On writing heroes

He’s no longer Overland’s editor, so I can now safely call Jeff Sparrow one of my writing heroes. I admire how he interweaves history, politics and contemporary culture in a persuasive but personable way that doesn’t lean too heavily on memoir. I also appreciate that he writes so much and so omnivorously.

When I was introduced to Jeff at a party, I practically died inside as I burbled something about how much I liked his book Killing: Misadventures in Violence.

Similarly, I only dared briefly say hello to Laurent Binet as I was leaving a Melbourne Writers’ Festival artists’ party, although his novel HHhH was one of the best books I’d read that year. Who knows what nonsense I’d utter to Robert Macfarlane if I ever tried to tell him how tremendously erudite I find his lyrical nature writing.

I prefer my heroes on the page. I admire writing that ignites my intellect and imagination, and writers whose work reflects their boundless curiosity, assiduous research and daily discipline. Consummate craftspeople make me try harder.

When I asked my writer friends about their heroes, they told me that, among others, they respect Sarah Waters for her accomplished storycraft; Henry Miller for the sensuality and immediacy of his prose; Zoë Heller for her complex, fraught characters; Flannery O’Connor for both her stories and essays (‘I can’t think of a more arch writer-on-writing,’ one said); Carlos Ruiz Zafón for his work ethic; James Ellroy and David Foster Wallace for their absolute commitment to style and subject; and Oscar Wilde for his audacity.

Perhaps I feel embarrassed to meet my favourite writers because I cringe at the whole literary cult of personality. Charisma may be the stock-in-trade of politicians, actors and musicians, but what makes writers heroic to me is their writing. That’s all. I don’t find their lives romantic, or seek to emulate their tastes or personal qualities. I don’t ‘crush on’ my favourite writers. I don’t wish we were best friends.

This is why, I think, the cult of Joan Didion bemuses me. Both in her writing and in interviews, she strikes me as an unpleasant snob, as the kind of person who, if I were ever to gush ‘I just really love your work,’ would sneeringly, wordlessly turn her back. Then she might write an airy essay about how jejune it is to grovel.

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison famously hated on Didion in a 1979 essay: ‘her subject is always herself.’ Didion makes her own observations and feelings seem sublime and limpid, Harrison observed, yet finds other people politically and aesthetically vulgar – often conflating the two.

Didion, whose writing wields taste as a weapon, is today a cool heroine for certain writers – writers who, as Haley Mlotek writes at The Awl, ‘tend to be young, female, upper middle class, white, and somewhat inwardly tortured.’ New York magazine’s Molly Fischer adds that Didion’s taxonomic eye makes her the perfect ‘talisman of taste’ in today’s online arenas, in which ‘liking, listing, and sharing are how you announce a self’.

In an essay for The Toast, author SA Jones recalled that Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights exerted such a visceral power over her that she lionised its author as ‘a ferocious demi-God divining sentences through the heather-scented ether’. And since Jones herself found writing a slog, she concluded she must lack ‘that ineffable spark of God-given genius that makes a writer’.

But when Jones offered her first impression of Brontë, it was the idealised popular image of Didion I glimpsed: ‘The beautiful, haughty one who seems impervious to social niceties and gets away with the most appalling behaviour because secretly we crave something of their disdain for form and propriety.’

Brontë was a genuinely original weirdo. Didion, on the other hand, is more like Hunter S Thompson or Tom Wolfe: a privileged insider forever cultivating an outsider persona. Where Thompson had his pharmacopoeia and Wolfe his tailored white linen, Didion has mohair throws and fifty frickin’ yards of yellow silk.

Didion’s gonzo journey is inside the (young, female) self. Despite the efforts of critics like Harrison, this is why people love her.

But should we allow our heroes to speak for us? To use them as lodestars, striving to ‘be as awesome’ or to ‘write something as great’? Or openly emulate their style? Mlotek reminds her readers that ‘there is no image or brand or text that will ever be an effective placeholder for our own personality, no thing that will give you permission to be the person you want to be.’

Even the most apparently solipsistic writers are not just spilling their guts. Only much later in her Brontë fandom did Jones recognise the meticulous structure, the masterful use of theme and motif, in Wuthering Heights. If such a sublime book could be the result of ‘discipline, study, revision, trial and error’, she realised, then writing is just a process anyone can learn.

This is a wonderful insight.

We need not befriend, or become, our heroes. What you call your writerly ‘voice’ isn’t an ineffable communion with your soul, but basically, as my friend Tim says, ‘disparate stylistic tricks you’ve cribbed’. And heroes are tricksters, too.

Mel Campbell

Mel Campbell is a journalist, cultural critic and media studies lecturer. She’s the author of nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (Affirm Press, 2013), and co-author of the rom-com novels Nailed It! and The Hot Guy.

More by Mel Campbell ›

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