As a writer, it’s easy to be lured into identifying yourself with your work. To some extent, it’s important to take pride in your work, so that you feel compelled to make it as good as possible. At a more basic level, though, the writer should be aware that he is not his work, and his work is not him. When someone praises or criticizes the work, it can never really be personal praise or criticism.
For writers, even with a long and well established reputation, they are mostly only as good as their last book or their last column. Readers may give a writer a short grace period depending on the reputation of the writer, but otherwise, their relationship to the writer is similar to that of a diner to a chef at a restaurant. If the chef cooks well, the diner loves the chef. If the chef fucks up, the diner becomes pissed off at the chef and the entire waitstaff besides, unless he has been a loyal customer for a long time.
Readers will tend to think that they know a writer because they have come to be familiar with expressions of that writer’s mind. And it is a good way indeed to get to know how someone thinks. But it is not the same as getting to know and love the person, but this is easy to misunderstand, especially for writers who have never experienced the stress of popularity.
Love for the person’s writing is not the same as love for the person. Those writing simply to earn what they think is adoration are doomed to be disappointed, because people can only adore what they can see, and if all they see are the words, that is what they come to adore, rather than the person writing them.
So, in this, the writer can only be successful insomuch as he elevates his reader. Writing to fill a deficit of love or friendship rarely works because the writer is simply another vendor in the life of the reader, and the relationship, while it may be warm, is not the same as a more intimate or friendly one.
It’s easy to mistake readers for friends. Friends may be readers and readers may be friends, but the groups are usually separate from one another, especially as the readers multiply.
This is one of the reasons why personal writing is such an unhappy practice, and why it is so popular among publishers these days. There are countless writers eager to pitch their personal essays, and editors are happy to publish them to provide the illusion of intimacy within their publications. It is cheap to commission the articles, and provides lonely people with a sense of connection that would otherwise be absent from their lives.
It also promotes the egalitarian notion that even regular people ought to publish autobiographies, rather than just the great and the good. Some of the most popular personal essays of today tend to be written by the mediocre and depraved. Websites like Salon and Huffington Post deal in this sort of material on a daily basis.
Yet it is entirely possible to publish a deeply personal memoir, give hundreds of thousands of people the illusion of intimacy, but to create no real connections at all. The author can step into a party held in their honor, meet dozens of strangers who claim to know the author and to have been touched in a profound way by her works, and then all of them can return home from the party afterwards, no more familiar with one another than they had been before meeting, either in text or in person.
This image has a tendency to overpower the impression left by the real person, and people incapable of discriminating between the two often find themselves in sad entanglements as a result.
This is the typical farce of fame, not rising to the level of tragedy because it’s so silly. What’s famous can only be an image or a glimpse of a person, and the shallow worship of millions of that image can never substitute for the true fidelity of a few.
Knowing this, writers should know that they are only as good as their service to the reader. The reader owes the author nothing but the purchase price of the book, and his attention is freely given, his praise freely withdrawn, or turned to scorn. To the extent that the work elevates the life of the reader is the extent to which it is good work. An architect leaves something of himself in his buildings, and a writer leaves a sliver of himself in his work, but the architect is not the building and the writer is not the writing.
To reiterate the title, almost no one cares about you, the writer. The depth of the indifference that your readers feel for you, if you truly knew it, might drive you to despair if you attached your sense of self-worth to it.
They care about what you can do for them. To the extent that you care about doing all you can for them is the extent to which they might choose to care about your interests, and not a jot more.