Confessions of a graphomaniac
'Echo and Narcissus' (detail), 1903, John William Waterhouse
The writer in an age of graphomania.
Hello. My name is Linda and I am a graphomaniac. The condition, an uncontrollable impulsion to write, was first noted by the nineteenth-century French psychiatrist Jean-Etienne Dominique Esquirol. He named it “graphomania”, from the Greek words for writing and madness. It is a close relative of typomania, an obsession with seeing your name in print or your writings published.
I first came across the word in Milan Kundera’s 1978 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which I read in the mid ’80s. The novel struck me at the time for its relevance to China, where everyone who had once been Mao’s bodyguard, victim, doctor or even his closest comrade-in-arms’ wife’s secretary was rushing their memoirs to publication. (I still have the one written by the secretary.)
The irresistible proliferation of graphomania among politicians, taxi drivers, childbearers, lovers, murderers, thieves, prostitutes, officials, doctors, and patients shows me that everyone without exception bears a potential writer within him, so that the entire human species has good reason to go down the streets and shout: “We are all writers!”
But those lines from the late ’70s could have been written yesterday, anywhere. Given how the internet has reduced the gap between inspiration and dissemination, technically speaking they could have been written five minutes ago. But Kundera’s words have great form, even in translation from the Czech, and enough wit and perspicacity that, decades on, they feel fresher than ever. I wonder how many tweets will be quotable 34 years from now.
Kundera clarifies: writing a flood of love letters is not a sign of mania. Making copies for future publication is. He acknowledges that the amateur writer and Goethe “share the same passion”. The difference is “the result of the passion, not the passion itself”. Graphomania, he continues, becomes a mass epidemic in societies in which people are well off enough to “devote their energies to useless activities”, and there’s “an advanced state of social atomisation” and not much going on in the way of radical social transformation.
If general isolation causes graphomania, mass graphomania itself reinforces and aggravates the feeling of general isolation. The invention of printing originally promoted mutual understanding. In the era of graphomania, the writing of books has the opposite effect: everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without.
Some things have changed since Kundera wrote his novel. For one, some of the most active graphomaniacs, even typomaniacs, would now consider books to be quaint cultural artefacts. Secondly, at the time Kundera was writing, most serious graphos were at the mercy of publishers. Unless they employed a ‘vanity press’ to print their scribblings, graphomaniacs were locked into a cycle of submission, slap down, submission, slap down, in the hope that one day there might be submission and then joy – a process resembling, from my understanding, the plot of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Today, however, the internet provides every politician, taxidriver, childbearer, prostitute and the rest with instant graphomanic gratification. It is the ultimate hall of mirrors, for – miracle of modern technology – it allows us to watch others as they watch us too. How many followers do I have? What are they saying about me? How many hits? Am I trending? Google me already!
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the handsome Narcissus rebuffs and then ignores Echo, “a noisy Nymph”, in Brookes More’s translation, “who never held her tongue when others spoke, who never spoke till others had begun”. Echo retreats to the deep woods, where she lives in “lonely caverns in the hills”. There, her physical body melts away, but her voice remains.
As for Narcissus, he drinks from a pool as calm and smooth as glass, wherein he spies his own reflection:
All that is lovely in himself he loves, and in his witless way he wants himself: he who approves is equally approved; he seeks, is sought, he burns and he is burnt.
Narcissus wastes away in admiration of himself, and is subsequently transformed into a flower.
Today, the pair has finally been united by way of technology. Echo has come forth from the forest to hold a mirror up from behind those shoulders she once attempted to embrace. Narcissus gazes into the pond that reflects the mirror that reflects the pond until he and Echo have become both infinite and one, blogging and commenting, Facebooking and liking, tweeting and retweeting in an endless loop of self-absorption.
All around the pond, knee-to-knee, shoulder-to-shoulder are the brothers and sisters of Narcissus, accompanied by their personal Echos, lost in solipsistic silos within the blogosphere and Twitterverse. Only those other, nastier creatures, the trolls, spoil the picture by emerging from the woods at regular intervals to spit in the pond or crap on the mirrors. And each and every Narcissus, Echo and troll alike calls him or herself a writer.
In his essay ‘Why I Write’, George Orwell lists the four “great motives” for writing. He puts “sheer egoism” first, ahead of aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. Yet in his work, the author of some of the most blistering, witty and incisive political fiction on the planet – Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four – provides far more evidence of the latter three. Ultimately, Orwell holds the mirror outwards, so that society can get a good look at itself.
Social media hold the mirror outwards only to swing it back to face the other way at every opportunity. Yes, social media can be the source of valuable information, commentary and entertainment. Writers, publishers and readers have much to thank them for, as do those isolated by geography, temperament or disability. In places like China, social media sites are where news leaks and conversation flows. During the Arab Spring social media were the war drums and smoke signals and the places where troops gathered. Good for everyone who has, thanks to Facebook, Instagram, Grindr or Blendr, found their cousins in Romania, shared their dinner with the world, or got laid on a Saturday night. But graphomania unbound has also made of this diverse garden a roost for bats that fill the air with deafening squeals and flying guano.
