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.

16 comments:

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

V thought provoking post, Elizabeth. I know I maniuplate to an extent on my blog etc. I try not to make things personal, rather I stay business-like because that is the business side of writing.
I would much prefer people to read my books and learn things about me that way, if they want to learn (particularly my poetry which is often personal).
It is always more nervewracking for me when I have a poetry book coming out than fiction because I feel exposed there. I can hide in the stories/novels.

adele said...

This is fascinating! Thanks. And must meet the fictional EB in Nick's book very soon. Sounds most interesting.

Hayley N. Jones said...

Very interesting post. I get frustrated with today's celebrity-obsessed culture, especially in relation to writing. From a personal point of view, I see me-as-writer as a persona. She is similar to me and shares certain personality traits, but is an edited, filtered version of myself. I probably come across as surprisingly open and honest in my blog, since I talk a lot about my experience of mental illness, but I choose to hide far more than I reveal.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Very interesting comments, thank you. It's very good to have your perspectives.

Rachel Fenton said...

Really fascinating post, Elizabeth. I was super self-conscious of what my online profile would say about me when I started blogging as so much emphasis is put on this now. I hate celebrity and I'm naturally extremely shy. I've put some very personal info on my blog but all filtered and definitely manipulated mainly as a means of owning and regaining control of the fear of being exposed by others. I am my own creation online.

Nicholas Royle said...

Have commented on FB, as I find Blogger such a pain.

Elizabeth Baines said...

I've answered on FB.

Sue Guiney said...

Fascinating. And although I did know EB was your pen name, I had completely forgotten that. the combination of knowing you in person, knowing your work, knowing your name, knowing it's not your name and then forgetting that fact, has blurred all these distinctions even more. I do feel immediately unsettled at the thought that your name was used as a character in a novel, especially, I suppose because the author obviously "really" knows you. I have to think about that reaction of mine a bit more.

nmj said...

Hey Eliz, All food for thought and I am certainly intrigued now by Nicholas Royle's novel and have downloaded sample (I love this feature of Kindl!).

Re. online profiles, I think we all consciously or unconsciously adopt masks, it would be difficult to have your whole self out there, though maybe some people do. And I wonder, do you not feel somewhat 'protected' using a pseudonym, or has EB come to mean the real you, at least as much as a pseudonym can?

I read Nicholas Royle's FB comment and like when he says: 'A disclaimer appears in the front of every novel, but as we all know that disclaimer is bullshit. Of course some characters are based on real people. Of course some events are based on real ones'.

When my novel first came out readers quite often wanted to know how much of me was in Helen - esp the love interest - and though I understood the impulse to know I began to get irked, there seemed to be an element of nosiness, but maybe that is just human nature.

(As an aside, I've never met Nicholas but vaguely recall him calling me in late nineties about a short story anthology I'd submitted to, I think he also sent me a fax, which seems delightfully old-fashioned now.)

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hayley, that's very interesting to know your experience, thank you. Sue and Nasim: Yes, Elizabeth Baines and my real-life persona have now become blurred: as I say, people now socialise with me as Elizabeth Baines, and many don't even know it's a pen name (and like you, Sue, many of those who know forget). It's kind of become one of my many names (along with my given name, my married name and my nick-names) and I tend not to notice which one I'm being called by.
It's all very confusing and interesting. As you say, Nasim, it can be irksome when people assume you're your character, but it's also fascinating re the way people read fiction, and I guess it's this kind of thing that Nick's novel is about.

Jenniffer Wardell said...

If I could, I would send my books out without any writer persona attached to them. I think they're infinitely more interesting and worthy of the world's attention than I am.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, if only we could do that, Jenniffer. And of course adopting a pen name was for me a way of trying to - which didn't work!

The Willoughby Book Club said...

Thanks - a really interesting, thought provoking post.

Sarah Anderson said...

It's slightly odd, but I think I've grown more comfortable with people scrutinizing my work than I am with people scrutinizing my life; the first I'm in control of, but the second... I definitely know that no online persona feels completely like me; even my private blogs read as a caricature of who I am.

Erin Regan said...

Really interesting post - thanks for your insight! I (mostly) grew up in this digital culture in which online identities are as important and real as actual interaction. I feel most like myself in my fictional writing though, because I've found that I can express honestly and vulnerability through creativity.

Therese said...

I think you make a good point in your article about the importance of the identity of a writer. Personally, I only wish I could keep my identity of a writer separate from me, the person. I often think that in order to be taken seriously as a writer, I, myself, must adopt an alter ego in which to publish my work.