The staggering self-obsession of modern writers

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

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'