‘Harriet Hashtag’ reports on what’s trending on Twitter for Red Symons’ breakfast show on 774 ABC Melbourne. The day I listened to her segment, Syria was in flames. Ecuador and Britain were facing off over Julian Assange. China and Japan were facing off over some rocks in the ocean. Australia was deciding which other rock might make asylum seekers so miserable that staying home and facing the flames would seem a better option. Harriet Hashtag told us how Twitter was in a flap about an Aussie actress who’d made the leap from a car insurance commercial to a role on a television show.
Neil Postman’s 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death describes how, over the previous century, media evolved in step with technology that sped up the transmission of information, from the newspaper through to radio and television. In both religious and political arenas, people began to demand that discourse speed up and be entertaining too. In the late nineteenth century, the American public expected their politicians to lay out their policies, course by course, in lectures and essays and listened to lengthy sermons in church. By the mid 1980s, it seemed all anyone wanted was a sound bite from the pollies and an amplified “Hallelujah” from the televangelists.
Comparing the dystopias described by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-four and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, Postman observed:
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
How did we arrive in this brave new world? Susan Cain’s Quiet elaborates on historian Warren Susman’s thesis that, over the twentieth century, the US shifted from a culture that valued character to one obsessed with personality. From prizing traits that distinguished a person’s behaviour in their private life – honour, discipline, manners and so on – society began to reward people who were “bold and entertaining” – people who could get out there and sell something, not least themselves. Books and writing are no exception. Among all that pinging and chirping, in the middle of all those update feeds, TweetDeck notifications, carnival barks and sales pitches, how does anyone hear herself think? And isn’t the true joy of being a writer, beyond the simple itch-scratching of graphomania, that of taking the time to think, of harnessing the pen to the challenge of writing something that, beyond sheer egoism, gives expression to one’s aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and maybe even political purpose as well? Something with warp and weft, texture and pattern, something that might possibly continue to amuse, move, provoke and captivate readers not just 30 seconds from now but 30 years or 300?
Flaubert reportedly said that the writing of a book requires “a long energy that runs from beginning to end without slackening”. That energy was a lot easier to summon in the days before the current tsunami of electronic distraction. In his new book Shrinking the World, the “4000-year story of how email came to rule our lives”, John Freeman writes:
Speed – the god of the twenty-first century – is not a neutral deity […] Look out a window of a train travelling at full speed […] The eye constantly darts to the horizon, only to be overwhelmed by a new horizon point, which comes racing forward, followed by another and another. The eye quickly becomes fatigued. The scenery is a blur.
A writer who wants to harness that ‘long energy’, who wants to encourage the flourishing of creative ideas and complicated thinking needs to step off the train. Solitude is very different from Kundera’s “isolation”. It’s a willingness to be alone, to read with attention – for every great writer is a great reader – to think deeply, make space for serendipity and write as slowly as it takes. You won’t have a clue why people are talking about some Australian television star, but rest assured, ten minutes from now, neither will they.
What’s vital is liberation from what I call ‘butterfly thinking’: “Oh, this flower looks good, oh, that flower looks good, oh, that puddle looks good, oh, this puddle looks good.” Two weeks of that, then the butterfly’s dead. Social-media refusenik Jonathan Franzen, in How to Be Alone, speaks of the danger to the writer of becoming obsessed with keeping up-to-the-minute: “the tyranny of the literal”. It’s why, like Nick Hornby, Franzen, Zadie Smith and countless other writers, I now use internet-blocking software when I write.
Leslie Cannold once wrote in Australian Author magazine about the need for writers to face the fact that 90% of the job these days was self-promotion and only 10% writing, and to get on Twitter. I can’t quote her exactly. The piece made me so anxious that I threw the whole issue in the recycling bin. I didn’t recognise anything in it that I liked about being a writer.
JD Salinger found the public attention and personal scrutiny that followed the publication of Catcher in the Rye in 1951 so painful that he became a recluse and published less and less. Would Salinger have written at all if he had been made to understand that 90% of the job entailed shouting “Look at moi!”?
If the rule of the jungle becomes survival of the noisiest, expect the Salingers to retreat from the fray, to our incalculable cultural detriment. Catcher in the Rye still moves and astonishes readers. Will people be reading Fifty Shades of Whatevs 60 years from now? By 2015, it’s predicted that there will be 600,000 self-published titles alone. Expect the sky to blaze so brightly with comets, or perhaps just space junk, each with its twinkling Twitter trail, that we’ll barely be able to make out the stars.
Ever heard of Typee? It was a bestseller, the first book by a writer called Herman Melville. His second, Omee, did well too. But Melville’s subsequent novels struggled to find a readership. Moby-Dick, his sixth, didn’t even sell out its initial print run of 3000 copies during his lifetime. The book with which Melville’s name is now synonymous earned him a grand sum of US$556.37.
Would Melville have benefitted from social media? Maybe. Or he might have been so worn down by the demands of his fans (“Love your early work!”), he may never have summoned the time, energy, concentration and confidence to come up with the leviathan that is Moby-Dick.
Besides, hop on that hamster wheel and you’d better keep those little feet moving. To quote another, unrelated but apt, passage from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: “Oh lovers! Be careful in those dangerous first days! Once you’ve brought breakfast in bed you’ll have to bring it forever, unless you want to be accused of lovelessness and betrayal!”
As for graphomania itself, there’s no solution and there’s no cure. But there is a 12-step program: 1) read good books; 2) live fully; 3) reflect; 4–12) repeat. Then write as best you can. All the rest is twitter.