Self-Portrait of the Artist

‘I imagined that my having written a novel about weight and food issues meant that I owed journalists the lowdown on my private diet and exercise habits. Wrong’

I haven’t the faintest interest in the private lives of authors I don’t know personally, even those whose novels I adore. In fact, the less I know the better. (Real people are so disappointing.) My near-total indifference to where they went to school, what their favourite colour is, and what they eat for breakfast extends to musicians, actors, film directors, and visual artists. Call me a materialist, but I want product. 

A purist of sorts, I don’t want that product contaminated even by its source of inspiration. Whether a character is based on someone in the author’s life doesn’t matter to me a jot; I care only that the character lives on the page. With fiction, extraneous information about the writer’s antagonism with his mother simply interferes with the imaginary universe into which I wish to enter as innocently as possible.

Consequently, I’ve no understanding of why anyone would want to read articles published in baffling quantity: profiles of me.

Critics are divided on the importance of literary biography (obviously I don’t read books about F. Scott Fitzgerald, either). But let’s put aside examination of the late-great. Contemporary poking into the private affairs of live writers is less motivated by an august, academic desire to better explore a complex, culturally significant text, and more driven by a lower-rent nosiness, voyeurism, and appetite for celebrity gossip.

Publicists are keen to promote authors as well as their books, and in having capitulated to pressure to give any number of interviews I’ve been a hypocrite. Should I continue to have no integrity whatsoever, as seems saddeningly likely, I will keep giving interviews. But I reject the authorial profile in principle. It’s hard enough to write a decent novel without also having to craft a whole other character outside the book, Your Author, like a tie-in promotional T-shirt. 

In times past, writers were shabbily dressed, shadowy types surrounded by dirty coffee cups and highballs with sticky residues of evaporated whisky. It was taken as a given that they were probably homely and shy. They didn’t do photo-shoots.

But writers these days are expected to fashion themselves into yet another product for consumption. Women should be fetching; men should either cut a dashing figure or sport a craggy, harrowing visage. Most of all, both sexes are obliged to be, in and of themselves, interesting.

I think the book has to be interesting. Which should free the author to be a big bore. And you know what? I am very, very boring. Take a step back, and virtually nothing about my life merits a second glance. My family is middle-class. I grew up in the American South, but moved to New York and never looked back — dead standard. Then I moved to the UK. So have lots of people. I write novels, but that’s my job, and plenty of other folks work hard and well at their jobs without giving interviews about it.

Since I apparently have no right to be dull, my most trifling eccentricities have been trotted out to justify the profiling of this secretly dull person. What is embarrassing is not the details themselves; I’m not ashamed of rarely turning on the central heating, since the future in this country belongs to those who padlock the thermostat set to 5 degrees C. What’s embarrassing is any implication that I think these details are interesting.

I cheerfully concede that much of the rubbish about Shriver strewn about the web is all my fault. I’m naturally forthcoming (read: an idiot), and continually forget when sitting down with a pleasant, personable journalist that potentially millions of people are eavesdropping on our conversation. Early in my current book release, I imagined that my having written a novel about weight and food issues meant that I necessarily owed journalists the lowdown on my private diet and exercise habits. Wrong. By the same logic, my previous novel about the perils of American healthcare would have required me to turn over my medical records to the Daily Mail.

Surely all this artistically immaterial fascination with the private lives of creators and performers might be more productively aimed at friends, neighbours, and co-workers rather than at media-generated distortions of total strangers. Then if inquisitiveness about their assets, spending habits, and dietary proclivities seems intrusive and rude, we can appreciate how anyone in the papers might find the same prying equally uncool. Moreover, people whom we know want us to be interested in them, and take healthy curiosity about where they went to school and their favourite colour as a compliment.

Why not wonder about the background of that elderly gentleman across the road, to whom you’ve never thought to talk? Don’t waste that curiosity on me.

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