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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Author Unknown

Don Foster

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Author Unknown

Title: Author Unknown
Author: Don Foster
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2000
Length: 282 pages
Availability: Author Unknown - US
Author Unknown - UK
Author Unknown - Canada
  • On the Trail of Anonymous

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fun forays in literary forensics

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B+ 1/12/2000 Megan Harlan
Evening Standard A 22/5/2001 William Leith
London Rev. of Books . 23/8/2001 John Lanchester
New Statesman A- 28/5/2001 Robert Macfarlane
The NY Times Book Rev. B 26/11/2000 Adam Liptak
Salon A 2/11/2000 Gavin McNett
San Francisco Chronicle . 29/11/2000 David Kipen
The Spectator A+ 5/5/2001 Philip Hensher
The Times A- 25/4/2001 Marcel Berlins
The Washington Post . 19/12/2000 Jabari Asim

  Review Consensus:

  Almost all find it fascinating -- an enjoyable and interesting read

  From the Reviews:
  • "Though he overuses the scholar-turned-sleuth bit, Foster’s own writing style proves clever and compelling." - Megan Harlan, Entertainment Weekly

  • "(T)his book makes one of the most interesting applications of literary criticism I've ever seen. Foster, by the way, writes in a crisp, unostentatious style -- just as you'd expect." - William Leith, Evening Standard

  • "The prose tends to pinball between scholarly costiveness and the affected tie-loosening of an academic trying to hunker down with the common reader. (...) But these are cosmetic flaws. (...) [Foster] is an innovative thinker, a lynx-eyed reader, a principled man of letters with a nice line in sarcasm and a unique story to tell." - Robert Macfarlane, New Statesman

  • "Author Unknown (...) mostly runs out of steam after the lively chapters on Shakespeare and Klein. It starts to feel padded and insubstantial." - Adam Liptak, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It's still a hell of an interesting book: Foster writes precisely and artfully, with easy humor and a cadenced wit. You rarely see one of his one-liners coming until it's too late to duck. (...) It's his storytelling that carries the ball, along with the opportunity each case provides him to talk about style and language." - Gavin McNett, Salon

  • "(R)ip all the spines and title pages from all the books in the library, and what becomes of all our precious value judgments? Don Foster ducks that question in this fascinating book, but Author Unknown, in one of its many awkward pleasures, raises it on every page." - David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "A great surprise and an enormous pleasure to welcome, for once, a really interesting and impressive book from the bowels of American academia. (...) Don Foster (...) has written a deeply entertaining book on an original subject, which seems to me sound and convincing." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator

  • "Author Unknown suffers occasionally from an excess of detail -- Foster’s tale of how he proved which of two claimants wrote the saccharine poem ’Twas the Night before Christmas is spoiled by its fact-heaviness -- but is sufficiently amusing, intriguing and illuminating to overcome its bouts of garrulousness." - Marcel Berlins, The Times

