[S]olitude is important, but our human interactions are elemental. Without them, there is no story. And without a story, there is no storyteller. — Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi
I’ve been thinking a lot of late about the relationship between an author and his readers in particular in relation to writing on the Web. In a recent comment I made the point that the quid pro quo attitude that’s prevalent online – I’ll read your blog if you read mine — is unsustainable. There are only so many hours in the day. I rarely get less that 100 hits a day and the majority of those will be people who have their own sites. Does that mean to keep the universe in balance I have to read 100 blogs a day?
I write two posts a week. Could I get away with only reading two posts by other people and feel that my conscience was clear? But is it really a matter of conscience? I am a writer. I want to be read. I expect to be read. Do I think I have a right to be read? No, I wouldn’t go that far but I think I have a right to be considered without me having to promise my readers anything more than what’s in the book, perhaps a signature on the title page.
The thing I’m questioning is the relationship that an author should have with his or her public. What right does a reader have to expect anything other than a well-written, carefully edited, professionally produced book? In the old days there was no Internet so people sent fan mail and sometimes got a signed photo and who’s to say that the writer did the signing?
The change has come quickly. It happened when the word ‘celebrity’ began to take on a completely new shade of meaning. Now the artist can no longer stand apart from their product. The artist is now a part of the product. Personally I’m not interested in attracting attention. I think things were much better back in the old days when a writer was left alone to do what he was good at, to write, and there were people to take care of marketing and publicising and all that crap. It’s not a matter of being shy. I’m not especially shy nor even that private a person. I’m simply not that outgoing.
There used to be a breed apart, the reclusive writer. Salinger will jump to mind obviously but he’s not alone. Try to find out what you can about Patrick Süskind, the author most famous for Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. I couldn’t even find a recent photo. Thomas Pynchon is another known for his avoidance of personal publicity: very few photographs of him have ever been published, and rumours about his location and identity have been circulated since the 1960s. This has earned him the sobriquet ‘the Greta Garbo of American letters.’ Some think it’s a ploy by him to actually increase public awareness of him but I’m not buying that. You never know — it worked for Banksy.
"When a writer doesn't show his face," Don DeLillo wrote in his 1991 novel, Mao II, "he becomes a local symptom of God's famous reluctance to appear." I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. A book should stand or fall on its own merits. God stands apart from his creation. He is not a part of it. He is reflected in it just as we authors are darkly reflected in our books. I’d hate to hear God’s booming voice over my shoulder going, “Er, excuse me, son, but you’re not using that platypus right.”
Avoiding the press and the public is one thing but what about writers who keep to themselves even among their peers? Though the Italian writer Mario Rigoni Stern — once described as looking like Heidi’s grandfather — frequently won literary prizes, he shunned literary circles, preferring the solitary pleasures of his woods. Primo Levi, however, sought him out and became a close friend. I’ve friends who are writers but I never go to readings or literary festivals. Does that make me some kind of snob? I’m anything but. Part of me feels that if I were to go to these then I’d end up putting on airs and graces and try to be what I imagined people expected a writer like me to be. And I can’t be jugged with that.
I personally think the word ‘recluse’ is mis- and overused. Pynchon himself has said that what the press mean when they write ‘recluse’ is really ‘doesn’t like to talk to journalists.’ The list of so-called ‘reclusive’ or ‘very private’ authors is a curious one. Apart from those mentioned I could also list:
W S Merwin
J M Coetzee
J Marcus Ross
Are you telling me these are all genuine bona fide recluses? The natural state for a write is a solitudinous one. It’s hard to write — and by extension, to be who you need to be when you write — surrounded by people . . . or sometimes even person. As I write this my wife is sitting a few feet from me. (Actually she’s just popped into the kitchen.) More often than not these days we’re in the same room.
What I did find interesting is that many of the “very private writer” quotes were in the first person: I’m a very private writer. I am a very private writer. I think privacy is something to be cherished. I don’t think it’s wrong to want to be alone or to keep things to oneself. I really don’t talk much about what I’m writing with anyone until the process is over or nearly over. I’ve written about the writer’s fear that talking about their work might in some way jinx it but the simple fact is that I have no desire or need to discuss a work in progress. I get a kick from presenting a finished work, first to my wife and then to the rest of the world, saying, “See! See! See what I did. Aren’t I a clever boy?” Before that I’m my only critic. Why would I want to show something a piece of writing that clearly needed fixing? All they could possibly do is agree with me.
