The truth is that what writers do—the important part—is pretty boringby Sam Leith / October 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
What is it that writers actually do? According to the movies, I mean. It’s a question sometimes asked of mathematicians (wander around looking into the middle-distance, apparently, before frantically scrawling equations onto a blackboard), often of scientists (white coats, test tubes, incomprehensible computer displays); frequently of special forces soldiers and spies (shoot stuff; grunt with pain; sleep with attractive women), and surprisingly often—usually unsatisfactorily—of authors and novelists.
I ask because I’ve been chortling my way through season two of the Dominic West drama The Affair. Our hero plays a failed novelist who suddenly hits the big time with an overheated semi-autobiographical novel based on his extra-marital bunk-up with Ruth Wilson. How do we know he’s a writer?
Because—when unsuccessful—he stares at his laptop in a tormented way and resents his successful and obnoxious father-in-law (to the extent that he’s faint with glee when a Vanity Fair profile of the old sod insinuates he doesn’t write his own books); and when it’s going well he’s tapping away (never seeming to use the “g” or “h” keys, oddly) unconscious of what’s around him, before embarking on a never-ending book tour where he behaves with egomaniacal boorishness. It’s all making passes at publicists, drinks with Franzen, adoring young girls passing him their numbers and his taking drunken swings at the authors of bad reviews.
If you were to parcel up every big-screen stereotype of the male writer—drunk, lecherous, violent, intolerably self-obsessed—it’s all there. That said, a couple of moments hit home. One saw him forlornly toting his laptop round a new-age wellness retreat, desperately trying to find a single bench uncolonised by naked hippies playing the pan-pipes. (Substitute Costa Coffee, the British Library or your house for “wellness retreat” and chattering mothers or kids on Tinder for “naked hippies” you’d be about there.) Another had him, without a flicker of self-knowledge, asking his ex-wife to reassure him that his novel—which was based on the story of his dumping her for a young waitress—was good.
But how long does he spend dicking around on Twitter? How much time checking his sales ranking on Amazon? How much time does he spend trying to figure out how to register for PLR and ACLS online? How much time making cups of tea and “getting ready to start”? How much time wrestling with a badly-behaved HP printer or trying to paste together the sections of a manuscript without borking the formatting? The truth is that what writers do—the important part—is pretty boring. They apply the seats of their trousers to the seats of their chairs, and they sit at a screen, or scrawl away on a sheet of paper… and they do that over and over again for many months. Then they do it again. And again. And again.
In fact, tippety-tappety typewriters is—as far as the process goes—pretty much the best Hollywood can manage. I’m thinking equally, for instance, of the jaunty opening credits of Murder, She Wrote, and of the less-than-jaunty tippety-tappety of The Shining. That was, in terms of interest, the golden age of writers on screen. Now we have laptops, there isn’t even the percussive sound of the keys or the occasional carriage return to break the monotony. Blocked writers—more significant, probably, on screen than in real life—distinguish themselves by tearing perfectly good bits of paper out of the top of their typewriters and hurling them angrily aside.
So, even as the best actors on earth are drafted in to play them, the main portrayals of writers on screen are more interested in showing them in bed, drinking or going mad than in doing what they do. We’ve had Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy Parker, Mickey Rourke as Charles Bukowski, James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, Gary Oldman as Joe Orton, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare, Kate Winslet as Iris Murdoch, Johnny Depp as Hunter S Thompson, Robert Redford as Bill Bryson and Peter Weller as Burroughs. Notice any themes emerging? I was going to say: if only it were usually that exciting. But then I think: thank heavens it’s not.