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Is Self-Loathing a Requirement for Writers?

Wednesday 17 June 2015

JUNE 16, 2015

Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. “Self-loathing is the engine; fame is the fuel,” Karl Ove Knausgaard has said. This week, Thomas Mallon and Anna Holmes discuss the role of self-hatred in creativity.

By Thomas Mallon

The I’ll-show-them urge runs conspicuously hot in authorial lives and legend.

One most often hears about the spur of self-hatred in stand-up comics, but writers do seem to be another high-risk group for this diagnosis, made most famously by George Orwell in his essay “Why I Write” (1946). Orwell indicates a clear awareness that self-loathing and self-love are locked in a tight, procreative embrace. The first writerly motivation he cites is “Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.”

Orwell does find this same appetite driving “the whole top crust of humanity,” from scientists to business people, but the I’ll-show-them urge runs conspicuously hot in authorial lives and legend. (When Byron, after the publication of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” “awoke to find myself famous,” he wasn’t unhappy about it.) Edmund Wilson once pondered different versions of the Philoctetes myth, in which the possessor of a foolproof shooting bow remains untouchable because of the smelly, unhealing wound to his foot; in André Gide’s dramatization of the subject, Wilson notes, Philoctetes “is, in fact, a literary man: at once a moralist and an artist, whose genius becomes purer and deeper in ratio to his isolation and outlawry.”

The aggrieved writer’s immortal longings represent, finally, a loathing not of the self but of the human condition, a desire to thwart the tragic fact of death. Writing has always offered a particularly good means of doing that. Books are extremely durable and, in their wide distribution, less vulnerable to toppling than most of Ozymandias’ works. Carefully wrought and revised, they can say exactly what the writer wishes — a special boon to the creature seeking to “get back his own.” The writer need never suffer from staircase wit; his books keep him forever in the room, striking his opponents dumb.

I gave a lot of thought to these motivational matters more than 30 years ago, when I wrote a book about personal journals and the reasons people keep them. My favorite diarist was, and remains, W. N. P. Barbellion (1889-1919), a pseudonym for the English naturalist Bruce Frederick Cummings, who spent his last years trying to stay ahead of a fatal disease until he could get his tumultuously yearning “Journal of a Disappointed Man” into print. Proclaiming himself “my own stupid Boswell, shrewd if silly,” he wrote: “I never cease to interest myself in the Gothic architecture of my own fantastic soul.” If he could just publish the diary, it would join all the other volumes in the library emitting an “almost audible susurrus of desire — the desire every book has to be taken down and read, to live, to come into being in somebody’s mind.”

In our time, a century after Barbellion’s death, more books appear each year than the year before, but fewer find an audience. The “susurrus” is now a loud self-publishing clamor, and few professions have suffered more of a comedown in public prestige than the writer’s. Most of the decline has been techno-­driven: First the web gave each person his own printing press, and then Twitter turned every self-professed writer into his own publicist. Old-style success, and even the paying of much attention, have become rare. The writer shoots his bow; the arrow lands wide of the mark in a thicket of other arrows; the author’s motivating wound keeps festering.

But some of the same rich entrepreneurs whose digital universe over­proliferated and humbled the printed word are now telling the writer who seeks immortality not to worry. A couple of months ago I ran across this promise from the PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel: “The great unfinished task of the modern world is to turn death from a fact of life into a problem to be solved — a problem towards whose solution I hope to contribute in whatever way I can.” There will be no need for vindication and survival through books; we’ll all just stick around forever, talking and talking and talking.

Thomas Mallon’s eight novels include “Henry and Clara,” “Bandbox,” “Fellow Travelers” and “Watergate,” a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He has also published nonfiction about plagiarism (“Stolen Words”), diaries (“A Book of One’s Own”), letters (“Yours Ever”) and the Kennedy assassination (“Mrs. Paine’s Garage”), as well as two books of essays. His work appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and other publications. A recipient of the Vursell prize of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, for distinguished prose style, he is currently professor of English at George Washington University.

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By Anna Holmes

Self-loathing is an understandable response to the unfairness and arbitrariness of the writing profession.

Although I don’t buy the idea that self-loathing is a requirement for writers — I know too many writers, particularly men, who hold themselves in perhaps higher esteem than they should — I do think that writing demands a certain amount of self-awareness, and that self-awareness and self-loathing can be two sides of the same coin.

But which comes first? I sometimes wonder whether writerly self-loathing is less a function of some sort of special insight or sensitivity to the human condition and more a painful acknowledgment that success in writing, as in so many other things, bears little relation to merit. After all, to be aware of the world in and around oneself, to notice ­differences and similarities, to recognize details and patterns — to be a writer — makes it difficult to ignore the fact that a fair bit of what undergirds success in publishing has as much to do with where that writer went to school, where he lives, with whom he socializes and, in some cases, how he looks, than his work ethic or prodigious gifts with words. In other words, I believe that self-loathing is a reasonable response to the unfairness and arbitrariness of the profession with which we’ve chosen to align ourselves.

My first real experience of self-­loathing as a writer occurred not during my leaner years, when getting published at all felt like an ordeal, but when I began to achieve some measure of success. Though I’d never had anything handed to me — not internships, not jobs, not professional connections or plum assignments — the more I accomplished professionally, the more aware I became of just how unmeritocratic the publishing industry could be; how so much about who sells books, and for what kind of advance, and to whom, is the result of privilege — educational, economic, racial, gendered. The fact that I’d carved out some small space in that world, I realized, probably had as much to do with luck and positioning as it did with talent.

The Internet, that great democratizer, only served to underscore this reality. As a onetime writer and editor for print, when I switched to digital media in 2007 I became even more conscious of the fact that the work of amateurs was often just as good, if not better, than that of their more richly compensated and ­higher-profile peers: Their arguments were often more rigorous, their ideas more original, their narratives more cohesive, their language more lucid. They were writing to be understood, not applauded. It didn’t so much matter to whom they were related, where they lived, what parties they went to or under whose boldface tutelage they labored; they were good, and anyone who was paying even a bit of attention knew it.

This is a good thing — a great thing, even. The ascendance of digital media and the demand for a constant churn of online content has generated some astoundingly sloppy writing and thinking, but it has also invigorated and complicated the marketplace of ideas in ways I never thought possible. Does the added competition for eyeballs, clicks, likes and accolades occasionally fill me with loathing, both for myself and the industry I happen to be in? Yes, of course. But I think it makes me a better writer, meaning: I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Anna Holmes is an award-winning writer who has contributed to numerous publications, including The Washington Post, Salon, Newsweek and The New Yorker online. She is the editor of two books: “Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters From the End of the Affair”; and “The Book of Jezebel,” based on the popular women’s website she created in 2007. She works as an editor at Fusion and lives in New York.

A version of this article appears in print on June 21, 2015, on page BR27 of the Sunday Book Review.

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