The staggering self-obsession of modern writers

'All this self-fixated pseudo-literature shifts the emphasis away from the work to the person'

Writers used to be invisible creatures who kept more or less mum about their private lives. The ultimate writer was the impenetrable Thomas Pynchon, about whom no one knew anything at all. Writers were invisible because they were dealing with - and dealing in - words on pages. They had no business mixing it up with actors or pop stars, or being profiled on The South Barg Show. Back in those days - as recently as 1990, one could argue - writers didn't think the world was hanging on their every admission or confession.

Writers used to be invisible creatures who kept more or less mum about their private lives. The ultimate writer was the impenetrable Thomas Pynchon, about whom no one knew anything at all. Writers were invisible because they were dealing with - and dealing in - words on pages. They had no business mixing it up with actors or pop stars, or being profiled on The South Barg Show. Back in those days - as recently as 1990, one could argue - writers didn't think the world was hanging on their every admission or confession.

But something strange has happened in the last decade. Writers - including novelists, journalists and columnists - have started selling their everyday lives and memories as product. The literary preoccupations of the day have nothing to do with imagined stories or characters or societies, but with real-life experience, traumatic events survived, crises being lived through in the present tense. We've lost patience with fiction. We only want to know about "what happened?"

It's all come to a head this summer with a slew of self-fixated tomes: Paul Morley's Nothing, India Knight's My Life on a Plate, and now Dave Eggers' playfully narcissistic Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (primary themes: the deaths of his parents, the raising of his little brother, the founding of his own literary magazine). "Eggers has talent as a writer," notes Adam Begley of the New York Observer, "but his true genius is for PR."

All this began, ironically, with the self-effacing Nick Hornby, whose endearing Fever Pitch prompted countless thirtysomething lads to look inwards and reassess the stock of their memories. After that watershed publication, every two-bit hack on Planet Groucho seized on some issue in his/her life and made "faction" out of it. Pop music, absent dads, Irishness, sex - you name it, it got the faction treatment.

In the future, Warhol might have said, everyone will deem their most banal memories to be of huge interest for... well, even longer than 15 minutes. We used to slag off the neurotic hedonists of the 1970s as "the Me Generation", but the current crop of self-regarders puts them utterly in the shade.

As an "infotainment" culture we have become more and more obsessed with "what people are really like". We don't give a toss whether their books, or their music, are any good; we just want to know - or think we want to know - what goes on behind their closed doors. (As the TV ad for infotainment rag Heat says of its readers: "The higher their IQ, the greater their need to gossip.")

What's unprecedented is that this now applies to writers as much as it does to movie stars. So what does it say about me ("me! me! me!") that I want writers to remain invisible? What is this puritanical streak that wants writers to stop acting like stars? Is it just envy? Naturally a part of me would love to be a household name - hey, a household "face" - but that's not the real issue here. The issue is the way that all this self-obsessed pseudo-literature shifts the focus away from the "work" to the "person".

Is there no private experience any more? Nothing that can't be flogged in the form of a column or a memoir? Are readers' lives really so empty in this culture that they have to look, week in, week out, to those of licensed opinion-shapers?

With the world accelerating before our very eyes, we seem to be clinging to an increasingly tenuous sense of what our lives amount to. "Maybe that's why suddenly you get the Nick Hornbys and the Tony Parsons and that lot writing about the family," Paul Morley told an interviewer. "We've finally realised it's not the Velvet Underground or the Sex Pistols who are extraordinary after all. It's the family."

Is it? We've all felt joy and pain and fear and loss, but isn't there something slightly exhibitionistic, even sluttish, about selling our lives so shamelessly? Writers are vain enough people without being encouraged to believe that everyone wants to inspect their psychic skidmarks. Twenty years ago, would any writer of Martin Amis's age have written his Experience?

How far we've come from Roland Barthes' provocative Death of the Author, that bracing attack on the cult of the writer-as-deity. How unfashionably remote are those anti-humanist French ideas that so radically undermined the fiction of literary egomania. "The author is a modern figure," Barthes wrote, "a product of our society insofar as... it discovered the prestige of the individual."

Asked recently why he so regularly disrobed in public, the bald techno-pop opportunist Moby replied that it was "a bizarre combination of self-loathing and lack of shame". Bizarre but true. Are today's media narcissists guilty of anything less?

barney.hoskyns@virgin.net

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