The Staggering Self-Obsession of Modern Writers ; `All This Self-Fixated Pseudo-Literature Shifts the Emphasis Away from the Work to the Person'

Article excerpt

WRITERS USED to be invisible creatures who kept more or less mum about their private lives. The ultimate writer was the impenetrable Thomas Pynchon, about whom no one knew anything at all. Writers were invisible because they were dealing with - and dealing in - words on pages. They had no business mixing it up with actors or pop stars, or being profiled on The South Barg Show. Back in those days - as recently as 1990, one could argue - writers didn't think the world was hanging on their every admission or confession.

But something strange has happened in the last decade. Writers - including novelists, journalists and columnists - have started selling their everyday lives and memories as product. The literary preoccupations of the day have nothing to do with imagined stories or characters or societies, but with real-life experience, traumatic events survived, crises being lived through in the present tense. We've lost patience with fiction. We only want to know about "what happened?"

It's all come to a head this summer with a slew of self-fixated tomes: Paul Morley's Nothing, India Knight's My Life on a Plate, and now Dave Eggers' playfully narcissistic Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (primary themes: the deaths of his parents, the raising of his little brother, the founding of his own literary magazine). "Eggers has talent as a writer," notes Adam Begley of the New York Observer, "but his true genius is for PR."

All this began, ironically, with the self-effacing Nick Hornby, whose endearing Fever Pitch prompted countless thirtysomething lads to look inwards and reassess the stock of their memories. After that watershed publication, every two-bit hack on Planet Groucho seized on some issue in his/her life and made "faction" out of it. Pop music, absent dads, Irishness, sex - you name it, it got the faction treatment.

In the future, Warhol might have said, everyone will deem their most banal memories to be of huge interest for... well, even longer than 15 minutes. We used to slag off the neurotic hedonists of the 1970s as "the Me Generation", but the current crop of self- regarders puts them utterly in the shade.

As an "infotainment" culture we have become more and more obsessed with "what people are really like". We don't give a toss whether their books, or their music, are any good; we just want to know - or think we want to know - what goes on behind their closed doors. …