Can we just revoke the term “writer” for now? You know, let’s talk specifics: you’re a blogger, a critic, a diarist. Or if you’re actually published? An author, a poet, a lyricist, a novelist. But even these terms are idiotic, inadequate: they force an activity as simple as eating and breathing into a cultural mold that barely begins to express it.
It bothers me when I see people saying, “Oh, I’m a novelist.” How many novels have you written? “I’m finishing this one.” Uh-huh.
This is not to say that amateurs or those outside standard publishing channels shouldn’t be taken seriously—I think they should, because after all, I am an amateur, I haven’t been published for money. But if you have no novel, how is it that you define yourself as a person who creates them? You say this because “novelist” and “writer” now entail a whole set of cultural types, stereotypes and countertypes that have nothing or very little to do with actually putting words in an order. Yet these are not acknowledged as forming part of your submerged perspective, for if you ask this novelist what they do to be considered one, they say they’re making a book, as if the people who put together my copy of Wheelock’s Latin had not done the same thing.
It seems to me that in particular the late period, and the internet in general, has been obsessed with the concept of writer-as-artist, a label that defines who you are—in a tribal, coffee and bookshops and baby-Luddism-of-typewriters sense—rather than just a thing that you do. The sort of people who drink whiskey and smoke cigarettes because they think it will inspire great thoughts, and rhapsodize about Paris or peyote because they read A Moveable Feast and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
And this may be extended to almost any artistic identity, because it is only lately that (aside from the narrow beneficiaries of the patronage system of earlier centuries) it became possible for large swaths of the general population to make a sole living from the arts. After all, Leonardo was an engineer, and Marcus Aurelius an emperor—one must have a trade. The writing of books as trade itself is such a new thing that no wonder it struggles to define itself. Pure teenage rebellion.
It is less important, I think, for Hemingway, the ambulance driver, or Joyce, the tenor, to be labeled “writers” than for them to be identified as the creators of A Farewell to Arms and Ulysses. “Writer” explains nothing, attaches romantic perspective to an extremely broad human activity, doesn’t tell us anything about what they as people had to say about the human condition.
And no, this is not a rant against posers and definitions solely, but it’s frustrating for me to see the term “writer” carry these very specific definitions and stereotypes that a) create clones of existing “writers,” b) force aspirants out of communities because they don’t fit, and c) cause outsiders (as if there is anyone literate who is really outside of the writing community) to finger people as posers who are really not, who really do believe in working crappy jobs for years in the hopes of being published someday, who are not doing it for reasons of appearance but because they truly believe in the Life, in the Calling, in the sport of words.