An Exciting Time
On the Tension Between Making Art and Sharing It
“Excitement” is a word people use a lot when you have a book coming out: You must be so excited! Such an exciting time! We’re all very excited, etc. My friend Nell currently has a book out: Transient and Strange: Notes on the Science of Life. Nell and I share the same literary agent, The Fabulous Meg Thompson, who recently griped to me that a lot of her authors—particularly the essayists and memoirists—seem less than excited about the prospect of promoting their own books. The emotional alloy “excitement” has a lot of different elements, one of which is dread. (I once read an interview with a writer who said that whenever he heard that someone had a new book out, he always thought: You poor bastard.) This attitude is confounding to T.F.M.T., but to me it seems self-explanatory: “They’re writers,” I explained. When I first decided to become a writer, authors were known as people who wrote whole novels entirely in bed isolated in cork-lined rooms or walked into rivers with pocketfuls of stones or were addicted to heroin and shot their wives in the head. It was not assumed they’d be eager to do AMAs on Goodreads or promos on Book-Tok.
I used to think the ideal situation would be to be like Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger—a famous recluse. But you don’t get to be famous by being a recluse anymore. Through an insidious Darwinian winnowing over the last decades, most of the living writers you’ve heard of now tend to be of that freakish breed who take naturally to self-promotion and thrive on social media, like those newly evolved bacteria that eat plastic. (The most successful writer I know—by “know” I mean I once smuggled her pet ferret into her dorm room for her—now runs $700 theme weekends based on her own novels.1) These are highly adaptive qualities in the harsh 21st century media environment, but they rarely correlate to writing talent, and are more often inimical to it; writing is a lonely, obsessive practice, favored by those types who prefer solitude, observation, and long, uninterrupted thoughts to celebrity, performance, and mouthing off on twitter.
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The two skills sets may overlap—Harlan Ellison used to write whole short stories sitting in the windows of bookstores—but they’re not naturally compatible. (Dorothy Parker pointed out that none of the members of the Algonquin Roundtable—the equivalent of the twitterati ca. 1920s—were among the literary giants of their day: they were “just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were.”) One instructive contrast is between Ken Kesey, who wrote a couple of great novels and then became a motley clown-prophet of LSD, partied with biker gangs, roved around the country in a psychedelic bus and forgot ever to write anything again, and his less celebrated friend Robert Stone, who quietly continued to write some of the best American novels of the last half-century.
The fate of those writers who buy their own acts, and succumb to the addiction of celebrity, lacks even the dignity of Greek tragedy: think of Truman Capote’s trajectory from In Cold Blood to Murder by Death. I saw Hunter S. Thompson—once an important writer to me—speak after he’d become a professional Hunter S. Thompson impersonator: he sat onstage holding boozily forth drinking Chivas Regal and whacking things with a rubber squeak-toy mallet. It was like seeing an animal that once could’ve skwapped your head off with one paw dressed in a tutu and riding a unicycle.
But Nell, unlike most writers, is already practiced at public performance, and putting on a professional persona. You’re probably familiar with her work already, whether you know it or not; her name is listed on “The Women of NPR” T-shirt: Nell Greenfieldboyce, science correspondent. (Most recently she delivered the crushing disillusionment that the best-known images of Neptune are in false color; rather than a deep oceanic azure, it’s really a washed-out pea green, little more photogenic than Uranus.) And she’s done everything expected of her in her book’s publicity campaign: a friend wrote me that at a reading in DC “she knew how to hold the room [and] answered questions, no matter how left-field, with insight and nuance”; in interviews she comes across as articulate, funny, and candid; and she is, as I write this, reading her throat raw recording the audio edition of her book. So if she does have any trepidation about publication, I suspect it’s for other, less obvious reasons.
It is an unavoidably fraught business, relinquishing a book you’ve been working on for years to the judgment of the public, even more so if your material is your own life. If I were to pick up a book by an NPR personality, I would not be expecting what you’ll find in Transient and Strange: it is intimate, literary, and serious. It’s not a collection of science essays like Lewis Thomas’s or Stephen Jay Gould’s, but personal essays intertwined with science, as inextricably as science is intertwined through all our lives, through matters of birth and sex and life and death. Nell writes about trying to assuage her children’s fear of tornadoes while knowing that disasters are in fact coming that she can’t protect them from; about being hit on as a 12-year-old girl by an older guy and the creepy etymology of the term “black hole”; about the history of eugenics as refracted through the medical and ethical ordeal of trying to ensure that her own children won’t inherit a genetic kidney defect. Nell is pretty phlegmatic about exposing herself in her work (when I asked her permission to write about some confidential or delicate detail, she finally decided: “Oh who cares. We’ll all be dead someday”), but I can only imagine she must feel discomfitingly naked in these pages, or at seeing her husband and children mentioned in reviews.
But her book’s imminent release has also had another, unexpected effect. Since advance copies have become available, colleagues, friends and acquaintances who’ve read it keep approaching Nell with a kind of perplexed and tender awe. A friend’s husband, seeing her at a Christmas party, immediately gushed, “Nell—WTF?” and embraced her “like a soul mate” —as if to say: Who is this sensitive sentimental person you’ve secretly been this whole time? I can imagine that, to people who don’t know her well, Nell’s demeanor might seem daunting, even intimidating, so for them this book must come as a revelation. Like a lot of writers, Nell often feels at an involuntary remove from other people, like a researcher observing subjects from behind one-way glass, which can be an advantage as an artist, but is isolating and sad for a human being. So this breaching of that barrier comes like the touch of a finger through an air hole.
I recognize this experience from my own writing career: my sister told me she’d learned more about me from reading my first book than she had from being my sister for forty years. It’s awkward to be caught confiding things to strangers that you never got around to mentioning to your own family—and I’m not sure whether it’s more awkward talking to strangers who now think they know everything about you, or to your family, who realize that they don’t. It feels both exhibitionistic and like a betrayal. Of course it’s easier to tell you some things, reader, the same way it’s easier to tell them to a stranger in a bar, because—no offense—I have nothing to lose with you. And it’s different for a writers to tell the truth to readers than to people in their own lives, because it’s in a professional context, like someone who would not normally go about shooting total strangers doing so because he’s a soldier. It’s the job.
Maybe because I write about my own life, I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with readers. Of course, like most ambitious artists, I was always covetous of fame, but once I actually attained some modest renown, I affected to be dismissive of the attention that I (as opposed to my work) received. I felt as if, by focusing on me as a person, readers fundamentally misunderstood what I was trying to do. My writing wasn’t supposed to be about me, but about them; it’s like when you’re pointing at something for a dog and it just stares at your finger. They’d already gotten the best aspect of me in my work; it was a fallacy to imagine that there’s more of the same to be found in the real-life person of me. (Which is why I’ve never quite understood people’s plaints about writers or other artists turning out to be imperfect, even terrible people.) So my attitude was partly the reflexive contempt you feel toward anyone gullible enough to admire you (cf. the aphorisms of Nietzsche and Marx), partly a protective recoiling from their somewhat valid/somewhat delusional presumption that they knew me. And some of it was an ascetic impulse to quash my own embarrassing greed for attention, no different from an Instagram influencer’s or Donald Trump’s. I had to not to care at all to keep from caring too much.
Whenever I felt sorry for myself because my books were never featured on the display tables of bookstores, I’d turn to the consolation of posterity: Okay, so maybe my books were not exactly bestsellers, and I never won any literary awards, but someday people will recognize my talent. This seems silly and misguided now, like pretending it doesn’t matter that your life sucks because you know you’re going to Heaven. For one thing, it won’t matter to me; I’ll be dead. Ovid and Seneca don’t care that I’m reading their work. And those future readers are purely imaginary, or at least hypothetical (and if we as a species really screw things up, they may never exist at all). And anyway, why would I imagine that people a century or millennium from now will be any wiser or more discerning than the ones currently awarding stars on Goodreads? There is no ideal audience, no council of elders to adjudicate literary quality; it’s just us. The only people you’ll ever really be able to connect with are the ones who are here now, enjoying their one brief chance to be alive alongside you.
In defending myself against that corrosive attention, I was also denying myself something vital. In the same way that I sometimes wish I’d paid more attention during the Obama years, appreciated what we had while we had it, I now wish I’d been less guarded in my interactions with readers. Because, it turns out, this may have been the part of writing a book that mattered the most. When I saw Ray Bradbury speak—one of my own favorite writers as a young reader—he told us that, when he was a teenager, he’d sent a crazed fan letter to Hal Foster, creator of the comic strip Prince Valiant. By way of thank-you note, Foster sent young Ray a whole page of his original art (a page that would now go at auction for the cost of a new car). “I wrote him to say, ‘I love you,’ and he wrote back and said, ‘I love you too,’” Bradbury concluded. “Write the people whose work you love and tell ‘em you love them!” he commanded. The best consequence of having written my books has been the people it’s brought into my life—writers I’ve long admired who are now correspondents, students who’ve graduated to become colleagues and friends, strangers I came to know and, sometimes, to love. You beam your feeble radio signals out into the abyss and then, one morning, years later, the skies are full of starships.
My partner is a writer, too, but you’ve never read anything by her because she’s not particularly interested in publishing. She writes, she says, in order to think; she’s so constantly harried by running a business that she cherishes the chance to sit and untangle her inchoate thoughts, trace their patterns, and follow them to their ends. It is, I think, a purer, saner motive than mine. But most people who write for publication are not entirely healthy; we’re afflicted with an insatiable craving for the validation of strangers. But my partner’s former husband, a musician, also told her that the creative process really isn’t complete until you’ve shared your work with others. Which, for the kinds of people who prefer to spend hundreds of hours alone in a room toying with their own ideas, can be a nerve-racking ordeal. But there’s a crucial difference between the need to be paid attention to and the desire to connect—it’s the difference between trying to one-up someone else’s story and telling one of your own to commiserate, to empathize; between saying Look at me, everybody and You’re not the only one.
All the self-promotional bullshit that Nell and I and every other writer acquiesces to is just the crass commercial means to an authentic human end; it’s what the recording industry is to music, what taxes are to a civil society. At the end of this month I’m going to see Nell give a reading in New York City, at the swank and mysterious Cosmopolitan Club. I’m very much looking forward to this event—to being not up at the podium but out in the audience, not only as Nell’s friend and colleague but an admirer, a fan. Just another reader, out there in the dark.
Constellation, Nick Hobbs, 2022
For the record, I have never read one of this writer’s books and have no opinion of their quality.