Do you think writers are boats, whales, or flying fishes?
Anyway, be it speaking of murky waters, of nights, of plunges, all agree to say that the text to come is a crossing. John Keats, in one of his letters, revisited by Jane Campion, for her film Bright Star, speaks of the poem as a lake. The poet tells us that his job is to luxuriate in the sensation of water. For Faulkner, to write is to rub shoulders with the flow of life and stop it by artificial means of words. Julien Gracq, following in the footsteps of a novel he saw as a glimmer, gropes his way into the night.
In addition to the solitary and unknown dimension of the literary enterprise, these testimonies also tell us that when he/she works, the writer is invisible. He/she forms with his/her work an ephemeral world whose entire universe is excluded. And the black box in which the writer is immersed is often large enough for him/her to stay there for many years. Between two and ten years, Annie Dillard tells us in The Writing Life. (She adds, a little further, “Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a serious book in a year,” quoting Faulkner—and As I lay dying—as an exception to the rule.)
When he/she finally manages to give an autonomous form to his/her obsession, and this form resembles a more or less presentable text, which others then agree to print, the whale writer emerges. We see him/her in newspapers, on TV, we hear him/her on the radio. He/she sells, he/she sells himself. In meetings, readings, book signing sessions, shows, etc. It’s effervescence. He/she becomes a boat, floating on the surface. Everything is smooth, under control. He/she comments, talks about his/her book (as if his/her words were silent). In short, he/she exists socially as a writer. As a result, and since he has a function, he/she earns money.
But in a world of publishing that focuses on overabundance (77,986 new titles in France in 2016), and where, as a result, helped by a saturated media space, the gap between star writers and others only enlarges, this money is peculiar. It is not so much the result of the writer’s writing, but rather remuneration for his/her activities as a traveling sales(wo)man.
Indeed, as far as I am allowed to evacuate the writers (who are counted on the fingers of the hand) whose smiles we see on billboards in the subways, the writer, in the 21st century, does not live thanks to the sale of his/her books, but thanks to activities that derive from the release of it. What is expected of the writer, beyond the lighting, all in all anecdotal, that he/she is supposed to bring about his/her work, is to embody and to perpetuate the image that society has of the writer. This mysterious being, a little superhuman, preferably hysterical…
The book is no more than a pretext legitimizing, on the one hand, a society that hates art (tolerated, marginalized, sprinkled with subsidy—an entirely democratic approach) and, on the other hand, the productivist totalitarianism of this society (‘we need words and paper, more words, tons of paper!’). For the writer, the advantage is symbolic. The printed book covers in the bookshops windows, on the small posters hanging on the library’s walls, make disappear the eyes that see the writer as a social parasite.
But unfortunately for his/her wallet, this parade period, out of the water, does not last. First, because the tense flow of information quickly replaces him/her with another novelty, and secondly because, do not forget, this time is a holiday time for the writer. (He/she is paid for his/her non-work, so to speak.) It is a time without writing (because of phone calls, speeches, photo shoots) and often without this space of internal fallow within which something is written in him/her (see my previous article). So, the writer is in a hurry to dive again, to make the renewed experience of the lake of which Yeats speaks. He/she is in a hurry to return to the fascinating wildness of the depths.
Embracing, once again, the routine invisibility of work, the writer moves away, at the same time, from paid-to-task events (readings, writing workshops, lectures, meetings, etc.). At a time when the balance of power between publishers and writers is more unbalanced than ever before, and advances beautiful chimeras for the most part, it also means cutting off livelihoods yet rare, and to extract oneself by the same occasion of a harsh cultural environment whose rules of admission and retention often have no correlation with the quality of the work itself.
The writer is, therefore, faced with a dilemma that can only be overcome by turning into a flying fish. Embracing the polymorphism. Taking advantage of any solicitation to link it to his/her inner obsessions. Accepting several different temporalities. Coexisting in different environments. But also, being aware of predators: Avoiding the bream of despair that lurk under the water, and the frigate bird of success that opens its beak, to better close it afterwards.