Thursday, May 6, 2010

I'm Not A Real Writer Either

A friend of mine told me recently that he's not a real writer. That's the kind of thing when people say it you figure you know what they mean, then, later, you start wondering. Did he mean he's never had a book published? Or maybe that he's not serious about writing, that there's something about the craft and art he doesn't understand or isn't capable of, in the sense that I'm not a real runner because I can't run a four-minute mile? Or, I guess, he could have meant nobody thinks of him as a writer when they see him walking down the street or hanging out at his favorite bar or cafe. Nobody says: There's so and so, the writer.

I was wondering. And then I remembered something Paul Theroux wrote in Sir Vidia's Shadow, a book Tom turned me on to a while back. You know Theroux, or at least you remember him as the feature about Nurse Wolf in the New Yorker guy, whose article was accompanied by the Helmut Newton photo of Nurse Wolf's snatch, because Newton, who happens to be a real photographer, is the kind of guy who puts what's important right there at the center of focus so you know what the photo is about. That Paul Theroux. The writer who said:
Writers then were not the frequent and genial faces they are now in this age of promotion, when they are involved in the selling and distribution of their books -- reading before a small, solemn throng of people you might mistake for early Christians at your corner bookshop; chatting to the bland man with fish eyes and lacquered hair on morning television; bantering on the radio or late night with an interviewer, who is the authentic celebrity and the real reason for the vulgar and overfamiliar encounter.

Before this age of intense peddling, which is the selling of the author rather than the book, the writer was an obscure and somewhat mythical figure, inevitably a loner, the subject of whispers -- an outlaw, an enigma, an exile. Writers were the more powerful for their remoteness and their silences; the name alone was the aura. In many cases, the author had no public face and all you knew was the work. Today the face is first, the book comes last. A writer then was gnomic, priestlike, a magician, not merely writing a book but making a world and creating a new language. A writer was a hero.
So, thanks to Paul Theroux, I can say to my friend: You are a real writer. You just need to hang out with a more solemn throng.