A good friend I had tea with recently distrusts what she calls the cult of personality in writing. This came up in a discussion about why you might choose to publish pseudonymously, perhaps using many different names even, as a way of stopping people identifying the words written down with something approximating a celebrity persona.
Let’s call the friend Dee.
I can’t claim to represent what Dee actually thinks in detail, because I’m not sure I got to the bottom of her position. It made me think though, and I pondered in a sci-fi way the idea that brains are kind of microchips in a loosely connected machine, responding to the world around their particular brain cluster. If a poet stands proudly behind something they’ve written, is that a bit like them taking credit for something less tangible, like a moment in human thought? If you imagine writers as flocks of birds, say, does it make sense to identify and hail the first one who turned left or right in a given direction change?
Dee also raised the issue of people’s desire to pigeonhole a writer’s output. I think that’s fair to say that people do do that. At the moment, the poet William Letford is enjoying a bit of publicity as a ‘roofer poet’. People think about how his, on the face of it, alternative route to being a published poet might be traceable in his writing.
As I say, people do like to pigeonhole that way, but I think what I would argue against my friend Dee, is that the presented persona of a writer, or of any artist, is basically only Marketing. I think myth-building and hyping can get you as a reader to the words, but that if the ‘product’ isn’t any good, you’re not going to be reading much beyond the end of the commercial. I could say flippantly that an example of the advert being way better than the product was Push-pops, which always dribbled sticky saliva over my hands – I’ll never forget the ad though.
Dee mentioned Edwin Morgan as someone who managed to change tack a lot in the sort of poetry he wrote, despite always writing under his own name. We posited that Morgan’s variousness had almost become the thing that people expected of him as a writer, his experimentation with form.
If an artist is inconsistent, I find it hard to really feel trust in the ultimate quality of any of their work. I realise this is some sort of aesthetic position I’m taking and I’m also aware that I probably would dislike myself as an artist for that very reason, but I do like to see a joined-up-ness in someone’s oeuvre. It might not mean them literally doing what looks like the same thing; I’m happy with an artist whose work looks as different as Morgan’s but that demonstrates to me the line of thought that I think needs to be there to make each work, even seen in isolation, convincing.
Martin Creed is an artist who has rejected the idea that each new work by an artist is in some way a response to their dissatisfaction with their last effort. I can see the shifting between ways of working and materials in his work as related to the ambition to escape that lineage, but at the same time all of his pieces feel unified to me because of the singleness of his vision and mind. You see his preoccupations with number and increment recur in elegant illustrations of these thoughts. Benjamin Britten is another person I would cite as having an apparently wide-ranging set of, in his case, compositions that hang together, or as in Muriel Spark’s writing, foreground different aspects of the artists’ technique, ambition and style. I feel the same way about the Pet Shop Boys, for that matter.
Dee isn’t alone in wondering if it’s possible to lose a link between even a nicely varied output and a personality. She enjoys writing under pseudonyms herself and thinks of her works as experiments in language.
My instinct is to object to this anonymity, but in trying to work out whether my objections were rooted in vanity, I noticed that a lot of the language I could use in defence is rooted in the idea of the artists’ body being somehow important. I think that’s maybe interesting: phrases like ‘it’s got guts’, ‘ballsy’ or even ways of speaking that invoke more abstract physicality, like the idea of ‘weighty’ writing, or a ‘finely wrought’ poem.
I have an opposite urge to Dee’s to collate all of my experience somehow under one heading. I think that this urge to assimilate in an artist can be held in check by rigorous self-questioning which asks whether you are repeating yourself too much and similarly whether you are only producing what you think is acceptable to your audience, or which fits with their expectations.
i.e. I think if you don’t believe in the public myth of your golden arse too much, you won’t disappear up it.
Here are some fish to feed. Not birds changing directions, but there are similar dynamics at play, and it’s fun! If you got through that, you deserve some fun!