By a pleasing coincidence I came across the same line of thought on the very same day in a book of selected Prejudices by the late great H L Mencken. "The worst of it is that an author must always suffer alone. If authors could work in large, well-ventilated factories, like cigar-makers or garment workers, with plenty of their mates about, and a flow of lively professional gossip to entertain them, their labor would be immensely lighter. But it is essential to their craft that they perform its tedious and vexatious operations a cappella, and so the horrors of loneliness are added to its other unpleasantnesses. An author at work is continuously and inescapably in the presence of himself. There is nothing to divert and soothe him. So every time a vagrant regret or sorrow assails him, it has him instantly by the ear, and every time a wandering ache runs down his leg, it shakes him like the bite of a tiger. I have yet to meet an author who was not a hypochondriac ..."
Waugh thinks that loneliness gives writers persecution mania and Mencken thinks it gives them hypochondria, but neither of them thinks that loneliness is very good for a writer. Nor do I. I think that loneliness is bad for a writer because while he is alone he learns nothing, especially of the way the world works.
If he were in a factory full of other writers, he might learn a little of the world, but my experience of writers is that when they are thrown together they do not exchange valuable information. They either exchange bilious gossip about other writers or they talk about money, either about how little they are getting or how much Martin Amis is getting. Mencken thought so, too.
"My trade forces me into constant association with persons of literary skill and aspiration, good and bad, male and female, foreign and domestic. I can only report, after a quarter of a century of commerce with them, that I find them, with a few brilliant exceptions, very dull, and that I greatly prefer the society of Babbitts. Is this heresy? If so, I can only offer my sincere regrets.
"The words are wrung from me, not by any desire to be unpleasant, but simply by a lifelong and incurable affection for what, for want of a better name, is called the truth. Nine-tenths of the literary gents that I know, indeed, are hotter for the dollar than any Babbitt ever heard of."
I have spent a certain portion of my life among cartoonists and reporters, or artists and writers, as they liked to think of themselves, and I can bear out what Mencken is saying: they would as soon talk about money as anything else, except perhaps ill of each other.
Years ago I read a piece by Constantine Fitzgibbon in which he told how he was taken to the middle of the North African desert to meet Andr Gide, one of his heroes, and how instead of the hoped-for literary talk, Gide could only ask questions like: "How much per 1,000 words do you get from English magazines? Who is your agent in New York?"
I don't believe writers ask questions like this of other craftsmen. They don't ask their plumbers about VAT or their chimney sweeps about seasonal demand and, even if they do, it may lead to nothing better than Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence, which depended to a great extent on trivial intercourse with French tradesmen.
The worst of this is not that writers know so little about plumbers' work, but that they know so very much about writers' work. This is why so many characters in plays and novels are writers. Characters mostly have to have some profession, and the writer often knows none better than his own, which is why writers are the protagonists in works as far apart as Evelyn Waugh's Scoop and Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth, even though the idea of a writer is anathema to the paying public.
There is only one modern fictional hero who is both popular and a writer. That is Tin Tin. Tin Tin is a reporter. But Tin Tin never does any work, nor anything remotely resembling reporting. I believe this is because Herg realised that to show a writer at work is the most boring thing you can do, and that it was better to show Tin Tin as a member of the idle rich than as a genuine writer.
My case rests.Reuse content