Thursday, January 31, 2013

What makes you think you know me?

In a Guardian article today about Ricky Gervais's controversial new character Derek, Mark Lawson notes this:
Performers such as Alec Guinness and Paul Scofield used to argue that actors should be wary of giving interviews because the profession demands the ability to disappear within a part. But contemporary actor-comedians such as Gervais, not only chat-show regulars but also constantly visible on social media, are as far from that mysterious ideal as it is possible to be. The risk is that a proportion of viewers will always be judging the public personality – and, in Gervais's case, controversy – as much as the work. It's intriguing to speculate about how Derek would be received if played by an unknown actor.
I have often argued on this blog a similar case regarding writers: the fact that, if novels don't exactly get judged purely on the personalities of their authors (though I suspect they often do), our celebrity culture does mean that very often it's the novelist rather than the novel that gets attention. In a books marketing climate depending on social media it's unavoidable: authors are now pretty much required by their publishers to have a profile on social media.

It's a conundrum: as I have pointed out often enough, many writers write precisely because they find social interaction more difficult than the page, and most writers write precisely because they find social interaction inadequate: it's solitary contemplation that produces original thought and it's the calm of the page where those thoughts can be properly transmitted and appreciated. This last is a point made strongly by Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. (Tania Hershman, who it seems is also currently concerned with these issues, alerts us to a moving film of Cain speaking.) Cain doesn't in any way suggest we give up social interaction, but pleads for more space for the privacy and contemplation necessary for creative production.

Here's another thought. If the recent 'sock-puppetry' scandal has shown us anything, it's that you can't always trust who someone is online anyway, and I'd say you can't always know who someone is online even when they're using their own name. Another thing the scandal showed was that there's now a whole culture - especially among authors, or at least those authors who were up in arms - of obsession with honesty and being up front, but it seems to me that writers, above anyone, are capable of fictional manipulation - either consciously or unconsciously - when it comes to their online selves. I'd go further and say that we never really know a person from any of their fundamentally public appearances.

I've been thinking about these issues a fair bit since I discovered in the pages of Nicholas Royle's new novel First Novel (which plays with the issue of the difficulty of knowing what's fiction and what isn't) a character (appearing intermittently and briefly) who answers to my description and bears my writing name. Other characters in the novel are recognisable as real-life people to those who know them in life, but their names are changed, and other writers are mentioned, but only as the authors of their books - they do not appear as characters (except maybe Paul Auster, though if I remember correctly that's only in the narrator's imagination). People keep coming up to me and suggesting it's outrageous and asking me if I feel weird about it. The answer is: no, on reflection, I don't (though their reaction does make me feel weird - it's not me, folks, it's a character!). I haven't discussed it at all with Nick, and he may have other things to say about it, but as far as I can see, it's a kind of literary joke about the knowability of anyone with any kind of public profile. Who is this Elizabeth Baines? No one really knows: it's significant - and funny - that the glasses of the EB in the novel flash at one point with the reflections of a glitter ball. For one thing, as Nick knows, it's a pen name, the name behind which, in the beginning, when I first started writing, I hid my real identity. But it's all very complex: in fact, I wasn't so much hiding as naming my deepest, most private, contemplative self, the self that (with luck) emerges on the page, and delineating and protecting it from my social identity - which in turn makes it ironic that it's now become the name for my public profile, and the active promotional side of me as a writer, as well as a name by which people know me on a social level after all. 

The truth of it all is this: as difficult as it is nowadays, if you really want to know a writer, try to forget the public profile and look at the work for what it is.
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