Last week I enjoyed a humorous moment at the expense of Lisa Scottoline and the New York Times, which had described her writing schedule (supposedly from 9 a.m. until 11.30 p.m. and two novels a year) as “brutal.” I pointed out that if Scottoline was an ill-paid hooker, her schedule would be brutal. As a pretty well-remunerated writer––even one who works long hours––she’s still spending her days on an intellectual pool chair.
No sooner had I zapped those musings into the ether, to be read and appreciated (or abused) by virtual millions, than I was faced with another example of journalistic/authorial victimhood. In a review of the vastly overrated Jonathan Franzen’s new book of essays, poor Jonathan is described as heading off to the South Pacific to do some bird-watching and to recharge his batteries after “a grueling, boring book tour.”
Oh, sure, it’s tough traveling around talking about yourself and your work and your intellectual interests to people who take the time to buy your books and read them and are still interested enough in you to want to hear your other thoughts. Book tours are neither boring nor gruelling. Climbing K2 is grueling. Reading Jonathan Franzen is boring.
If your book tour is boring, that’s because you or your book or both are boring. If it’s grueling, it’s because you lack the meditative quality that allows you to simply be where you are, doing what you’re doing (and therefore you get “bored” because you’d rather be back at your desk where you’re a “pure” artist, than, say, talking to lovely people about your books in Hamburg with the impure intention of getting them to buy more books.)
The second amusing aspect of this (for there is, as pseudo-intellectual Franzen might write, a stereographic plurality of meanings here) is that the Times highlights an essay by Franzen in which he tells a graduating class at Kenyon College to get their noses out of their social networking devices and experience the world. Somehow a book tour doesn’t represent the real world to him. The South Pacific does. But the fast-disappearing bookshops of America are merely boring and grueling.
As a former journalist, I understand that there’s a degree of what I call cliché-habit involved in the word choice here. Schedules have to be “brutal” and book tours are “grueling,” just as Saddam Hussein was always the “Iraqi strongman,” until we found out he wasn’t.
But writers who go along with such descriptions will end up seeing their role with a negative, self-pitying slant. If you’re a writer who thinks your schedule is “brutal,” you’ll feel exhausted. You’ll write tired old shit with no spark to it. If you’re a writer who thinks book tours are “boring and grueling,” you’ll end up flouncing on your bed with a box of tissues and a tisane like any number of luvvies from Truman Capote onward, because the world is simply too much. You’ll never enjoy a book that truly grips you and tells you about the world in which life is lived; you’d rather be bird-watching in the South Pacific and writing stories of domestic life that are so pedestrian they find themselves described with that other most dreadful of clichés: “seminal.