Writing

Writers Are Self-Loathing: 50 Writers on Writers, in Fiction

Editor's Note:

Ben Blatt is most recently the author of Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, a book that explores what numerical data can reveal about the bestsellers and classics we love, our favorite authors, and our own writing. In this piece, Blatt uses the same approach to make the assertion that writers are actually quite self-loathing: Just look at how they portray writers in their fiction.

Writers don’t have the best reputation and they have no one to blame but themselves. Instead of writing stories where writers are attractive, heroic, and strong, they describe the writers within their own works as eccentric, depressed, reclusive, broke, and egotistical.

Much like I do in my new book Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, I decided to comb through thousands of books for actual data. How do writers describe writers in fiction? They may say one thing in an essay or in an interview about the daily lives of writers, but I wanted to see how imaginary novelists fared in real novels.

It was not hard to find, as writers love writing about other writers. I searched novels for any mentions of writers, novelists, authors, poets, or artists, and the results were clear.

For instance, take this quote from Agatha Christie’s mystery novel Mrs McGinty’s Dead:

Authors were shy, unsociable creatures, atoning for their lack of social aptitude by inventing their own companions and conversations.

Or this quote from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah:

He didn’t remember a whole hell of a lot from high school English, but he did recall some teacher or other telling him that writers really liked to drink. Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, “The Raven” guy. Writers liked to drink.

It’s a wink at the reader. You can picture Christie or King writing those words knowing full well that as soon as a reader sees them they will think of Christie or King.

Below are my favorite fifty examples of writers stereotyping their own profession. No matter how you count things, it’s safe to say writers are self-loathing and self-conscious enough to make fun of themselves in their own books. Sometimes it’s the narrator saying bad things about writers, and sometimes it’s one of the characters saying bad things. But no matter the source, it’s almost never complimentary. And if you don’t take my word for it (maybe I am biased in some ways as I am a writer) take in the examples below.

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Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code

“Authors, he thought. Even the sane ones are nuts.”

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Gore Vidal in Burr

“Of all this world’s creatures, the author is the vainest.”

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Roald Dahl in My Uncle Oswald

“Artists are loners, and more often than not they open the front door themselves when you ring the bell.”

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Nora Roberts in Born in Ice

“‘Writers are miserable bastards, Brie. Moody, mean, selfish, self-absorbed.’”

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Sinclair Lewis in The Trail of the Hawk

“‘These authors have a sort of an admiration trust. They make authors the heroes of their stories and so on, and so they make people think that writing is sacred. I’m so sick of reading novels about how young Bill, as had a pure white soul, came to New York and had an ‘orrible time till his great novel was accepted. Authors seem to think they’re the only ones that have ideals.’”

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Ruth Ozeki in A Tale for the Time Being

“I get it now that writers aren’t exactly the life of the party.”

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Theodore Dreiser in The Genius

“‘He is, he is,’ returned Summerfield; ‘but like all artists, he’s flighty. They’re the most unstable people in the world. You can’t depend upon them. Good for one idea today—worth nothing tomorrow—I have to handle them like a lot of children.’”

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Louise Penny in A Trick of the Light

“‘Artists are either complete bums, hardly wash, drunk and filthy most of the time, or they’re well, that.’” He waved toward the pictures in Beauvoir’s hand. ‘Over-the-top. Loud. ‘Look at me’ types. Both are very tiring.’”

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Salman Rushdie in The Moor’s Last Sigh

“‘We thought he was a little crazy, of course,’” said Felicitas, ‘but all artists are.’”

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Michael Chabon in Wonder Boys

“Writers, unlike most people, tell their best lies when they are alone.”

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Jodi Picoult in The Pact

“Artists are often very emotional people.”

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Vladimir Nabokov in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

“Authors, you know, are forgetful.”

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Pat Conroy in Beach Music

“All artists are schizophrenics.”

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William Faulkner in Mosquitoes

“All artists are kind of insane. Don’t you think so?”

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Richelle Mead in Succubus Dreams

“‘All writers have issues,’ he assured me.”

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D.H. Lawrence in The Trespasser

“‘Artists are supremely unfortunate persons.’”

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Stephen King in ‘Salem’s Lot

“‘All writers like to talk about their books. Sometimes when I’m lying in bed at night I make up a Playboy interview about me. Waste of time. They only do authors if their books are big on campus.’”

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Joseph Conrad in Chance

“Poets not being generally foresighted in practical affairs, no vision of consequences would restrain him.”

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John Updike in Bech

“‘Writers are not scholars but athletes, who grow beerbellies after thirty.’”

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Steve Hely in How I Became a Famous Novelist

“‘But writers are a kind of monk.’”

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Ernest Hemingway in True at First Light

“‘The other day you said all writers were crazies and today you say they’re all liars.’”

