Do you have to be a narcissist to be a good writer? Or a bad writer, for that matter.
For many years I eked out a living as a freelance writer. I scribbled book reviews, features, and PR at a rapid rate. I bubbled over with thousands of words a week, enjoying writing frivolous, fun pieces. Alas, most of the articles were ephemera, and I have hung on mostly to the reviews and pieces about writers. But reviews are not lucrative: I had to fund my habit of living indoors.
Books were my life and still are, but I have never written seriously about books. If only I’d been prettier, more charming, more political, perhaps I’d have been more successful…but I suppose I would not have liked that prettier, more charming, more political person. In that respect, I am narcissistic. I often felt like Jo in Little Women, enjoying my blood-and-thunder stories but haunted by money worries and patriarchal disapproval–Jo/Kat’s not a serious writer! I stopped writing in my free time. All I really wanted to do was read.
When I was 18 or 19 I was sure I’d write a novel someday–when I felt like it! The first novelist I met, outside of a fiction writing class, was a friend’s handsome, pretentious boyfriend. I was awed that he had finished a novel, and eagerly started to read his manuscript. He was very smart… but his prose was bombastic and unpublishable. One sentence has stayed with me: “Even the crack of dawn made him horny.”
At that age, I had more talent than I have now. Words unselfconsciously flowed from my pen in my free time, between classes, work, and a late dinner with my boyfriend. One evening, when a friend and I were studying for an exam for a core psychology class we’d rarely attended and bought lecture notes for at the Union, she took time off from reading about lab rats to riffle through my desk drawers. Why didn’t I finish my brilliant novel? she demanded after half an hour. (There wasn’t much there.) “Well, it’s not a novel,” I tried to explain. Fiction was not my forte. If it was, I’d have written it. I specialized in short ephemeral articles, and now in a blog that is really just a journal of my reading!
I did write one novellla, at a rapid pace. To show how little writers know themselves, I was not aware of the kind of book it was till I finished. I had aimed for literary fiction, but it turned out to be women’s fiction. One day I may go back and revise, tighten the plot, lengthen the book, and make the characters more likable. But the project doesn’t interest me that much. I would rather read…
I have recently mused about the writer characters in Pamela Hansford Johnson’s superb novels. In her books, writers are divided between the sane and sensible camp and the narcissists. In The Last Resort (which I wrote about here), the lovely narrator, Christine, is a successful novelist, a happy wife and mother. At weekends spent writing at a hotel, she sees a friend made very unhappy by an affair with a married man. And after the man’s wife dies, he marries someone else. It is a shattering scene.
And in Johnson’s brilliant Helena trilogy, her masterpiece, which I last wrote about here, the narrator, Claud Pickering, is a writer and an art historian with a deep understanding of his dysfunctional family, especially of his narcissistic stepmother, Helena. He is one of the sanest and most responsible of characters, a cross between Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Nick Jenkins in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Claud is the kind of guy you want to spend time with.
But in Johnson’s hilarious Dorothy Merlin trilogy, which I chortled over last weekend, the writers are all ridiculously narcissistic. In the first book in the trilogy, The Unspeakable Skipton, we learn that the hero Daniel Skipton believes he is the best writer of his generation. He hustles a bare living in Bruges by exploiting tourists with various scams, but his life is writing his new novel, his masterpiece, in an attic in a mouldering house. Unfortunately, he libels so many people that the book is unpublishable. And he has so little sense that he even satirizes his publisher, who kindly sends advances money on books they both know Daniel will never write.
But, narcissistic and malicious as Daniel is, he genuinely loves writing. Johnson describes his touching enjoyment of the routine.
Having had his lunch and rinsed out a pair of socks (he had only two pairs and always kept one in the wash), he took his manuscript from the table drawer, ranged before him his three pens, one with black ink, one with green and one with red, and sat down to the hypnotic delight of polishing. The first draft of this book had been completed a year ago. Since then he had worked upon it every day, using the black pen for the correction of simple verbal or grammatical slips, the green pen for the burnishing style, the red for the marginal comment and suggestions for additional matter…. It was not only a great book, it was the greatest book in the English language, it would make his reputation all over the world and keep him in comfort, more than comfort, for the rest of his life.
Daniel Skipton is not the only narcissist in the trade. His rival, Dorothy Merlin, a poet/playwright who visits Bruges with her husband, Cosmo Hines, and two friends, has an inflated opinion of her own drama in verse about wombs and motherhood, which was staged as a multi-media production in London. When she informs Daniel that her plays have to be read “on two levels,” he is very annoyed, because he believes his own work is deeper and should be read on seven levels! She says,”You see, the womb in my verse is not just my womb. It is the womb of everyone.” And she compares herself to the Flemish painters who add scenes of domestic life behind the Madonna.
This is the kind of narcissism we love to laugh about. Are writers like this in real life? Well, perhaps I’ve met one or two, but the majority are very kind and generous. Writers are no more alike than, say, lion tamers or Wal-Mart cashiers. Yes, they tame the lions or punch the cash register keys, but it is their bookishness that unites them at any party in a room full of geeks scanning bookshelves.
Goodness, we are so alike in many ways! I started as a writer (I won first place in the Pennsylvania High School Newspaper something or other for a feature article I wrote; that’s my major writing accomplishment!), but quickly realized I could make a lot more money for a lot less work by getting a job in investments. That was in the days when companies would hire degreeless people if the applicants were smart and responsible. But, ultimately, I stopped writing because, like you, I’d much rather read.
Heavens, investments would be so far beyond my ken, but a very smart way to make a living! I’m sure you have the writing talent, as your award and blog show, but reading is so much more enjoyable, well, to me anyway. And aren’t they happy to have us as readers? I’ll bet they are.
Yes, it’s difficult to generalise, but I guess I feel that the great writers are not necessarily nice ordinary people living nice ordinary lives. I expect there to be a bit of madness in them, and if we iron all the strangeness in humanity out where will our creative arts be? A knotty problem…
What strikes me when I actually meet writers is how very ordinary they are! But, yes, there is a lot of madness in books.
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My impulse is not to write fiction or stories either – it’s to write essays. When I have tried, I end up writing my own story and become grim. That was years ago. Maybe I’d do better now.
I’ve not read the Johnson books so I may be getting this wrong but from what you write – and you are persuasive, it seems to me that Johnson is being unfair to writers in same way the Quixote myth is unfair to readers, especially women readers who are presented as needing to be disciplined. In that TLS article on Pamela Hansford Johnson it seems to me that Johnson would know her fiction was not getting respect, her interests and attitudes looked upon as obsolete and so she’s getting back. She’s the sensible writer in her mind. Accepting social reality as it is, not critiquing it from modern points of view. But all good novelists extend the sympathetic imagination: that’s how they create characters. The more recent ones or fashionable or prize winners are extending sympathy to more kinds of people, more cultures, more races, sexually non-mainstream people. I don’t see the people who write the Booker Prize books as narcissistic. We who delve subjectivity are of course inward …
Just a few thoughts before heading off for bed …
I love essays, too.
Johnson does often portray writers in a good light, but she goes over the top with Skipton, etc., and her preface makes it clear she she set out to write satires. But she and C. P. Snow both had a high opinion of their traditional writing, as do I. Still, ti’s rather sad that she is often pegged as Dylan Thomas’s girlfriend or C. P. Snow’s wife. Her novels are definitely as good as Snow’s, different, maybe better.