By James Draney
Are authors ever as interesting as their books? Usually not. Yet writers today are compelled to promote not just their work but themselves. In the twenty-first century we don’t just read novels or watch films; we also consume their creators, whose names exert the force of brands. Being charismatic in public is part of the self-promotion required to sustain a literary career. Last March, the critic Christian Lorentzen pointed out the aesthetic consequences of this compulsory careerism. The careerist work of self-promotion has become, in Lorentzen’s words, “the dominant literary style” in American fiction.
I thought of Lorentzen’s essay as I read Colm Tóibín’s The Magician (2021), which dramatizes the life of the 20th-century German novelist Thomas Mann. Tóibín’s Mann is the antithesis of today’s social-media savvy author. Here is a novelist who attains the status of a celebrity intellectual while maintaining the lifestyle of a reclusive artist. Tóibín’s Mann gets to have it both ways: he is invited to dine at the White House and still retains an aura of modernist aloofness.
In Tóibín’s rendering, Mann’s life is divided into two overlapping spheres: the life and the work. Ideas for stories simply “spring on [Mann],” as Tóibín says in last week’s episode of Novel Dialogue. In The Magician, all of Mann’s major works are the result of everyday life springing him to inspiration: he gets his chest x-rayed in a TB clinic and writes The Magic Mountain (1924); he chats with a record-store owner about the composer Arnold Schoenberg—and voila, Doctor Faustus (1947) appears four years later. Even the homoeroticism of Death in Venice (1912), which made Mann famous outside of Germany, “…was not part of a strategy” of self-promotion, as Tóibín puts it. In Tóibín’s telling, the novella was the innocent product of a family holiday, where Mann spied a handsome Polish boy and dreamed up his fable. The Magician dramatizes these mysterious moments of transformation, when ordinary life becomes an extraordinary work of art.
Compare this with today’s Professional Writers, for whom “life” and “work” are mediated by the job of self-promotion. Today’s autofictions dramatize the day-to-day of being a professional: promoting oneself online, acquiring an agent, getting an advance, being interviewed on podcasts, or failing to do those things. In Sean Thor Conroe’s recent Fuccboi (2022) an aspiring novelist falls into podcasting and Postmating to sustain his fantasy of what he calls “That Art Life.” Likewise, the playwright-narrator of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010) dreams of becoming “as famous as one can be” (3). In these novels, artmaking is shaped by, and coterminous with, charismatic self-promotion.
We should be cautious, though, when we idealize Mann’s allergy to public scrutiny. A closeted gay man living in virulently homophobic times, he feared that self-disclosure would destroy his reputation. But Tóibín’s novel suggests that the power of Mann’s art was at least partially the result of his closeting. In The Magician, Mann’s jealousy of his children’s sexual openness is softened by his conviction that their habit for self-revelation precludes their ability to make great art. Klaus and Erica Mann “…seemed to match the very time they lived in, in their open bisexuality, in their flair for publicity and notoriety, in their tireless enthusiasm for fame” (278). Yet, in the end, the two writer-siblings have “…failed to make a substantial mark on the world…” (279).
And what of literary authors today? What sort of mark can they make in an economic system that demands total exposure? The Magician attempts to answer this question by means of examining the past. Tóibín is not nostalgic for the 19th-century’s repressive norms: bourgeois privacy was more poison than cure for Mann. Rather, this novel suggests that authorial charisma is not synonymous with ceaseless self-disclosure. The savviest contemporary authors—like Tóibín—manage their visibility while withholding something of themselves from public scrutiny. The best a writer can hope for is to be less interesting than her works.
James Draney is a PhD candidate in English at Duke.
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