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The Reclusive Writer

Why some writers prefer anonymity

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Humans are, in the main, social beings. True ‘recluses’ are the exception rather than the rule. But I began this in the middle of lockdown when most of us hadn’t been beyond the boundaries of our homes for weeks, except for our daily exercise. We became, in this peculiar time, recluses all.

Writing has always seemed the ideal career choice for a shy person, since it involves sitting alone for hours on end, expressing ideas without the complications of social interaction. Is there something in the nature of the writer that lends itself to a secluded lifestyle more than other creative professions? Jung’s personality theory of extraversion and introversion is complex, but the popularized understanding is that humans fall into two broad types, extroverts or introverts. While extroverts are sociable and outgoing, introverts are more comfortable alone, contemplating internal questions and thoughts.

Do writers fall more into the broad definition of introvert rather than extrovert? Or to put it another way, are introverts more likely to turn to writing as a profession than extroverts? And does this explain the high number of writers who chose or choose to live a reclusive lifestyle, even outside the time of COVID-19.

The list of literary recluses is long. From the fourteenth-century anchoress Julian of Norwich, to the twenty-first century Elena Ferrante (if we can regard hiding behind a pseudonym as a form of reclusiveness), hermitic writers include Edgar Allen Poe (‘shy and restrained with strangers’ according to his biographer Arthur Quinn); Marcel Proust (holed himself up in a cork-lined bedroom to keep out the Parisian noise for the last three years of his life), Hunter S. Thompson (withdrew into his country home where he eventually took his own life); Octavia E. Butler (a self-proclaimed hermit), Thomas Pynchon (mysterious to the point that we barely know anything about him), Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, J. D. Salinger, Harper Lee, Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy, to name but a few.

Some writers, Poe and Hunter S. Thompson for example, seem to have had personal demons that drove them indoors. But this isn’t always the case. According to Susan Cain, in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, as a society we tend to be prejudiced against introverts, regarding them with suspicion or concern. Perhaps we are too quick to assume mental ill-health or misanthropy the motivation of all literary recluses when other more practical factors may be at play.

There is undoubtedly something fascinating about the idea of a true hermit — partly because the very nature of a recluse means they – and their reasoning – remain hidden, leaving us to conjecture what their motives might be.

Emily Dickinson, the nineteenth-century American poet, rarely left her bedroom in her father’s house, lowering a basket from her window to give gifts to children so she wouldn’t have to step outside. She even avoided her father’s funeral in the garden, hearing it instead through her bedroom door. ‘[Emily Dickinson] has been termed “recluse” and “hermit,” states an essay on Dickinson for the Poetry Foundation. ‘Both terms sensationalize a decision that has come to be seen as eminently practical.’ Dickinson’s withdrawal from nineteenth-century American middle-class society with its expectations on women of marriage (and all its attendant demands) was perhaps the only way she could preserve the time and space she craved to write her poetry.

The writer Octavia E. Butler has also been described as introverted by nature. Yet Butler was a black woman writing in the white, male-dominated world of science fiction in the 1970s. Perhaps, like Dickinson, hiding from the world with its prejudices about which professions were suitable for a black woman was, for her, the only way to ensure her imaginative life and work were protected.

J. D. Salinger, whilst neither black nor female, also said that preserving his work was his motivation for retreating from the world. ‘I’m known as a strange, aloof kind of man,’ he told The New York Times in a rare interview in 1974. ‘But all I’m doing is trying to protect myself and my work.’ In his case ‘protecting’ his work was probably less to do with giving himself the freedom to write at all, and more to do with rejecting the salacious interest the media took in him. While some authors might crave fame, Salinger clearly eschewed publicity, as did Harper Lee who appears to have withdrawn from society in order to avoid the limelight cast upon her by the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Paradoxically, and problematically for genuinely introverted authors, the less known about the creator of a piece of fiction or poetry, the more the public hungers for information about them — a kind of reverse psychology in terms of publicity, and one put to effective use by Elena Ferrante, author of the Neapolitan Novels, for whom retreating meant hiding behind a pseudonym, rather than behind walls. Ferrante maintained her anonymity for a few years before being outed by an American journalist. This paid dividends. Intrigue ran through the press as to who the author of the Neapolitan Novels really was. While the novels might well have sold by themselves, there’s no doubt that intrigue over the author’s identity helped them rise up the bestseller lists.

Ferrante’s concern seems genuinely to be that her books ‘speak for themselves’ and to divert attention away from herself as an author. It was a sentiment that William Faulkner made eloquently in his acceptance speech for the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature: ‘This award was not made to me as a man, but to my work — a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit.’

Most authors would like to feel their readers are interested in their work rather than themselves. And it would be a luxury if profit were not an issue. But to make a living, authors need to sell books. To do this, we must give readings and talk on panels, revealing our writing habits and even details about our non-writing selves, however introverted we feel. As Cormac McCarthy said, in one of the only public appearances he ever made, on the Oprah Winfrey show, ‘I don’t think it’s good for your head — if you’re writing a book, you probably shouldn’t be talking about it, you should be doing it.’ This is a noble sentiment, appropriate if you’re America’s ‘greatest living writer,’ but one that might result in a lesser author’s name vanishing into the ether.

On the other hand, natural extroverts who love attention might find it hard to endure hours alone writing their books. As a writing teacher, I have observed that the more sociable of my students often tend to be the ones who fail to complete their novels!

Withdrawal from social interaction imposed upon us by the Covid pandemic came as an unexpected relief to me, personally. It gave me time to reflect, to read, to think more deeply, and to write more as ideas, old as well as new, rose to the surface. I could write into the night if I chose, since my day was not going to be interrupted by meetings or lessons or social engagements. It offered a glimpse into the life of a reclusive writer. Writers pay good money to go on arranged ‘writing retreats’ so they can concentrate on their work. But perhaps we can learn from the pandemic that refusing outside invitations, honouring the introvert within, is actually a simpler, (and cheaper) route to greater productivity.

We struggling authors are not in the position of more famous authors for whom a reclusive lifestyle was or is a choice rather than a necessity. We may long for our work to speak for itself so that we don’t have to tout our wares. Even if, as I suspect, many writers are introverts at heart, we cannot, unless we are unusually successful or single-minded, afford to refuse all social engagements.

But some solitude is necessary for any writer. One of Terry Waite’s premises in his memoir Solitude is that in order to maintain a sense of identity in isolation, as he had to do during his five years in captivity, it is necessary to lose yourself in imagination.

Reverie like this might save us from ourselves when put in extreme isolation. But perhaps, too, a certain amount of solitude enables us to come up with ideas and stories that would otherwise be drowned out by the chatter of the world.

The fact is, today’s workaday writers need both extrovert and introvert attributes if we are to survive. We need to be extrovert enough to promote ourselves to sell our books. We also need to endure the solitude required to write alone for hours. The characteristics are in such acute conflict it is surprising anyone stays the course of being a writer today at all. We may not be in a position to retreat from the world completely, but if we are to be at all productive, we would do well to honour the introvert within from time to time, to give ourselves time and space to be alone, and to take a leaf out of the book of the true literary recluse.

Penny Hancock’s first novel Tideline was a Richard and Judy summer read in 2012 and her fourth novel I Thought I Knew You won the East Anglia Book of the Year award for fiction. Her short short stories are published in the UK and in the US.

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