Recognition: Do You Want To Write Or Do You Want To Be A Writer?

12/09/2011 10:03 am ET | Updated Feb 08, 2012

Do you want to be a writer or do you want to write? That's been a sort koan-question in a writer's education for at least as long as I've been on the game. Option one is, officially, the wrong answer. You're supposed to be doing the thing because you have something that needs to be said. But the truth is most people who do become writers have some mixture of both motives. You want to say important things and you also want to project an image of yourself as the person who says those important things.

Last October, I spent a week in Paris, promoting a short novel which I believe to be the best thing I've written in a long time, maybe ever. The promotional purpose required that I be a writer to the hilt, but then I got to do it in French, which meant it wasn't myself I was fronting but this Francophone alter-ego who is essentially an invented character. I don't get sick of myself so fast in French, but still, eventually...

The last night of the tour I stopped into a bistro on the Seine, where I often go; it's that rare kind of place where you can eat by yourself without feeling bad about it, and sometimes strike up conversations with strangers. Thus I found myself talking to a couple of high-flying young Frenchmen at the zinc where I was drinking my Caribbean rum. We spoke a fast-switching sort of Franglish (their English was probably better than my French, but I wanted to stay in character). One of them said he was a journalist, and they both pressed me for information about myself in a kind of reportorial way, which I resisted. I had clocked out of that for the day. When one asked me to write down my name on a piece of paper, I complied, thinking he'd probably do an internet search on me later on (and that would show him!). But instead--

Though I've had a longer and luckier career than most literary fiction writers are allowed, I've never really been troubled with the vicissitudes of celebrity. I can go out on the street any time I want without being mobbed by any breathless fans whatsoever (a good thing--for much of the exploration I do for my writing, inconspicuousness is a real convenience). Except this one time, about a year after my first novel came out in 1983, I walked into one of those no-hoper bars they used to have on the Bowery, and a guy of about my own age and station said, "Are you Madison Smartt Bell?" I said, "No," without even thinking about it, and proceeded on my way to the bathroom, but then I felt a little guilty. I took my beer to the guy's table and we had a bit of a conversation and I admitted who I was and we talked a little more and then I split.

I felt a little weird about that, but not half so weird as when one of the French guys took my name on the slip of paper, whipped out his smart-phone and googled me right on the spot. And then, Mais oui, and they were both at least faintly impressed, and at the time I couldn't figure out exactly what it was about my end of this experience I didn't like.

After all, recognition is something all artists desire for one reason or another. If you think your work has any merit, then you want people to know about it. Then there's vanity, to which no one is wholly immune, and the idea that recognition may also be a pathway to fortune and beautiful lovers.

I grew up when the writer as respected public figure (Hemingway, Mailer, Nadine Gordimer) was still, if distantly, on the scene. These people had a sort of gravitas that compelled you to listen to what they had to say about subjects other than literature. That changed when I was publishing my own first books in the eighties; the new famous writers (Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz) were now pure celebrities, famous purely for being famous. More recently, the various self-exposure mechanisms of the internet have made the Warholian fifteen minutes (and sometimes more!) available to anyone who cares.

Being googled by the Frenchmen annoyed me in part because I had been posing as a musician for the earlier part of our chat. (I sort of am one, for that matter, but it's not the first thing Google will tell you.) Beyond that, why should I have a problem? Any information they could find in two minutes I had probably collaborated in putting out there. Nobody threw me in the digital fishbowl, after all. I jumped in of my own accord.

But there was a sort of gotcha in their attitude that also rubbed me the wrong way. And something that reminded me how so-called primitive peoples don't like anybody to take their picture because they believe it steals their soul. I felt like I had been the object of some kind of 21st century witchcraft. The two guys (by the way I still sort of like them and wouldn't mind running into them again) grinned at me as they left, and when the one crammed his telephone down in his jeans, it was as if the widget had my identity trapped inside, so that I possessed less of it than I had five minutes before.

I am living in New York again this year, for the first time since the eighties. What a different city! - but I still spend a lot of time on the subway, and I still wear sunglasses so I can look at people without being obvious, and wonder what their lives are like. I could probably get by without the shades now. Back in the day, nobody made eye contact because it was dangerous. Now they don't do it because they're not interested. They're all gazing into some digital widget--Kindle, iPad, smart-phone--some magic mirror they hope will return an ever more pleasing image of themselves.