x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Another literary whodunnit

On Tuesday next week Simon & Schuster will publish what is likely to be one of its best-selling books of 2011. The title in question is the anonymously written O: A Presidential Novel.

On Tuesday next week Simon & Schuster will publish what is likely to be one of its best-selling books of 2011.

The title in question is the anonymously written O: A Presidential Novel. Little is known about its likely content, though Simon & Schuster did issue an enigmatic press release earlier this week declaring that "the author of O has been in the room with Barack Obama." Otherwise, the publisher is being deliberately coy about one of its most important new releases.

Nothing unusual there. The past is littered with examples of authors using hidden identities and, indeed, their publishers dreaming up deliciously subtle marketing campaigns to fan the flames of publicity.

By coincidence - and this would help to explain some of the attention that O has been afforded - it is almost 15 years to the day since Random House published Primary Colors, another political novel that was also written anonymously.

Famously, Primary Colors featured Jack Stanton, a fictional US governor, and a storyline that seemed to lean heavily on Bill Clinton's triumphant election campaign in 1992, although the book's preface dismissed any claims to documentary status, saying instead that "none of these events ever happened". However, six months after its arrival, the political commentator (and insider) Joe Klein was outed as the author of a book that did much to mythologise Clinton's extraordinary rise to power.

It's hard to believe O will achieve the same for President Obama - if for no other reasons than his private life lacks the colourful narrative of the Clinton household in its mid-Nineties heyday. In fact, the president himself lacks the magnetic appeal of his predecessor.

Instead, most of the chatter surrounding O is currently focused on who wrote it. Klein, for one, has ruled himself out. "I absolutely deny writing it," he told reporters last week, before adding that "I have no idea who did and have no idea what's in it." Historians will note Klein muttered something very similar when the finger pointed at him weeks after Primary Colors first emerged in 1996.

Robert Gibbs is considered the next most likely candidate. He had the requisite access to Obama, having been the White House secretary until unexpectedly announcing his resignation last week. It is, however, unlikely that he had the time to write a memoir while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the president. Gibbs cited the demands of office as a significant contributory factor in his decision to leave his current role.

David Axelrod is another close aide about to leave office, although educated observers regard him as too disorganised to have rattled off anything more than a short staff memo in the past two years. It also seems doubly unlikely given that Axelrod is about to spearhead the president's 2012 re-election campaign. Why would he want to bite the hand that feeds?

Other names have also been suggested, including, most fancifully of all, the incumbent president himself. Like Klein he has form, having found a few spare hours to produce a children's book (Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters) late last year. He has also "been in the room" with himself, although that would make him the most unlikely suspect of all in this fascinating literary whodunnit.

Ultimately though, it is the mystery of the author's identity that will propel the sales of O. Indeed, you should not expect to be anything but disappointed when its writer is inevitably outed. As Klein knows only too well, the tease in cases such as these is almost always more interesting than the reality. He, for one, is unlikely to forget that The Running Mate, his 2001 sequel to Primary Colors failed to match the success of its anonymous predecessor.