 

Henry James in The Europeans

“Artists are very sensitive, you know; they notice those things.”

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Kurt Vonnegut in Timequake

“He said, ‘You know what artists are?’

I didn’t.

‘Artists,’ he said, ‘are people who say, “I can’t fix my country or my state or my city, or even my marriage. But by golly, I can make this square of canvas, or this eight-and-a-half-by-eleven piece of paper, or this lump of clay, or these twelve bars of music, exactly what they ought to be!”‘”

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Nicholas Sparks in The Notebook

“Poets knew that isolation in nature, far from people and things man-made, was good for the soul, and he’d always identified with poets.”

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Martin Amis in The Information

“And he concluded: because writers are nightmares. Writers are nightmares from which you cannot awake. Most alive when alone, they make living hard to do for those around them. He knew this now-now that he wasn’t a writer. Now that he was just a nightmare.”

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Charles Frazier in Thirteen Moons

“Writers can tell any lie that leaps into their heads.”

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Edith Wharton in The Gods Arrive

“‘Most artists are incurably polygamous. When they’re not it’s because they die young—and their books generally do too. But I don’t know that their loving so lavishly matters as much in itself as in what it makes of them; what sort of stuff they turn it into.’”

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Agatha Christie in The Big Four

“‘You know what artists are, too–no morals at all.’”

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William Golding in The Paper Men

‘”Writers are absent-minded, you know that, Wilf.’”

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L. Frank Baum in American Fairy Tales

“‘That author is as disappointing as most authors are.’”

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Dodie Smith in I Capture the Castle

“I begin to see that writers are liable to become callous.”

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David Mitchell in Black Swan Green

“‘Poets are listeners, if they are not intoxicated. But novelists’—Madame Crommelynck did a yuck face—’is schizoids, lunatics, liars. Henry Miller stayed in our colony in Taormina. A pig, a perspiring pig, and Hemingway, you know?’”

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Anthony Burgess in Earthly Powers

“‘All writers,’ I said, ‘are like Kipling’s jollies. A sort of a blooming ermophrodite.’”

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Rudyard Kipling in The Light That Failed

“‘Artists always want money, don’t they?’”

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Robert Graves in Wife to Mr. Milton

“‘Ay,’ says the old lady, ‘All poets are mad, I am told; mad and very forward, without doubt.’”

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Garrison Keillor in Lake Wobegon Days

“‘See? You writers are all alike. Ready to believe the worst.’”

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Steve Toltz in A Fraction of the Whole

“Artists are the kind of people who cheat on their mistresses, abandon their legitimate children, and make those who are underprivileged enough to know them suffer terribly for their efforts to show them kindness.”

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Tom Clancy in Red Rabbit

“‘No, people like him most often do not appear in literature, because novelists lack the requisite imagination. There was no warning of a Hitler in German literature, Jack.’”

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Joshua Ferris in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

“Poets are a ponderous bunch. (Connie’s a poet.) They’re hypocrites, too. They’d never step foot in a church in America, but fly them to Europe and they rush from tarmac to transept as if the real God, the God of Dante and chiaroscuro, of flying buttresses and Bach, had been awaiting their arrival for centuries. What thrall, what sabbath longing, will overcome a poet in the churches of Europe.”

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John Irving in The World According to Garp

“Writers have very selective memories…”

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Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged

“‘There’s only one passion in most artists more violent than their desire for admiration: their fear of identifying the nature of such admiration as they do receive.’”

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Thomas Pynchon in V.

“Writers had no moral sense.”

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Ian McEwan in Sweet Tooth

“Writers are said to have superstitions and little rituals.”

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Mario Puzo in Fools Die

“I thought my wife would be proud of me.

Which shows how dumb writers are.”

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Chinua Achebe in Anthills of the Savannah

“‘Writers don’t give prescriptions,’ shouted Ikem. ‘They give headaches!’”

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Herman Melville in Mardi and a Voyage Thither

“Poets are we, Yoomy, in that we dwell without us; we live in grottoes, palms, and brooks; we ride the sea, we ride the sky; poets are omnipresent.”

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Enid Blyton in Famous Five: Five Go Adventuring Again

“‘But there – artists are queer folk.’”

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Don DeLillo in Mao II

“‘Talk to my father. Writers have discipline.’

‘I know. I envy that. I could never do it. Sit down day after day.’

‘Army ants have discipline,’ Bill said. ‘Don’t ask me what writers have.’”

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Hamilton Basso in The View from Pompey’s Head

“‘Writing is a queer business and writers are queer birds. Egocentricity is their principal stock in trade.’”

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Danielle Steel in Loving

“‘I told you, writers are fucking paranoids.’”