Writers Talk About Writing
Causes of Writing Death: Narcissism
Recently I wrote here about trivial purposeful falsity, TPF for short, a major cause of writing death. Here's another: narcissism.
To show how narcissism kills writing is a tricky business, for we could call all writing narcissistic. Writing is born when an "I," a unique human being, marks a medium with words to say whatever he or she wants to say. Every word and phrasing choice reveals something about who the writer is. Being human, each writer is so vast an entity that we can never describe that self fully, but when we read, we do sense a spirit like and unlike ourselves behind the words. Since writing can convey the self to other humans, many (if not all) writers feel their impulse to write strongly connected to their impulse to communicate their selves, their "I," to the readers they hope for.
Readers, however, are often too wrapped up in their own affairs to listen to those hopeful "I"'s calling from desks lost in the wilderness. Writers often feel they must shout through their words, "Listen! What I have to say is important! Listen to me, me, me!" to succeed in catching and holding a reader's attention. Writing is a medium, we do not meet the writer face-to-face, so a flamboyant, confident style can help a writer propel his or her "I" through the medium and into the "I" of the reader.
We must therefore set a high test for what constitutes narcissism in writing. Is Laurence Sterne narcissistic? Semi-disguised under the name Tristram Shandy, Sterne prances upon his page assuming that we'll follow his galloping hobby horse through whatever quirk of life and letters he finds fascinating. Yet I find Sterne a generous, modest writer, far more concerned that we love his sublimely innocent Uncle Toby than that we admire the "I" of Tristram Shandy. Lesser writers may not be able to make egotism so interesting, but if scribbling on their pads makes them happy, no harm is done.
On the other hand, readers will not allow any one "I" to dominate the medium. Let's make an analogy with speech. Conversation in all languages has age-old rules and guidelines to ensure the communication remains a two-way street, both speakers talking, both listening, both responding to each other about a subject of common interest. That subject can be one speaker's self, and often is, but the speakers can also talk, and often do, about something other than themselves, be it music, literature, the weather, politics, or a brand new movie. Good conversation blends speech from both parties an easygoing flow: at times we assert ourselves, at times we defer. When discussing a movie, we sometimes talk about the acting or story objectively; at others we admit to frankly personal reactions: "When she grabbed the knife, I screamed!"
It may seem as we read that the writer "I" is doing all the talking, yet any writer who wants his or her work to live will, by a variety of subtle means, welcome readers to the conversation. Good writers pace their prose, setting the length of a scene, a stretch of dialogue or digression, to match what they expertly gauge will be the pace of the reader's interest. They draw the reader to their side by sharing observations, jokes, and intimate expressions of fellow feeling. When a writer does try to do all the talking, we readers resent it just as we resent a speaker who tries to hog the conversation.
That's what I call narcissistic writing, and here's an example: the writing of the late William F. Buckley. "I"'s crop up inevitably in any first person narrative, but Buckley often pushes his "I" to the fore one, two, and three times a line:
So I assembled most of the crew. This time I would take her to Mexico. During that trip I decided on its completion I would experiment with a crewless boat. I would cut expenses...
After a run of "I"'s like that, a good writer might find a way to put himself second in an upcoming sentence, for instance:
Reggie and I talked about it on the Mexican trip.
Not Buckley! His "I" must lead, must dictate:
I talked to Reggie about it during the Mexican trip.
—and his crew had better enjoy being dictated to:
"...At what time do we meet at my suite, Tony? Very good, Tony. 7 pm is not 7:30 pm, is it Reggie?" Of course, when you say things in that tone of voice, it pays to make the schoolmasterliness hyperbolic, in which case it is accepted in good humor. I mean, accepted in good humor by the kind of people I sail with, who are all splendid, having in common their recognition of my unique qualities.
Page after page this "I" marches by the reader in pompous parade. Buckley makes sure we know "I" is no ordinary fellow. He's an American aristocrat, pampered as a child, wealthy all his life, though he proudly relates his penny pinching:
...I had undertaken to provision the wine cellar of the Sealestial. This is a very serious business. On the one hand, money is very definitely a consideration. Anyone can provision a wine cellar successfully by averaging ten or fifteen dollars per bottle. My aim was to average $3.50 per bottle, and I can report that superb wines were drunk for twenty-nine days...
"I" has intimate suppers with Charlie Chaplin. Beside his yacht and his houses in Connecticut and New York, he has a house in Switzerland, "(which is where I write my books)"—the parentheses stand like castle walls to exclude the reader from "I"'s privileged precincts. Even when Buckley's "I" writes about God, he insists on center stage. After starting a book titled "Why I Am Still a Catholic"—
I came disconsolately to a decision to abandon the project...despairing over the reading and studying I wished to do and had no time to schedule. I returned the publisher his advance payment, put away the copious notes I had taken, filed away the only chapter I had actually written (it survives, slightly altered, as the opening chapter of this book), and then proceeded to feel lousy about my capitulation. The reason for this you can probably guess: I felt I owed something to God.
Speaking as one reader "you," no, I hadn't guessed why Buckley felt he owed something to God—his pompous "I" parade had already so bored me that I didn't care enough to guess!
Narcissistic writing bores readers because narcissistic authors love themselves more than their readers. They don't write, they preen; instead of holding a mirror up to nature, they hold a mirror up to themselves. Under all their prose, whatever its apparent subject or argument, runs a monotonous subtext: "Look at me, aren't I wonderful?" This self-centered pose may charm readers who, like Buckley's crew, find it good politics to laugh at the wealthy captain's jokes. Yet time does not favor the fatuous, and soon enough narcissistic writing smirks its final smirk and rests in peace forever, the willing victim of its own self-absorption.