Why coolness for writers is utterly beneath contempt
July 15, 2014 | 2:33 pm
ShortList Magazine, a free giveaway glossy from the land of Cool Britannia which “has the biggest circulation of any men’s lifestyle magazine in Britain,” has shared with us its guide to “The 50 Coolest Authors of All Time.” It begins: “Writing a runaway literary hit is incredibly hard, and doing it with aching volumes of cool (which is how we’d all want to do it, given the chance) is nigh on impossible. These 50 managed it.” Well, here’s my view on why cool is something that writers – as opposed to readers of freebie giveaway men’s glossies – should avoid like the plague.
For a start, there’s the problem that actually writing, in the words of Jessamyn West, as opposed to posing, “is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.” Now where are you going to find the admirers to reassure you about how cool you are if you have to spend your working life alone? Franz Kafka toiled almost unseen and unrecognized. J.D. Salinger retreated into reclusiveness the moment that the taint of coolness came anywhere near him. Maybe they knew something that ShortList Magazine readers, or writers, don’t?
Or let’s delve into the delightful world of writers’ diseases. Take your pick from Christy Brown‘s celebral palsy, or Flannery O’Connor‘s lupus, or Dennis Potter‘s psoriasis, whose associated complications probably led to terminal pancreatic cancer. And if those don’t thrill you, there are plenty others out there.
Then there’s the artistic and psychological problems issues associated with coolness itself. If you follow a Ballardian interpretation, ” voyeurism, self-disgust, the infantile basis of our dreams and longings – these diseases of the psyche have now culminated in the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect.” (And nothing more voyeuristic and infantile than the craving for cool, eh?) Compare that with the uncoolness of emotion: “raw passion, a force that drives us to act, and to act with commitment, something we are ‘taken’ by as if by an outside influence: it is a fundamental active engagement between self and world.” What a valuable quality that is in a writer. But it can tend to crease your threads when you’re trying to look cool.
Or there’s the personality flaws that can lead to an obsession with image, presentation, how others see you, and all the other hallmarks of cool – flaws that writers are peculiarly well-equipped to diagnose. There’s narcissistic personality disorder, with its terror of emotional entanglement, poor performance with women, deep-rooted inadequacy and self-loathing, and utter selfishness. Then again, there’s psychosis, as personified by the iconic American Psycho created by ShortList Magazine’s Number Two coolest writer, Brett Easton Ellis: Patrick Bateman, who “dresses impeccably, is groomed to a tee and can do a thousand (A THOUSAND!) stomach crunches.” Oh, and if you follow the classical diagnoses, he would also suffer from mechanical and meaningless outbursts of frustrated rage, a diminished or absent self, utter failure to develop a serious life plan, and total inability to experience any satisfaction or fulfillment beyond imitating the pleasures of real human beings. No wonder so few writers have ever been diagnosed as psychos, American or otherwise.
Let’s hear from Ernest Hemingway, Number Six on the Coolness List, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone.” How uncool is that. And how worthwhile.