Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 24th, 2014

The autograph man

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Thomas Pynchon

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “Do you have anybody’s autograph?”

Last weekend, I took part in a local authors program sponsored by the Oak Park Public Library, in which writers from the area were given three minutes each to talk about their work and then hopefully make a few sales. I had a good time and I sold a bunch of copies, which is always a plus. Yet whenever I do an event like this, I’m brought up against the fundamental awkwardness of the interaction when I’m asked to sign a book. For one thing, I can never come up with anything clever to say in the inscription, so I end up scrawling something like “Enjoy!” or “Best wishes!” even to my own family members. (I’ve also realized that when you’re signing all three copies of a trilogy, the buyer starts to get a little impatient by the time you’ve begun dating, inscribing, and signing the third book.) And while I’m always gratified by sales and attention—especially sales—I usually feel like a nocturnal creature that has been dragged, blinking, into the daylight. I became a writer partially because I like hanging out on my own, absorbed in a draft or a pile of research materials, and whenever I’m compelled to be out in the world, it’s as if I’m engaging in a kind of elaborate impersonation.

I assume, though I don’t know for sure, that a lot of other writers feel the same way, even as they’re asked to invest increasing amounts of time in creating a public life that has little in common with what they do for a living. These days, it’s taken for granted that writers will promote themselves with any and all means at their disposal, to the point where even an ordinary desire for privacy starts to seem outré. Here’s the thing about Thomas Pynchon: it’s fun to talk about his “reclusiveness,” as if he were an elusive cryptid like Bigfoot, but by all accounts, he’s an ordinary guy living in New York, with an active social life and a diverse circle of friends. He just doesn’t feel like giving interviews or having his picture published, and that perfectly reasonable stance is so out of line with our expectations that it becomes newsworthy in itself. I’ve always liked what the critic Arthur Salm had to say on the subject:

The man simply chooses not to be a public figure, an attitude that resonates on a frequency so out of phase with that of the prevailing culture that if Pynchon and Paris Hilton were ever to meet—the circumstances, I admit, are beyond imagining—the resulting matter/antimatter explosion would vaporize everything from here to Tau Ceti IV.

Walter Murch's autograph

It’s possible, of course, that certain authors would love to be public figures, if only they’d get the chance. Yet it’s revealing that when we think of the novelist as a celebrity, our minds go back to Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal feuding on The Dick Cavett Show, and the pool of memories dries up the closer we get to the present. Occasionally, a writer famous for fiction will start to assume a role of greater social importance, but it’s almost always at the expense of his or her work as a novelist: Arundhati Roy hasn’t published a novel in seventeen years. That’s the strange thing about the push toward ever greater levels of exposure: even as writers share more and more of themselves on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs like this, their real role in public life—at least for novelists—grows progressively marginalized. In that light, the aggressive presence of authors on social media feels less like self-promotion than a simulation of the cultural role writers no longer possess, if they ever really did. (And it’s also clear that the skill sets required to write a novel and curate a decent Twitter feed have about as much in common as writing and public speaking, which is to say, next to nothing.)

Deep down, I feel much the same way about readings and signings, which are moments when writers can play at being famous in ways that they haven’t experienced—or are spared from—otherwise. (Obviously, this doesn’t include celebrities who were already famous before their books were published: Lena Dunham’s book tour has about as much in common with your average reading as Cirque du Soleil does with a local black box theater’s production of Hedda Gabler.) If it sounds like I’m overthinking it, well, I probably am. But it doesn’t prevent me from feeling a little uncomfortable whenever I find myself in that kind of encounter, regardless of which side of the autograph table I’m on. The only person I’ve ever asked for an autograph is Walter Murch, and the fact that he was a perfect gentleman about it didn’t make our few seconds of small talk any less awkward. Luckily, that moment occupies only a tiny sliver of the mental real estate devoted to his movies, books, and interviews. To the extent that I feel I know Murch, or anyone, it has less to do with the handshake we shared than with all the time I’ve spent in his virtual company, when neither of us was playing a role, and we were far enough apart for at least one of us to really say something, even if the conversation only ran in one direction.

Written by nevalalee

October 24, 2014 at 9:53 am

Quote of the Day

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Illustration from Gray's Anatomy

A prefatory glow, not unlike some benign variety of the aura before an epileptic attack, is something the artist learns to perceive very early in life. This feeling of tickly well-being branches through him like the red and the blue in the picture of a skinned man under Circulation.

Vladimir Nabokov, on inspiration

Written by nevalalee

October 24, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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