Wednesday, 5 August 2015
When I published Sister of the artist by Dai Vaughan, who had several previous books to his name, he suggested I take a copy or two to his local north London bookshop, where he was a regular customer, so I did. They’d known him for years but had no idea that he was a writer.
I once phoned up a semi-famous writer to tell him I was about to send him proofs; his then-partner answered answered the phone. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘has he written a book?’
Those (god bless you) who follow CBe will already know about Andrew Elliott (Mortality Rate), who has a poem shortlisted for this year’s Forward Prize for best single poem. He won’t be at the do. Although the CBe book is his third collection, there is no visual evidence of AE on the net; he refuses offers of readings; I’ve never met him. ‘I prefer not to.’ He writes more poems than I know what to do with.
This staying-in-the-shadows is sometimes thought of as the old-fashioned authors’ code, compared to the look-at-me new way. That’s too simple. There’ve always been some authors who enjoy the spotlight (Dickens, obviously) and some who don’t. The difference now is the expectation that authors publicise their own work. It was OK for Salinger and Pynchon to refuse to publicise – they didn’t need to – but if you’re not a known writer and you want to get some books sold, don’t you have to?
It’s true that many publishers’ contracts now require authors to publicise. It’s true that there are workshops on how to publicise your work and how to read in public and how to start a blog and it’s true that many new(ish) – not, please, ‘emerging’ – writers feel some pressure to go along with this, but no, of course you don’t have to. You can choose. You’re a grown-up.
The whole issue has little to do with any feeling that you’re not suited to public performance (Stendhal: ‘I’m like a respectable woman turned courtesan, at every moment I need to overcome the modesty of a decent man who hates to talk about himself’), or not being good at it. It’s bigger than that. It’s about the preservation of a kind of personal space that some writing, not all, requires: a form of privacy in which writers can get on with the quarrel with themselves without being distracted by quarrelling with others. Expecting writers to engage continually with audiences and the social media denies that space.
There are ways of managing that space. Many writers agree to publicise around a publication date in return for being left alone the rest of the time. A more extreme case is Elena Ferrante, who writes under a pen name and for over 20 years refused to appear in public or give interviews – until this year, when an interview appeared in the Paris Review. At the start, ‘I was frightened at the thought of having to come out of my shell’; later, ‘I came to feel hostility toward the media, which doesn’t pay attention to books themselves and values a work according to the author’s reputation.’ She notes the animosity or bafflement that a refusal to join the circus generates: ‘the decision not to be present as an author generates ill will … The experts stare at the empty frame where the image of the author is supposed to be and they don’t have the technical tools, or, more simply, the true passion and sensitivity as readers, to fill that space with the works.’ She speaks with some anger about ‘the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media. This demand for self-promotion diminishes the actual work of art, whatever that art may be, and it has become universal.’ For herself as a writer, ‘What has never lost importance for me, over these two and a half decades, is the creative space that absence opened up for me … What I mean is that removing the author – as understood by the media – from the result of his writing creates a space that wasn’t there before. Starting with The Days of Abandonment, it seemed to me, the emptiness created by my absence was filled by the writing itself.’
Of course her absence from activities peripheral to the work strengthens her presence in the work: ‘Remove [the] individual from the public eye and … we discover that the text contains more than we imagine. It has taken possession of the person who writes. If we want to find that person, she’s right there, revealing a self that even she may not truly know.’ And what is offered of the author within the text is ‘truer than she could be in the photos of a Sunday supplement, at a book launch, at a literary festival, in some television broadcast, receiving a literary prize … So the writing becomes intimate both for the one who produces it and for the one who enjoys it.’
Ferrante has reserved for herself a space in which, as far as journalists and festival organisers are concerned, she might as well be dead. More than dead: at least with the recently dead they have biographies, photographs, gossip to feed on. It’s a brilliant disappearing act which has required hard work, dedication, a particular form of courage (or self-belief). (Andrew Elliott too: you don’t get to publish three books and leave no evidence of yourself hanging around on the net by accident.) It hasn’t harmed Ferrante’s sales: this week her UK distributor tweeted a photo 25,000 copies of her new novel in the warehouse. Ferrante’s strategy could be called reactionary, in the sense that she’s reclaiming a space for writing that the media have invaded, occupied, rendered obsolete (and much current writing that I like a lot takes this occupation for granted); I think not.
Most people surely ignore most hype. I think there’s a turning away from the social media – not a backlash, more a sort of weariness, a lowering of the decibels, a shrug. Just as the whole literature scene has for some time been splitting into little groups (and sub-groups) – big-publisher lit, small-press lit, the work-in-translation lot, page poetry, other poetry: RIP ‘the common reader’, long ago – and there is no single, standard publishing model, there is also no one-size-fits-all way to be a writer. There never has been.