I need solitude. I admit that most of the time I’m not physically isolated when I write but I am alone in my head. Christa Faust is a writer who lives alone, in fact on her website she writes:
I’ve lived alone for so long now, that I’m beginning to seriously doubt I’d ever be able to cohabitate with a fellow human being, no matter how sexy and/or unobtrusive. — Solitude with Housekeeping Service
In the same post she talks about the writer Larry Brown. She writes:
Brown had a wife and kids, but yet he seemed to live this totally separate life. Woke up in the evening. Started writing after they went to bed and worked all night till they got up the next day. Didn’t have to cook, clean or deal with the chaos of children. He seemed to have all the benefits of married life with none of the downsides. I’m kind of amazed and stunned by this, that such a life is even possible.
I actually get that. In fact for a while there that’s pretty much how I was functioning. I’d go to bed with my wife, wait until she fell asleep and then get up and spend half the night working. I deliberately tried to break that habit. I like being around my wife. If she was a distraction looking for attention and going into a strop or a sulk when she didn’t get it then I might not say that but, as I’ve said, she’s anything but.
Lilith Saintcrow is another writer. She doesn’t live alone either but things are very different for her:
I rarely get any time alone with myself. There’s the kids, of course, and cooking dinner and the housework and the schoolwork. I am constantly interrupted at the keyboard, constantly needing to settle disputes, grade a paper, look at a little person’s newest achievement, look at the ringing phone. I’ve become a master of multitasking, of finding time to get the words down. — The End Of Selene, And Distractions
I know that many of my online friends are in a similar position. One can understand why Sylvia Plath, after her divorce from Ted Hughes and living in a tiny London flat, used to get up a four in the morning and work on her Ariel poems until her two infant children woke.
The writers Ray Carver and Tess Gallagher, a couple, came up with a unique fix — they share two houses in Port Angeles:
Each house has two desks. Tess says, "I don't go into his study much at all, don't presume to. Only another writer can understand a writer's need for solitude." — A Literary Love Story
My wife and I couldn’t afford to do that but we do have two offices – I think the word ‘study’ sounds a bit pretentious – and they are very different working spaces. Mine is very tidy and orderly, my wife’s is . . . well, more what you would expect a writer’s to look like. Most of the time as I’ve mentioned, we work together in the living room on laptops. I think of my office like I think about my i nhaler — just having it in my pocket is enough to stop me having an asthma attack.
I have actually been called a recluse. Once in my life. It was as a kid. I’d spent months inside the house doing God knows what and when I stepped outside the door one evening some girl said, “Here comes the recluse.” It was like a slap in the face although it was clearly meant in jest. I thought a recluse was a horrible thing to be. Hermits were never the heroes in stories. They were usually misanthropic and miserly if not physically deformed and mentally unbalanced. I’d just been busy. I’ve called myself a misanthrope. But I’m not serious when I say it. I don’t hate people, even non-writers, but the less I go out the less inclined I am to go out. I get enough company online and there we cut to the chase. I hate small talk. Which is why I go through my feeds every now and then and clear out those blogs that have failed to hold my interest. They’ll never know. Much easier than snubbing one of your friends in the street.
But what if we have something to talk about? My latest book for example. Now that’s different. After months — years in some cases — of not talking about a piece of writing I’m actually
quite keen desperate to talk about it. But not to explain it. If I have to spend all my time telling people what the thing’s about then I’ve clearly not done my job right. What I really want is to hear what other people think which I can then respond to. I don’t mind that kind of quid pro quo. In fact I enjoy it. There are things I expect my readers to notice. There are things that once I tell people about them I’ll open up a completely new level of the work. I can only do that through social interaction and I have no problem interacting socially — I’ve worked with people all my life, behind a service desk, in a classroom, behind a counter in a shop. It’s fun, for a change, every now and then. But I’m far happier being the backroom boy.