The Myth of Writing

One thing about me is that while I’ve spent nearly my whole life constantly reading fiction, I’ve never wanted to write it. I don’t think I have an ounce of storytelling blood in my body; my creativity is limited to knitting socks and cross-stitching replicas of Mondrians (no, that is not a joke). Do all writers like to read? I honestly have no idea, but I would wager that all writers of literary fiction spend a fair amount of time reading books in a similar vein. Of course far, far fewer readers write, and it is common to view writing as more a vocation than a profession. I tend to take that view myself. Literature is an art form, and producing art is not a day job.

The other night when I picked up Mythologies I wasn’t really expecting Barthes to be the cure for my reading funk, but somehow the first few essays at least hit the spot. In one of them, “The Writer on Holiday,” Barthes discusses the mystification of the writing vocation.

True, it may seem touching, and even flattering, that I, a mere reader, should participate, thanks to such confidences, in the daily life of a race selected by genius. I would no doubt feel that a world was blissfully fraternal, in which newspapers told me that a certain great writer wears blue pyjamas, and a certain young novelist has a liking for ‘pretty girls, reblochon cheese and lavender-honey.’ This does not alter the fact that the balance of the operation is that the writer becomes still more charismatic, leaves this earth a little more for a celestial habitat where his pyjamas and his cheeses in no way prevent him from resuming the use of his noble demiurgic speech.

To endow the writer publicly with a good fleshly body, to reveal that he likes dry white wine and underdone steak, is to make even more miraculous for me, and of a more divine essence, the products of his art. Far from the details of his daily life bringing nearer to me the nature of his inspiration and making it clearer, it is the whole mythical singularity of his condition which the writer emphasizes by such confidences. For I cannot but ascribe to some superhumanity the existence of beings vast enough to wear blue pyjamas at the very moment when they manifest themselves as universal conscience, or else make a profession of liking reblochon with that same voice with which they announce their forthcoming Phenomenology of the Ego. The spectacular alliance of so much nobility and so much futility means that one still believes in the contradiction: since it is totally miraculous, each of its terms is miraculous too; it would obviously lose all interest in a world where the writer’s work was so desacralized that it appeared as natural as his vestimentary or gustatory functions.

I am completely taken with this passage. Especially for me, someone who’s never been able to write a lick, the writer’s work is far from desacralized. I don’t see all authors this way, but there are definitely a few I can’t help viewing as superhuman. And when I read about some commonality between myself and the gods, I feel the tickle of inclusion—but also a sense of wonder that Hemingway could have sat around drinking beer on a summer afternoon just like I do and still written “Hills Like White Elephants.”

I wonder, though, whether writing is still viewed as such a sacred activity by as wide a swathe of people. Barthes comments work very well, I think, applied to actors and singers, much more widely idolized today than authors. I would submit that the recent celebrity baby obsession is an especial example of this—what could be less in the realm of genius and more a part of everyday life than pregnancy and birth and their attendant travails—what could possibly make Angelina or Britney more, and yet less, like every other woman in the world?

Non-book digression over. Related unrelated question: Daniel Green has often discouraged the reading of biographies of writers because the writing should stand alone and such books are often little more than gossip. I don’t think I’ve ever read a biography of a writer, though I do have several sitting on my shelves at the moment (of P.G. Wodehouse, Nabokov, and Raymond Chandler). If you read such biographies, do you do it to better understand the author’s works, or to get a little rush from finding out about his personal life? Do you want to believe it’s the first but suspect the latter is also involved? (I would probably fall into that group.)

3 comments to The Myth of Writing

  • I read biographies of writers and artists because creative people are often very interesting. What other justification does anyone need?

    Also, some biographies are simply great books. Have you read Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol? It has no peer.

    Dan Green’s strictures against biography are based on his tastes, not on any logic. He does not think the writing should stand alone – he thinks you should read criticism rather than biographies, and appears to have no idea that books like Boyd’s Nabokov are stuffed with criticism.

  • Alison

    Not to be a metaphorical douchebag, but “the writing standing alone” puts the text in a dark corner where there is no one there to read it. I find the concept entirely problematic, for as soon as there is a reader, there are some sort of bias inherent in their reading. (I was going to say ‘that doesn’t make it bad or wrong’ but then I’d just be lying). It also reminds me of the entirely misguided idea that writers should not read too much lest it influence their work…

    When it comes down to it, well written biographical works are just part of the web of influences — arguably on both sides of the coin: to the work the reader will put in, and what the writer brought to theirs. As a critical reader, I would hope that biography and fiction could be separated while reading either, even if they can’t “stand apart.” And to echo Amateur Reader a bit, biography usually has some sort of nascent criticism… and criticism rarely manages to completely ignore biography.

  • AR: I completely agree. But I don’t think I have mischaracterized Dan Green’s ostensible position—it appears this is his reasoning given his blog writings and if I’m wrong about that I apologize. But I do disagree with him.

    Al: Right. I mean, if you can’t read biography, can you read history? Can you read anthropology? Psychology? Can you read—or have an interest in—anything but lit and lit crit? That seems like the logical conclusion but…not a policy I am going to follow in this lifetime.