  • "Foster's highly readable memoir details how a mild- mannered English professor came to confer with professional scandal-handlers and share his self-devised techniques with intrepid federal agents." - Jabari Asim, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Donald Foster is the Vassar professor who, through literary detective-work, unmasked Joe Klein as "Anonymous", the author of the bestselling novel about Bill Clinton, Primary Colors. He famously did so in an article in New York magazine, pointing out the striking similarities between Joe Klein's distinctive style and that of Anonymous -- everything from dashes bracketing adverbs or adverbial phrases, colons, epithets ending in -bucket, and many more tell-tale literary clues not found in the writings of any of the other possible authors of the work. Klein initially denied the attribution, but eventually owned up to his deception: Foster was right, and he had figured it out almost solely on the basis of the written evidence.
       Author Unknown explores a variety of cases in which Foster has put his techniques to use. The first is the attribution of a poem to Shakespeare, a controversial case that received a fair amount of press in its day and on which Foster built his early academic career. Then there is the case of Primary Colors-author Anonymous. Foster also examines the works of the Unabomber (himself undone not by Foster but by relatives who recognized Ted Kaczynski behind the anonymous manifesto he unwisely allowed to be published), the notorious three pages of the Monica Lewinsky - Linda Tripp "Talking Points", the question whether an author calling him/herself Wanda Tinasky was actually Thomas Pynchon, as well as the question of who authored the poem "'Twas the Night before Christmas".
       Foster argues -- and shows, fairly convincingly -- that writing styles are surprisingly distinctive. Spelling and grammar tend to remain consistent throughout a writer's writing life, and all sorts of idiosyncratic elements readily set any individual writer apart from most others. (So, for example, complete review reviews are fairly readily recognizable by: spelling that is more English than American (centre rather than center) but not absolutely consistently so, many dashes and parentheses, overuse of "however", "for example", "nevertheless", etc. -- to name only the most obvious distinguishing marks.)
       In pieces of writing that are presented anonymously -- Primary Colors, the Unabomber's manifesto -- or where the authorship is in doubt Foster shows that some literary detective-work can help in ascertaining who is responsible for the text in question. In each case he discusses here he is quite convincing, though in describing the various cases he offers as much -- and sometimes more -- on the surrounding to-do than on the literary legwork. Both the Shakespeare poem and the case of the Primary Colors-author describe Foster's travails more than his actual work. Of course, claiming Shakespeare wrote something that has not previously been identified as a work by Shakespeare is a dangerous, even reckless undertaking; similarly, staking one's reputation on unmasking the author of Primary Colors and then finding the author unwilling to fess up also makes for some decent drama.
       Foster's story as he builds his reputation with Shakespeare and Anonymous is an interesting one, and fun to follow. Nevertheless, a bit more detail into what was actually involved -- i.e. the actual process of comparing voluminous texts -- would have been useful. Maybe it's a trade secret ? What actually impressed us most in the first chapter -- and what sort of drowned out much of the Shakespeare-fuss -- was Foster identifying the readers who wrote the anonymous readers' reports for the proposals and manuscripts he submitted to various university presses. What better proof of his approach could he possibly offer ? (Tellingly, the readers were not impressed: open-minded academia at its usual best.)
       With Ted Kaczynski Foster's examination is largely retrospective, looking back on how the Unabomber might have been identified earlier. It shows the possibilities of literary detective-work -- and the danger of publishing verbose manifestoes proclaiming one's world-view. While he was otherwise so careful about leaving physical identifying marks on his bombs, Kaczynski gave himself away with his unique writing and literary references. (And Foster even spins an interesting theory out of Kaczynski's use of Eugene O'Neill stamps.)
       Someone calling themselves Wanda Tinasky published numerous Pynchonesque rants and tirades in Northern California in the 1980s, and Foster presents a fun chapter on this fun episode, involving numerous oddball characters -- and centering on the question whether Wanda Tinasky might not actually be the reclusive oddball Tom Pynchon himself. Foster comes to a different conclusion (a fascinating story itself), again making a convincing case for his literary-type sleuthing. (Note that some -- notably the publisher of The Letters of Wanda Tinasky -- emphatically disagree with Foster's attribution. Part of the fun in all these stories is why people believe what they believe, but here people seem just to be blind to fairly incontrovertible truth.)
       With "'Twas the Night before Christmas" Foster returns to an older literary dispute, again offering an interesting demonstration of his technique.
       Perhaps the least successful chapter involves Monica Lewinsky and the "Talking Points" -- perhaps simply because we have heard too much about that unfortunate affair. Foster does explain who could -- and who couldn't -- have written the controversial three pages (or rather: who probably wrote what pages), but it is a somewhat muddled account of what is in any case a very muddy affair, making for less than riveting reading. Throughout the book Foster divides his chapters into relatively brief sections, each supplied with a more or less pertinent epigraph. Here, more than elsewhere, this device proved additionally annoying.
       There are also a number of mentions of another high-profile case that Foster worked on -- the JonBenét Ramsey murder, with its bizarre "ransom note" -- but Foster is very unclear on what he did and did not do here, teasing the reader with admissions that he intruded too quickly in the case, and then saying that, while he is bound by "a confidentiality agreement", he stands "by the statements I have made for the record regarding that case and believe that the truth will eventually prevail". While some who have followed the Ramsey case may be aware of his involvement and statements there is no clue here what on earth he did (or what he did wrong). A bit more explanation would have been welcome.
       There is perhaps too much of Foster the man throughout Author Unknown, and too little of the sleuth, but they are still fun stories, quite well (if too simply) told.
       A fun and entertaining read, an interesting subject.

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Author Unknown: Reviews: Don Foster: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Donald W. Foster was born in 1950. He is a professor at Vassar.

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