mirabile dictu

The Habit of Living Indoors: Are Narcissists the Best Writers?

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.