What Makes Writers Interesting?

Phyllis Rose considers the relationship between a writer’s life experiences and his or her work:

In his 2001 Nobel acceptance speech, V. S. Naipaul elaborated on this theme, that a writer has no life but what he writes. “Everything of value about me,” he said, “is in my books. Whatever extra there is in me at any given moment isn’t fully formed. I am hardly aware of it; it awaits the next book. It will—with luck—come to me during the actual writing, and it will take me by surprise.” Reading about Naipaul’s family, Indian immigrants in the Caribbean, we are likely to think, “What great material he had! How lucky he was!”

But Naipaul anticipated the thought. “Perhaps you might feel that the material was so rich it would have been no trouble … to get started and to go on. What I have said about [my] background, however, comes from the knowledge I acquired with my writing.” The writer, that is, begins in confusion and nothingness and writes his way into form and clarity. At the start of Naipaul’s career, all around him were “areas of darkness.” His own novels wrote these areas of darkness into form, so now we think of the Caribbean and other third-world places as Naipaul’s “natural” material and naturally interesting.

The material does not make the work. The life does not make the art. Exactly the opposite.

The work creates the material. The art creates the life. Did Trinidad exist before Naipaul? Did cargo ships exist before Joseph Conrad? Did Newark and the New Jersey suburbs exist before Philip Roth? Did women in playgrounds in New York City exist before Grace Paley? See how the writer invents the material? These places did not exist as literary subjects. They were invisible to literature. The magic of a great book is that it makes its own subject seem inevitable. The danger is, it makes the subject seem like the source of power in the work. It makes people think that all they have to do is position themselves in the right place at the right time, and they can produce a great book. In the past, it was conceivable for a young man who wanted to write to go to sea, like Conrad or Melville, in pursuit of his literary ambitions.

Writers’ lives seem interesting after the fact because writers have irradiated and transformed their own experience. But there is nothing intrinsically interesting about them. Writers spend more time inside at a desk than anyone except office clerks. Prison has proved a remarkably supportive spot for writers from Cervantes onward.