It is useful to be reminded now and then that, even in apparently respectable parts of the culture, the basic rules of show business apply. Image is all; an ounce of publicity is worth a pound of content, however brilliant it may be. Only the most self-deluding book publisher, for example, could argue with a straight face that the words written by an author are what matter most in the modern world of publishing.
Not for the first time, the sane and sensible JK Rowling, inset, has cast light on the inbuilt nonsense that is part of the books industry. Writing under deep cover, Rowling wrote a thriller using the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. It was turned down by publishers and when it did finally find a home, it sold only moderately. This weekend her cover was blown, and Galbraith/Rowling’s thriller went straight to the top of the best-seller list.
It is a favourite game of chippy authors to reveal the lottery of editorial selection by submitting work which is not as it seems. In the early 1980s, Doris Lessing wrote a book under the pseudonym of Jane Somers, only revealing she was the author after it had been widely rejected. Rowling’s plan was altogether more personal. As a writer, she was trying to escape from her own reputation.
Acquiring a public image may be a huge professional advantage to a writer (or actor or politician), but it comes with a price-tag attached. The enemy of honest, true communication and storytelling is self-consciousness, a distracting awareness of the expectation of others.
It was why the poet Ted Hughes argued against having photos of himself made available by his publisher. “It is fatally easy to acquire, through other people, a view of one’s work from the outside,” he wrote. “As when a child is admired, in its hearing, for something it does naturally. Ever after – that something is corrupted with self-consciousness. It does not need admiration to do this – half-true description and analysis is quite enough. I have seen many talented people ruined by just this.”
One can see the liberation provided by an alter ego most clearly in comedy. When Barry Humphries, Steve Coogan or Ricky Gervais take on the persona of Dame Edna, Alan Partridge or David Brent, the least attractive part of their real public image (self-importance, chippiness, smugness) falls away. They actually look happier too, more at ease. They may be playing a monster or a fool, but in doing so they have become more themselves by being someone else.
It is often why people start writing in the first place, seeing it, often rather dangerously, as a form of therapy, an escape from the oppression of self-consciousness. To let your bad self out of its cage, and follow happily as it roams about doing its worst, can be oddly cheering. In fact, if we could find a forum in which politicians could escape into an alternative reality – Eric Pickles as a smooth seducer, George Osborne as an SAS sniper, Yvette Cooper as a stand-up comic – there would be less rage and frustration in public life.
What JK Rowling has discovered is that when the image trap closes on you and you become public property, much of that hard-earned creative freedom is lost. “One can either see or be seen,” as John Updike wrote in his great book on the subject, Self-Consciousness.
Robert Galbraith will help her, just as Barbara Vine once helped Ruth Rendell to write different, and usually better, books under a new name. Inhabiting another person is a great gift of the creative life, and not even the madness of our image-obsessed culture can take that away.
If you’re aroused and admit it...
In a recklessly brave new book, the American writer Daniel Bergner has advanced a theory of female desire which is likely to discomfit both men and women.
The idea that it is intimacy and commitment which attract women, as opposed to the less discriminating approach of men, has more to do with social fear and pressure than reality, according to Bergner’s What Do Women Want? In fact, it is women who are more likely to be churning with primal, transgressive need than men.
The book details how a group of women were asked to view a series of erotic scenes and to rate their arousal on a keypad. At the same time, their actual physical responses were measured. There was a marked difference between the two.
The women claimed to find only a few of the scenes of erotic interest; their bodies were telling an altogether different story. Men, by contrast, knew all too well what excited them.
Why is it that even when we are shown to be more in touch with our sexuality – rather a good thing, we were always told – we still manage to emerge as less complex and interesting than women.