Must Writers (or Historians) Be Public Figures?

In today’s New York Times Jennifer Finney Boylan asks whether today’s writers can get away with staying out of the public eye.

In contemporary America, a writer’s life is more than just the endless, thankless task of writing itself, which E. B. White is said to have called “hard work and bad for the health.” There is also the humiliating, cringe-inducing necessity of becoming a public person, of book tours and radio interviews and, if you’re extremely lucky (as I was), a trip to Oprah’s couch (or in my case, four).

J.D. Salinger loved to write, but he seems to have had little interest in audience.

“There is a marvelous peace in not publishing,” Mr. Salinger told The Times in 1974. “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy…. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure…

In “The Catcher in the Rye,” Holden Caulfield famously observes, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours.” What was sad and strange about J. D. Salinger is not that he didn’t want to be our terrific friend. It’s that, at the pinnacle of his fame, he yearned for the very thing many writers fear most — a world without readers.

I can’t fathom a writer today thinking like this. We are all to some degree narcissistic. We check our Amazon ratings, we blog about our work, and we hope that others are reading or assigning our texts.

As Boylan puts it:

When J. D. Salinger disappeared, invisibility was still a perfectly viable — if enigmatic — way to be a successful literary figure in America. But now that the desperate economics of publishing more or less demand that “public relations” become part of a writer’s professional toolkit, being a recluse is a harder stunt to pull off. In order to sustain their careers, plenty of shy, awkward authors — people who chose this profession for the very reason that it’s fundamentally a private activity — have sacrificed their solitude for Web sites, blogs, Twitter accounts and videos of themselves on YouTube.

But Boylan actually has a different take on the narcissism question. It is the writer who does not care about his or her readers, she argues, who is the self-indulgent one:

As a teacher of writing, I frequently hear young authors echo Mr. Salinger’s words, that they’re writing primarily to satisfy themselves. It’s hard to disagree with that on the surface; writing can be great fun. But to create fiction — or nonfiction, for that matter — without any thought of a reader seems creepy to me, the ultimate exercise in self-indulgence.

I’ve always thought of encountering readers — of having any readers at all — as an unbelievable gift. Giving lectures, signing books, sitting hopefully behind a table at a bookstore in Wichita Falls: these rituals may be humbling, but I’ve never forgotten the fact that thousands of unpublished writers in this country would give anything to be humiliated in exactly this way. Of all the mortifications to be found in an author’s life, probably none hurts as much as the kind you get from not being able to share your work with another soul.

I think I agree.