Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Introvert-in-Chief

with 2 comments

Most writers, it’s safe to say, are introverts. Outsized figures like Hemingway and Mailer may be the first that come to mind when we picture what a novelist looks like, but in reality, this is a profession that turns away more extroverts than it draws—and for good reason. It’s solitary, introspective, predicated on long hours spent working without human contact, and while it’s never exactly easy, it’s much less difficult when your temperament naturally tends in that direction. For every major novelist like Hemingway, whose outer life was as eventful as his fiction, there are hundreds more whose personality finds its full expression only in their work—and also countless extroverts, whose lives might provide the material for fascinating fiction, who lack the inclination to sit down in a room and write about it, which is a real loss.

The situation isn’t surprising, but it’s also unfortunate, for both writers and readers. On the reader’s side, it means that the subject matter of many novels can seem oddly constrained: countless books, both good and bad, are written about professions that tend to draw introverts—often because the authors themselves have rarely done anything beyond writing and teaching—and relatively few about the ways of life that introverts prefer to avoid. Mailer once wished that he could read a major novel written by a professional football player, and I know what he meant. Serious fiction all too often explores only a subset of what it means to be human, and while novelists have made brave attempts to move outside that comfort zone, the result often has the feel of excellent reportage, rather than something experienced from the inside. And one of the greatest challenges for introverted novelists is the expansion of the range of emotions they are willing to engage in their work.

On a more practical level, introversion can also be a problem when it comes to the dirty business of publishing and promotion. Novelists don’t work in a vacuum: once published, they’re obliged to live in a world of agents, editors, critics, and above all readers, and the transition can come as a real shock. As I’ve said before, in order to write a publishable novel, a writer spends years attaining a skill set geared toward solitary, laborious work, and then is expected to suddenly acquire all the opposite strengths once his novel is out in stores. In my case, I’ve found that I’m fine with more formal promotional activities—I enjoy panels, interviews, and readings—but I’m often at sea when it comes to less structured interactions. I suspect that many writers would say the same thing: they may do well from behind a lectern, but throw them into a crowded room, and they’ll head at once for the bar.

But if we want an example of an introvert who has essentially willed himself into functioning in the larger world, we don’t need to look far. I started thinking about this after reading Andrew Sullivan’s recent post on President Obama, whom he characterizes, echoing John Heilemann, as that ultimate rarity: an introvert at the highest level of politics. Sullivan, who describes himself as “an introvert with good communications skills,” says that this helps explain his “visceral affinity” for Obama, and I can only second that feeling. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Obama once considered becoming a novelist, and you can see this reflected in his public persona, which resembles that of the writers I’ve described above: he’s at his best behind a podium, and notoriously less comfortable with schmoozing and glad-handing. And that’s why I can’t help liking him. He’s one of us.

Written by nevalalee

September 13, 2012 at 9:57 am

2 Responses

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  1. As a fellow introvert, I thoroughly enjoyed this article. It brought many things I had never thought of to light. And I’m happy about Obama, too.


    September 13, 2012 at 11:11 am

  2. Thanks—glad you liked it!


    September 13, 2012 at 9:43 pm

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