Real-time writing and the spectacle of the author’s craft

Real-time writing and the spectacle of the author’s craft

By VINEET GILL | | 30 October, 2015
Joshua Cohen.
Vineet Gill is not amused by the recent stunt involving Joshua Cohen’s ‘real-time’ novel. He writes about the fetishisation of the author and the theatre of the modern-day reader’s investigations.

Once you’ve finished reading a book or a poem that really moves you, the primary urge is to somehow get in touch with the writer. You feel that there’s so much you already know about this person. After all, art is nothing if not a distillation, an embodiment of the artist’s personality. And so it’s only natural to want to know more. Indeed, as admiring readers, we enquire into an artist’s life with an air of entitlement, resenting those who, with their hermetic reserve, seem to resist our advances.

Such an urge on the part of the reader may have its source in the political ethos of our age: we value transparency as honest and law-abiding citizens, just as we do as consumers of art. Not for us the sorcery, the mystery, the magic of the creative process. The wish of our age is to break the creative spell, to foil the conspiracy that our beloved writers appear to be hatching within the confines of their study.

Today’s inquisitive reader is not so much concerned with the work (what’s your book about?) as with the force behind it (what are you all about?). Hence, the fetishisation of the “writer” figure in our culture, and the preponderance of “writers at work” interviews in publications everywhere.

Was it The Paris Review that started this trend, though? The elaborate interviews with writers published in this New York-based magazine make an inevitable turn towards what appear at first glance to be questions of craft. Questions like where and when and how a particular interviewee writes. “When Hemingway starts on a project,” says the introduction to a 1958 interview with the American author in the Paris Review, “he always begins with a pencil, using the reading board to write on onionskin typewrite paper.”

Even to a student of writing — presumably, the ideal reader of such interviews — is Hemingway’s avowed proclivity for pencils strictly of any relevance? Of course it isn’t, and of course it isn’t meant to be so. The detail fascinates not as a lesson in craft, but as a glimpse into Hemingway’s personal space that brings us closer to him in a way even his deeply autobiographical novels couldn’t.

Until a few years back, the British newspaper Guardian ran a regular series of photographs called “Writers’ rooms”, giving us quite literally a window into that most personal of spaces a writer can inhabit. I found the images fascinating, particularly those that featured the studies of writes I admire. The critic Al Alvarez’s study, I now know, contains a wall-to-wall bookshelf, crammed airtight with old and well-thumbed volumes. On the wooden desk are some sheets of paper placed over what looks like a writing board — indicators that Alvarez wrote in longhand. But then, to the desk’s right is a large computer screen with a keyboard — an indication that Alvarez didn’t write in longhand.

Today’s inquisitive reader is not so much concerned with the work (what’s your book about?) as with the force behind it (what are you all about?). Hence, the fetishisation of the “writer” figure in our culture, and the preponderance of “writers at work” interviews in publications everywhere. 

Then there’s Seamus Heaney’s writing room that exactly resembles a kitchenette in some studio apartment. His desk is actually — as Heaney writes in the text accompanying the photograph — “a slab of board on two filing cabinets.” It enhances the pleasure of reading Heaney’s poetry for me when I imagine that the poet was there, sitting behind that slab of board, when he composed lines like these: “Incomprehensible/ To him, my other life.”

The novelist Joshua Cohen, author most recently of Book of Numbers, is much interested in this other life of the writer that the reader is forever striving to comprehend. Earlier this month, the literary world was intrigued and scandalised in equal measure when Cohen announced that he was planning to write a novel “live” on the internet. The online project began on 12 October on a portal called , where Cohen began composing a reworked version of Dickens’ classic The Pickwick Papers.

But the things he wrote — the frissons of plot, situations and characters in Dickens’ original and Cohen’s own take on these — mattered little in this exercise. What generated interest was the fact that Cohen was writing in real time and in full view. Visitors to his website could follow Cohen’s drafts unfold, sentence by sentence – his edits and rewrites, everything down to his typos and punctuation errors. And that’s not all. They could also look at Cohen’s writerly face — as it stared at the blinking cursor on his computer screen — in an accompanying live stream straight from the writer’s webcam.

This shtick lasted for about four days — Cohen would present himself at his desk, and to his audiences, punctually every morning and sit there writing (and blinking, thinking, smoking) for about five hours a day. Parallel to his main draft was another script developing: a live chat stream where users posted messages like “lmao F*** Joshua Cohen”.  The point of this chat room, of course, was to enable the reader to participate in the writing process, to provide some kind of feedback. But then the internet abounds in bathos, in unforeseen anti-climaxes.

The death of the author, as the French critic Roland Barthes once proposed, was a direct consequence of the birth of the reader: which is to say, a text can have multiple meanings, and a fixed interpretation can only arise out of a reader’s personal perspective, making the writer’s original views redundant. This theory no more holds water in contemporary times because today, the reader, too, is dead; and rather than decode the meaning of a text, rather than assign value to it, we prefer interpreting and assessing personalities. So although the author, and the reader, may be dead, the “writer” seems to be alive and well — a heroic figure in the collection imagination, with his ready wit, his turns of phrase, his bundles of foolscap, his Olivettis and his pencils.  

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