The other day I woke, as usual, to news of food shortages, of Christmas being made illegal, of the continuing Wodehouse-meets-Salo farce that is our government. So naturally, I chose to spend the morning in a state of blind fury at a piece of well-meaning advice about writers. The advice was given to those who might have to ‘care for’ a writer over the festive period. Note that a writer will not be meeting you as an equal, but will instead be given to you to tend to, like one of those dolls they lend to schoolchildren to scare them from getting pregnant.
The first item, harmless enough, was to ‘gift them books.’ We might take exception to the use of the word ‘gift’ here, but it’s a fair assumption that writers sometimes like books, even ones chosen by mere civilians. At this point, the red mist before the eyes is only a pinkish tinge. True unreasoning fury only kicks in with item two: ‘Skip small talk and discuss magical warfare.’
I sincerely hope that none of you are thinking of following this advice, if, for example, Don DeLillo happens to be visiting you for Christmas. The thought of you, earnestly researching whatever the hell ‘magical warfare’ is supposed to mean, only to be rewarded with a horrified and baffled look from the Ratner’s Star legend is really too much to bear. Presumably, you yourself would have no real insight into ‘magical warfare’ to begin with, yet the famed politeness of the crag-faced octogenarian Cosmopolis genius would prevent him changing the subject to the schedule for Christmas telly, and the two of you would gamely battle on, hating the topic, hating each other and finally hating yourselves.
The next tip is ‘they will probably run away at some point’. The author does not seem to have connected this to their previous advice: that you only limit your conversation to the business of magical warfare. They then recommend that you ‘lure them back with snacks.’
A picture is starting to form. Writers are frightened by normal interactions, socially inept to the point of rudeness, unfamiliar with reality and need to be reassured with foodstuffs – like one of the lesser rodents. Oddly, this definition seems to have been embraced by writers themselves. A glimpse online around the ‘Writing Community’ throws a million memes dedicated to the charming idiosyncrasies of the genus ‘Writer’. Writers are shy! Writers, unlike truck drivers or arms dealers, drink a lot of coffee! Writers are herbivorous, easily terrified creatures who resemble an only slightly house-trained elf!
Of course, writers have always attracted their myths. In simpler times, writers were seen as chain smoking nihilists, with untenable opinions and overcrowded love lives, forever drinking ‘highballs’ and maintaining a strict schedule of adultery and public feuds. They were closer to highland chieftains or post-Soviet warlords than the current conception of writers as trembling guinea pigs. While being largely nonsense, it was at least mildly aspirational nonsense. Writing was a profession that enabled a large conception of life.
In between that moment and this, the bottom fell out of the printed word. Fat advances dwindled into leanness, and the internet guaranteed that just about anyone with a phone could plausibly call themselves an author. Writers might have chosen this moment to view themselves as doing a form of work, deserving of proper payment, requiring mutual organisation. Instead, we chose to retreat into swooning specialness. We stopped being people who wrote and became #writers, with our quirky habits and adorable snack fetishes. On an elite level, this translates into the hundreds of books published a year that celebrate the author’s Important Feelings About Ponds, the author as winsome Fotherington Thomas, friend to animals, gasper at clouds, on the lower rungs we have godforsaken tweeness about how best to assist the writer in your life.
On some level this is perfectly understandable. Tweeness, which here I now confess I am sometimes guilty of myself, is a posture of defencelessness after all, a means of disarming criticism. Swaddle yourself in a protective layer of infantilism, so then the barbs of enraged strangers, foaming with annoyance at your unrelatable or inappropriate fictional creations, can be deflected by a force field of sickly preciousness. It is tempting. But criticism, even foolish criticism, is part of a writers’ job and we can’t deflect it forever.
Is it too much to hope for a shift in the other direction? I’m not calling for a return of the Author as Troublesome Sex Beast, but rather a retreat from all myths of Specialness. A recognition that writing is a job, done more or less well, and that a good part of what literature is about is seeing through this sort of mystification, engaging with, rather than fleeing from, the stuff of ordinary life. Otherwise, we are doomed to haunt the party with our Twiglets, a child in the matters of politics, non-magical conflict and sex, while the guests tire of offering us nibbles and quietly leave the room.