but many readers take her Neapolitan Novels as largely autobiographical, speculation that the author has encouraged.

This makes sense, doesn’t it? The protagonist and first-person narrator is called Elena, which is the name of the author (well, her fake name). The protagonist is also a writer, which is the profession of the author (a profession that consists in producing fictionalized narratives). Uncovering these links to ‘truth’ appears in the end to lead us to more questions of ‘fakeness’. At least we know from her pseudonym that she is a woman – but haven’t pseudonyms been employed more often to conceal the gendered identity of the author than to correspond with it? Some have speculated that Elena Ferrante might be a man. If this is the case, how does it change the response that we may have when reading the intimate and ‘authentic’ details of the inner lives of girls and women in the text?

Attributing identity proves to be a slippery matter. Debates about Ferrante’s identity seem actually to call attention to the process by which we always construct our ‘authors’ from what they write, her anonymity providing us with a blank space on which to project this authorial figure. Ferrante herself has commented:

“Elena Ferrante is the author of several novels. There is nothing mysterious about her, given how she manifests herself – perhaps even too much – in her own writing, the place where her creative life transpires in absolute fullness. What I mean is that the author is the sum of the expressive strategies that shape an invented world, a concrete world that is populated with people and events. The rest is ordinary private life.”

However, there is usually assumed to be a two-way street between author and text (a street that goes through a multiplicity of readers), which means not only that we construct the author from the text, but that biographical facts about the author shape how we receive the text. What happens, then, when we don’t have a flesh-and-blood writer to participate in this game of refraction and mutual construction? Does the only real fact that we know about Elena Ferrante, namely that she has decided to be anonymous, influence us in our reading of her texts? Do we expect something from someone who has chosen to be anonymous or does anonymity act as an emptying out of all expectations?

We hope to discover more answers (and more questions) at the Anonymity Conference.

-The Implied Author


Our second keynote speaker announced

We are happy to announce another confirmed keynote speaker for the conference: Juliet Jacques.


Writer and critic Juliet Jacques

Juliet Jacques is a freelance author and journalist. As well as publishing a monograph on modernist writer Rayner Heppenstall in 2007, she writes short fiction and journalism on literature, art, music, politics, gender, sexuality and football. Her most recent book, Trans: A Memoir (2015) is based on her popular column in The Guardian documenting her transition,  ‘A Transgender Journey’. Her work has also appeared in The New Statesman, London Review of Books, Granta, Sight & Sound, Frieze, TimeOut, New Humanist, Five Dials, New Inquiry, Berfrois, 3:AM and many other platforms.

Trans: A Memoir combines Juliet’s personal story with criticism of trans theory, literature, film and life-writing.  Many of her reflections are relevant to the topic of anonymity. Her experience as a contemporary writer is tied to the politics of identity as they come to inform her social media presence, the promotion of her work and her readers’ expectations. Juliet’s own writing practice is located within the history of media presentation and manipulation of trans identities and narratives.

What are the effects of concealing or foregrounding the identity of an author? What do we expect and what do we reject when knowing an author’s identity? How is one’s public identity negotiated on social media, and can one remain anonymous? How can debates about revealing or hiding one’s history in transgender politics be read as issues of anonymity? We are excited to hear Juliet’s thoughts on these topics, as her expertise in theory and politics informs her personal experiences of writing the self and negotiating gendered identity.


Behind the Mask…?

Anonymity has always fascinated me. It might have started back sometime when I was 10…or 12…and my mom bought me a book of inspirational quotes for some pre-teen milestone or other. I can’t say I recall any of the quotes, as poignant as they may have been, but I do remember that many of them were anonymous. Not just anonymous, as in blank or without a listed author, but anonymous, as in the word ‘anonymous’ was sat at the bottom of the quote, attempting to give the writer (or speaker) some form of categorical identity. From that point forward, the word ‘anonymous’ and concept of anonymity – in all its multifaceted, complicated glory – has seeped into my life, lodging itself somewhere between my subconscious and academic cerebral matter.

In my not-so-distant, pre-teen future, I was presented with the opportunity to experiment with anonymity (albeit, indirectly) through advancing technology…my own email address. To remain as ‘anonymous’ as I could manage, it seemed a username and email address inspired by eighteenth-century writers was the only obvious choice. And so it was. Sophiadox. Gleaming, brilliant, original, uniting the Greek words for knowledge and thinking…and completely weird. But I loved it, and it stuck. My digital mask.

With these little anecdotes now freely floating in the open, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’ve seen The Phantom of the Opera more times on stage than any other musical. Once in London, once in New York, and three times in Chicago. I will admit, this was inadvertent, but have since realised that it may have been a result of the tricky little ‘anonymous’ beast pulling at my subconscious neurons. The idea of watching a production about an un-named, un-identifiable, masked man and the interactions and relationships he has with those around him (with a whole scene dedicated to a masquerade) is delighting, engrossing, and enchanting every time I take my seat.

The most recent production I attended was in Chicago this past December. There wasn’t enough time to digest the Playbill, which is a custom I don’t lightly overlook but am extremely glad I did. Meeting the Phantom on stage, rather than through his bio in the Playbill, was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had as an audience member.

The Phantom was astounding. Breathtaking. Sensual. His voice brought out emotions I had never encountered in previous productions. The range and depth in each song were unfathomable. I was on the literal edge of my seat the entire show. Only about halfway through did I realise I was witnessing something historic. He was the first black phantom.

Derrick Davis, you lovely, talented man. Your performance was awe-inspiring and surreal. The Phantom was so captivating that I almost failed to see the ‘man behind the mask’.

Once the curtain fell my immediate ‘historian’ reaction was to analyse how a black phantom might change the concept of the production, the way dramaturgy might inform it, and the ways character interactions might be different based on contemporary nineteenth-century ideas of race. Simultaneously, my anonymity brain started reeling with questions and ideas about the ways in which unknown identity and masks might function in relation to character and reputation.

In eighteenth-century London, taken from accounts I’ve read in various newspapers, masks seem to give people liberty to act, to say, to be different than who they are in reality. At a masquerade, the grand unmasking at the end of the evening is perhaps just as exciting as initially appearing masked. But if we think of the liberty of the mask in relation the Phantom, it almost seems an oxymoron. The mask does not allow him to be different than he is, or does it? Is he acting to fit the role of the mask? Does the mask make him less of a ‘monster’ and more of a man? He doesn’t really have the option of an ulterior identity, as most other mask-wearers might. If the mask comes off, he is physically seen as a monster.  If the mask goes on, he is seen as an immoral, catastrophic monster. He cannot leave the theatre with or without it. When, if ever, does it become about the truth of the man behind the mask rather than the legend associated with it?

It almost seems that the mask is a character in itself…and might have always been, throughout history. I might be pulling at strings, but maybe the mask is a manifestation of the little shoulder devil who often pops up in cartoons and encourages illicit, libertine behaviour and speech. With the ulterior identity providing a sense of security and protection against discovery, what are the limits?

And really, what is it about masks anyway? They are everywhere. For better and for worse. Darth Vader. Cat Woman. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Darkwing Duck. Mardi Gras. Carnivale. What is the truth behind the mask?

If you would like to hear and see Derrick Davis performs one of the songs from Phantom, here is a delightful little link:


Our First Keynote Speaker Announced

We are delighted to announce our first confirmed keynote for the event, Professor Helen Berry.


Keynote Speaker Professor Helen Berry

Professor Helen Berry is the Dean of Postgraduate Studies and Professor of British History at Newcastle University. She specialises in British history circa 1660 to 1800, and has a particular interest in social, cultural and economic history. She has worked on the history of the mass media – the rise of newspapers and periodicals that reflected and informed public debates from the late-seventeenth century onwards; coffee house sociability and politeness; the history of gender and sexuality, particularly in the shifting definitions of marriage over time.

Her most recent publication, The Castrato and His Wife, is a microhistory that explores the impact of Italian culture in the British Isles. Her next book, Orphan of the Empire: the Fate of London’s Foundings, will explore the history and welfare in Britain in the first era of global British imperialism. This book will trace what happened to those who survived the experience of being raised in Europe’s first secular corporation designed to ‘save’ children for the nation, funded at first by private philanthropy, then state aid, and finally the profits of investment and venture capitalism.

We are looking forward to hearing Helen speak about one of her earliest loves, The Athenian Mercury, in her keynote address. This periodical was one of the first to regularly circulate through the streets of London, using anonymity to engage readers of all sorts. Her reflections on the London public sphere, print culture, and coffeehouses in relation to eighteenth-century anonymity will surely be an enlightening experience for all in attendance.

More information about Helen can be found on the following sites:

Newcastle University Profile

Academic Website