Are Writers as Weird as They Are Made to Appear?

American writers are largely enigmatic, misunderstood figures.

Posted Jan 04, 2018

Always swirling around the image of American writers has been their offbeat personality profile (brainy but neurotic, observant but hypercritical, etc.), something that has made them largely enigmatic, misunderstood figures. Stringing words together is, after all, almost always a solitary exercise, locating writers in a non- and sometimes anti-social role. “To my landlady and her female lodgers on the second and third floors I believe I am a man of mystery, if not an object of actual suspicion,” a writer living in a New York boarding house remarked in 1919, this “because I remain in my room with my typewriter while other men are slamming the door and running for the subway at 8:15.” Not too much has changed over the last century, with some of this outside-the-mainstream image self-perpetuated. “American writers have tended to see themselves as outcasts and isolates,” wrote Sacvan Bercovitch in his 1978 The American Jeremiad, with many authors assuming the role of “prophets crying in the wilderness.”

Not surprisingly, then, writers have often been perceived and portrayed as quirky, eccentric, and occasionally belligerent, a reputation that is arguably well deserved.  The fact that writers have operated behind the scenes has helped to create a kind of enigmatic aura around them, both collectively and individually, that is not unlike the one surrounding other artists. This has been both an asset and a liability to writers, I believe, making them appear somehow special and gifted, yet also difficult and temperamental. A good number of American writers were famously jealous and hostile towards their peers. Robert Frost was not shy about expressing contempt for other poets such as Wallace Stevens, for example, and novelist Mary McCarthy and the playwright Lillian Hellman shared an incendiary, long-running feud.  Truman Capote and Gore Vidal were longtime adversaries, meanwhile, and novelist Tom Wolfe referred to John Irving, John Updike, and Norman Mailer as “the Three Stooges” of American literature.

Popular culture has reinforced the unconventional, even peculiar image of the American writer. In movies, TV shows, and even novels, it is not unusual to see writers as disheveled, destitute, and/or drunk (something interesting in itself as it was likely a writer who created the character). In films such as Manhattan (1979), The Shining (1980), The World According to Garp (1982), Deathtrap (1982), The Player (1992), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Finding Forrester (2000), Wonder Boys (2000), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Adaptation (2002), American Splendor (2003), Sideways (2004), Capote (2005), and The Squid and the Whale (2005), writers are morally dubious, socially challenged, or downright psychically impaired characters, tempting viewers to think negatively of those who occupy the profession in real life. 

While the Jessica Fletcher televisual character in Murder She Wrote was laudable (if overly prim and proper), the Hank Moody role in Californication was more typical of how pop culture has treated the American writer. Suffering from emotional issues and writer’s block (not to mention an addiction to various vices), Moody, played by David Duchovny, is an unequivocal train wreck, although by the end of the series in 2014 he has righted his course. Some of America’s best novelists including Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Kurt Vonnegut have often used writers as their protagonists, and not in a particularly flattering way. Middle-aged men (like the authors themselves) whose best days were definitely behind them populate these novels; their struggle to find meaning and purpose in their lives can be seen as emblematic of the existential angst commonly believed to be a defining quality of the American writer.