20 January 2014


My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

The season of literary festivals is once more upon us, we gather to watch as writers tell us what they write and why and when and how. It is our way of feeling closer to the authors whose works we have loved, of perhaps being closer to their art and, if they will allow us, their lives. It is time to peek, sometimes lovingly and at other times curiously, into the minds that craft our greatest escapes.

Fiction troubles us in ways that little else can – our paths mapped neatly, our histories quietly excavated, our private lives laid bare. Reading is like tossing the Excalibur into the enchanted lake – if you do it just right, you become lost in what was simply a reflection of yourself. It is like entering a looking-glass, only to find out it that it is a window. And so it is that we seek the creators of these worlds, to let them know how they have touched us, how they have killed us softly with their songs.

Not for everyone, though, is breaking the fourth wall a cathartic experience. Writers come from an ancestry of anonymity, their faces and personalities veiled from the people who read them. Shakespeare barely took the trouble to put his name to his works; women writers – George Eliot, the Brontes, J. K. Rowling – across centuries posed as men, never revealing their true identities; Emily Dickinson did not step outside her house for two decades; Marcel Proust confined himself to a darkened, soundproof room to compose his masterpiece; Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, J. D. Salinger, Harper Lee, recluses all, resented any invasion of their personal space. As readers, we so often forget that we, outside the lake, are as mysterious to the writers in the lake. The books they write connect us for those steely Excalibur moments, forging a quiet unspoken bond that feels too real to be imagined, but we for them are mythical beasts, their distant lovers and sometime friends.

“Scout, I think I'm beginning to understand something. I think I'm beginning to understand why Boo Radley's stayed shut up in the house all this time... it's because he wants to stay inside,” says Jem to Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Boo Radley, the reclusive and isolated neighbour of the book’s protagonists, withdraws from a society whose expectations he does not live up to, not unlike Harper Lee herself, who regularly refuses to make public appearances or give interviews, famously responding to an invitation to address a gathering in Alabama by saying, “Well, it's better to be silent than to be a fool.”

It is a difficult line to tread, knowing how to separate a work of art from its creator. A teacher tells Scout: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” These mockingbirds, these Boo Radleys and Harper Lees, they confound us, though, with the sheer magnificence of their song so that we cannot leave them alone to their art. How are we, as readers, to ignore the real and immediate accessibility that we suddenly have to our greatest writers?

As authors’ faces are routinely slapped on to book jackets, their wardrobes dissected and their faces scrutinised for hints about their lives, their art, their personalities, we find ways to love the artists as much as their art. Perhaps then the line we need to draw is not between the book and its writer, but between the writer and our expectations of her. The finely connected interstices between reader and writer can be enriching and self-actualizing so long as we do not impose upon them the sometimes demanding notions of writerliness that we have come to hold.

We love extroverts and charmers, the joker-faced behind the poker-faced. We love our brooders, but only when they routinely drag themselves, and their brooding personas, into the public eye. We want Fitzwilliam Darcys and Edward Rochesters cloaked in Colin Firths and Michael Fassbenders. We make columnists and speakers out of writers, engage with them as much as we engage with their craft, mine their words for hidden meaning. But for every Atticus Finch, who charms and amuses and wows us by turn, there will be a Boo Radley, who has no intention of doing so. As readers, we need to be able to toss the Excalibur with a deftness that does not ripple the surface of either. 

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