Monday, July 10, 2006

Mordecai Richler on Writing and Recognition

Mordecai Richler on writing and recognition:

Nobody is more embittered than the neglected writer and, obviously, allowed a certain recognition, I am a happier and more generous man than I would otherwise be. But nothing I have done to win this recognition appals me, has gone against my nature. I fervently believe that all a writer should send into the marketplace to be judged is his own work; the rest should remain private. I deplore the writer as personality, however large and undoubted the talent, as is the case with Norman Mailer. I also do not believe in special license for so-called artistic temperament. After all, my problems, as I grudgingly come within spitting distance of middle age, are the same as anybody else’s. Easier maybe. I can bend my anxieties to subversive uses. Making stories of them. When I’m not writing, I’m a husband and a father of five. Worried about pollution. The population explosion. My sons’ report cards.

From Mordecai Richler, “Why I Write” in Shovelling Trouble (1972).

On a basic level, I share Richler’s conviction that “all a writer should send into the marketplace to be judged is his own work” and that “the rest should remain private.” But I am left with questions. Is it possible to act consistently with this conviction in the contemporary marketplace and still sell a reasonable number of books? Richler managed to keep his family life scrupulously private throughout his career. But it seems to me that, at least in the Canadian context, he ultimately came to embody the “writer as personality” that he once deplored. Did this happen in spite of him, or did he contribute to the cult of personality? His public profile had as much to do with his political writing as with his fiction but that’s still “his own work” not “the rest.” Of course, it also had to do with his predilection for stirring up trouble. Where exactly does the line between one’s “own work” and “the rest” fall? This seems to me a very complicated question, particularly for those who write non-fiction as well as fiction.


Jenny D said...

Great quotation, great questions.

Isn't there a distinction, though, between the bad version of writer-as-personality (Mailer) and the more positive version (Richler; or lots of others you can think of, Toni Morrison or Margaret Atwood for that matter)? In the bad version, the energy goes disproportionately into creating and maintaining the public persona. In the good version, the public personality is either a byproduct of the author's massive & interesting intelligence & appeal or else (in some cases) inextricably intertwined with it--I'm a great fan of Gore Vidal, for instance, but I don't think we can say of him as we might say of Mailer that he would have written better books if he'd cared less about being on TV--the being on TV is PART of the same intellectual life that made Vidal write all those great books....

Richard said...

You raise a good question. I've read and enjoyed a couple of Richler's novels and some essays, but perhaps because I've lived in the US, I don't much about him as a "personality." Of course I first read him in the 1960s, when I didn't know much or care much about the personal lives of many of the fiction writers whose books I read -- unless their works itself were somehow autobiographical.

For example, I loved both Donald Barthelme and Peter de Vries, but I can't tell you more than one fact about either: that one taught at various colleges and the other worked for The New Yorker.

I'm rather glad neither they nor Richler had blogs.

Kate S. said...


You make an excellent point about there being a good and a bad version. I think that's why I was struggling a bit to get to the root of the problem. When the personality overshadows the writing, it's a negative. When the personality is thoroughly intertwined with the writing, it's not. Richler was indeed an example of the latter, as are the others that you mention.

Kate S. said...


I know what you mean about being rather glad that favourite writers never had blogs. Though of course, as a writer who blogs, it makes me uneasy. I think that's why the Richler quotation jumped out at me. Does a writer's blog fall into "the writing" or "the rest"? This depends on what sort of writing they do and what they blog about. After all, a writer's blog might simply stand as a contemporary counterpart to the newspaper reviews and magazine essays that the likes of Richler penned. I do think that writers who blog, particularly if they do so expressly in order to promote their work, ought to think carefully about this though.