In David Malouf’s latest book on writing, The Writing Life, he recalls a Henry James story that affirms how writers lead two lives – a public, sociable one, and the private ‘writing’ life, which is where they really get to properly lay out their views, and which is, perhaps, closer to the ‘real’ writer. Far be it for me to disagree with Malouf or Henry James, but this is something of a fiction, I believe. Or at least, it is exaggerated by Malouf to suggest there is something about the dual personalities of writers that is special. (And Malouf goes on to talk about the intimate relationship between readers and this ‘real’ writer.) There is nothing particularly unique to the writer about this. It is a commonplace of human existence that our public selves sometimes differ to our private selves, in varying degrees. Some have hidden, second lives, some are more transparent. We might have had the experience of re-evaluating our perception of a person because we found out about the intelligent things they get up to in their spare time that they don’t usually talk about. Sometimes it can be simply the banal observation that people can be shy in public and more open in private.
Part of the problem here is that there is a metaphysical aspect to it. The writer these days is ‘the Writer’, the great artist, and with other artists he or she is lauded as the supreme creator in our society, rather than a form of craftsman. (Interestingly, American writer Annie Dillard also has a book called The Writing Life, but in this book or another she describes the act of writing a book not as an intimate relationship between writer and reader, but rather as like making a chair.) Malouf is writing in the context of a writers’ festival, and so is therefore playing to the audience that is enraptured by the role of the writer who creates worlds ex nihilo, and they want a glimpse of this genius.
Malouf is intimating that the relationship between reader and writer is something special because of a perceived intimacy, but there is a confusion here between the book and the writer. The intimate relationship is with the book. Roland Barthes, for one, would have disagreed with the idea that reading a book is a special way of having an intimate relationship with the author.
Barthes questions the idea that a writer can convey to the reader exactly what they want to. Books take on a life of their own, so to speak, and the act of reading is a complicated one – the writer’s words are mediated by the reader’s disposition. This does not mean, as is sometimes suggested, that everything is up for grabs as regards to meaning, it just means that we talk past each other to a certain extent. In the act of conversation we continually qualify what we are talking about. Malouf infers that the act of writing takes some of the ambiguity out of the equation, but the written word lacks the ability to create a back and forth with the reader to clarify things. Clarity is of course a key in writing, but what I mean here is that a writer must try harder over the course of a life to ensure that the point or points have been received correctly. Even a lauded writer such as Stanley Hauerwas has spent his life clarifying and restating his ideas so that he is not misinterpreted, as he relays in his latest book. And this is because of the lack of immediacy, the time delay, if you like, of the conversation between writer and reader. In a spoken conversation there is a constant dance of ‘what I meant to say was…’. In this way, it is not always the case that the spoken word is the inferior.
There is also perhaps a problem assuming that there is a ‘real’ person beneath our attempts to articulate ourselves. Wittgenstein and others have alerted us to the fact that our selves are tied intrinsically to the way we communicate, and that there is not a ‘real’ person beyond the language we use to communicate. To get back to Malouf and the writer he writes about – the writer behind the persona that is viewed at writers’ festivals – the only way to get to the ‘real’ person is by having a relationship where there is mutual communication. A book only does this in one direction.
If this seems like a belittling of the artist’s role, it is not meant to be. To create a great work of literature is an awe-inspiring thing. To sustain concentration over a year, say, to produce a consistent work is a thing of beauty. But writers are not alchemists working their magic in their laboratories. They are a subset of the human tendency to be creative, to want to express something in a way that is less fleeting than the spoken word. I mention the spoken word because Malouf makes a great distinction between the spoken word and the written word, but again this is too much of a distinction and a generalisation. The written word is a manifestation of thought the same way as the spoken word is. Some writers ‘naturally’ write like they speak, others – one assumes Malouf included – are more deliberative, which can make the written word seem far less like speech.
Anyway, this is not to belittle Malouf’s book either, which has lots of other fine things to say about writing and writers he admires. And, ironically, it is the intimacy as a reader that he feels for these works he reveres that makes his observations all the more engaging.