By Robin Lippincott
Spalding MFA Fiction Faculty
Why is it that so many people expect writers to be raconteurs? Have you noticed this? I’ve never understood it, and have come to resent it; I don’t see what one thing necessarily has to do with the other. Taken to its logical conclusion, it implies that oral storytelling and writing are interchangeable, and they’re not, not at all (see John Berger and Susan Sontag in a fascinating discussion of this very thing, among many other things: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PcJR5MWrzc).
One of the reasons I write, as many other, better-known writers than me have said (Joan Didion and Flannery O’Connor, for example), is because I don’t feel very articulate verbally; astonishingly, John Berger says the exact same thing in the aforementioned discussion. I say “astonishingly” because I think of Berger (and Didion, and O’Connor) as such great, articulate writers; but of course writing is not talking (and vice-versa), which precisely underscores my point. With writing we have time to think about what we want to express and how we want to express it; and of course, we can revise.
No one should sit down next to a writer expecting him or her to be a performing seal of conversation. And yet increasingly, it seems that we writers are expected, from one source or another, to be just that, forever flapping our flippers, particularly when it comes to promoting our work. And if publishers have their way, we’re supposed to keep a blog now, too, and to tweet, to be always spewing forth something new. At a time when public discourse is saturated (some would say polluted) with so much verbiage, why can’t we, why shouldn’t we, keep our best, most thoughtful words for our literary work?
I’ve long been bothered by a story told to me by a mentor in the MFA program where I got my degree: what I took from it was not at all what she intended. She (the mentor) made some blanket statement about the most intelligent and interesting writers being the dullest dinner companions, then proceeded to tell a story about being seated next to a well-known writer at some function or another, and about how boring the writer was. But isn’t it possible that the well-known writer was shy, or having a bad day, or preoccupied? Or, maybe the writer didn’t particularly care for the person seated next to her? Perhaps the writer resented the expectation to perform, and refused to put on a show.
Yes, it is true that some writers are also great, entertaining talkers. Truman Capote comes to mind. Also, Virginia Woolf is said to have been a great conversationalist. And there was Gore Vidal, who spoke of conversation as an art form. But it shouldn’t be expected of us.
Listen to (or watch) most interviews with Joan Didion (again, for example—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2I9b9kJN-s), and what you’ll witness are multiple pauses, a lot of uhhs and hmms, coupled with some stuttering, some nervous giggling, and a modicum of bold, beautiful silence.
In a famously contentious interview, the ill-prepared journalist Christopher Lydon questioned Susan Sontag on the occasion of the publication of her novel, The Volcano Lover (here’s a clip; the original interview was much longer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Mmi03G5oV0).
“What is your hope for left-wing politics?” he asks late in the interview.
Obviously chagrined (after an hour of this sort of thing), Sontag responds that she can’t possibly answer such a question on the spot, that she doesn’t have sound bites: “I’d have to go off in a corner and think for three days before I could answer such a question. I don’t have answers like that at the tip of my tongue.”
Down with sound bites!
Robin Lippincott’s most recent book is Blue Territory: A Meditation on the Life and Art of Joan Mitchell (2015). His previous books include the novels In the Meantime, Our Arcadia, Mr. Dalloway, and the short story collection The ‘I’ Rejected. Forthcoming in May is Rufus + Syd, a novel for young adults co-written with Spalding MFA grad Julia Watts.