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.)