Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Public Writer

When you think of authors who attained celebrity status before the explosion of communications and the internet, you think of people like Fitzgerald and Hemingway. The stories of their personal lives were relayed in newspapers and magazines and magnified at times by gossip and speculation. Their writing existed alongside these running biographies and it’s interesting to think about how one affected the other.
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1978, Susan Sontag addressed the notion of the “public” writer:

JONATHAN COTT: For a lot of people who know your name and love your work, you have a special mystique. There are particularly a great number of women I know who admire you enormously.

SUSAN SONTAG: But what you call mystique used to be called reputation.

COTT: I think in your case it’s reputation and mystique, because you’re not a public celebrity who gossips in the media about whom you’re going out with.

SONTAG: Well, what serious writer ever did?

COTT: I could go through a list.

SONTAG: But those people have destroyed themselves as writers. I think it’s death to one’s work to do that. Surely the work of writers such as Hemingway or Truman Capote would be on a higher level if they hadn’t been public figures. There is a choice between the work and the life. It’s not just a question of whether you’re going to give interviews or talk about yourself; it’s a question of how much you live in society, in that vulgar sense of society, and of having a lot of silly times that seem glamorous to you and to other people.

Later, she adds:

SONTAG: The problem, however, is a little different in the twentieth century, since the opportunities are so much greater. Somebody once asked Picasso why he never traveled abroad. He went from Spain to Paris and then moved to the south of France, but he never went anywhere. And he said: I travel in my head. I do think there are those choices, and perhaps you don’t feel them so much when you’re young—and you probably shouldn’t—but later on, if you want to go beyond something that is simply good or promising to the real fulfillment and risk-taking of a big body of work, you have to stay home.

Authors, in general, are much more public now. As in times past, authors give interviews and speak at writing events. But they also maintain author websites and write blogs, and many interact regularly via social media channels. When I read Sontag’s thoughts about being public and traveling, they seem to have resonance, at least for me, with current online diversions. Because social media has always struck me as having implications with the notion of celebrity; it’s a sort of mini-celebrity, isn’t it, having followers and people to “like” you? There is true connection, I think, but sort of a false and misleading type too. And I wonder how all of it relates to writing, to reading. On a practical level, the time you spend being “public” takes away from the private task of writing. But does sharing your personal self (at least a portion you’ve approved for consumption) diminish your writing? This question is tied into the big news of the week, of course, and probably offers an explanation for JK Rowling’s desire to disassociate her recent novel from her public self.

Obviously, I maintain this blog and am moderately active on social media. I enjoy interacting with other writers and readers and have had some lovely experiences. None of it equals a true opinion about my writing. As a reader, I’ve had the opportunity to interact and in some cases, to meet other authors. And I have to say it has no effect on my opinion of their writing although it may complicate how I privately or publicly react to it. If you have chosen to have a public persona, do you think it adds to your readers’ experiences or takes something away? And as a reader, how does personal information about an author or even, interaction with that author, change your feelings when you read their work? Do you agree with Sontag, that “serious writers” should pretty much keep to themselves and stay home?

1 comment:

  1. Such an interesting question to reflect on.
    Susan Sontag's writing always cognitively chimed for me, stimulating thoughts, but I was never curious about her private life. Then there are writers like Isabel Allende, or Jeanette Winterson, who share emotional stuff from under their skin, and even though their work speaks for itself, their public sharings loop into it and seem to enrich it. Not sure.
    Overall, the media/marketing machine is difficult to avoid these days. A challenge to shy animals, like me.


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka