When do writers find the time to do any actual writing? It sometimes seems as though they are always speaking — delivering lectures, pontificating in bookshops, opining on talk shows. If they are lucky enough to win awards, they clear their throats and make grateful remarks; when the books they have somehow secreted between their speaking engagements are at last released, they discuss their “inspirations” and their “process” on podcasts or radio shows. More and more, the life of a professional author involves not writing but talking.
Of course, most people talk all the time and think nothing of it, life being a regrettably non-epistolary phenomenon. They explain their ailments to their doctors; they chat with their coworkers and complain to (and about) their friends. If they spew a few inelegant or inapt phrases in the course of all this nattering, well, they have no choice but to continue fumbling: conversation does not allow for revision or retraction. Why should writers be exempt from an otherwise universal indignity? They, too, are people, and people speak and misspeak. Still, I have always thought that there is something peculiarly invidious, even offensive, about the expectation that writers talk, at least in their capacity as writers.
No doubt I am biased by my own distaste for the exercise. I can imagine few horrors greater than an editor proposing the torment of a phone call, or a podcaster innocently inviting me to record a segment. Fortified by the protections of print, I have the courage to ask them: Who in their right mind would want to talk, much less listen, to a person who has contrived to spend as much of her life as possible crouched over her computer in isolation, deleting unsatisfactory variants of a single sentence for upwards of an hour? Nothing in my daily practice has prepared me for the gauntlet of a tête-à-tête. Writing is an antidote to the immediacy and inexactitude of speech, and I resent any attempt to drag me back into the sludge of dialogue.
But I also balk at the prospect of a speaking writer for reasons that more or less generalize. For one thing, authors are often poor orators, inept at the most basic mechanics of verbalization. They hum and halt and hesitate, interrupting themselves, appending caveats to their caveats, thrumming a chorus of tentative “ums.” They are drafters and amenders, if not by vocation than by profession, and in conversation, their strongest pronouncements tend to be timid, as if they were editing in real time. Even when a writer musters a declaration or masters the rhythm of a spoken sentence, her voice often betrays her. I once made the mistake of watching a video of a distinguished philosopher at a conference — and thereby discovering that he emits squawks as discordant as his papers are crisp and crystalline. And then there is the perennial challenge of pacing. Accustomed to laboring at length in seclusion, many writers speak glacially, as if they are lowering themselves into cool water, venturing one word and adjusting to its temperature before cautiously proceeding to the next.
At least as embarrassing as all these failures of delivery are the things that writers actually say. Books and essays are the product of long bouts of thinking, which makes writers fantastically ill-suited to summoning opinions instantaneously. In spoken interviews, Jonathan Franzen has confessed, among other things, that he considered adopting an Iraqi war orphan as a means of understanding the younger generation — an admission that he surely would have found occasion to excise from an essay. Indeed, it was his New Yorker editor who later talked him out of the idea.
Nabokov, who famously insisted on preparing answers to interviewers in writing and then reading them aloud, was averse to talking precisely because he had the good sense to worry that utterances excreted on the spot would be graceless or inane. When one journalist accused him of trying to cultivate a more exciting persona by eliminating “dull patches” from his public appearances, he explained, in characteristically polished prose,
I’m not a dull speaker, I’m a bad speaker, I’m a wretched speaker. The tape of my unprepared speech differs from my written prose as much as the worm differs from the perfect insect—or, as I once put it, I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.
He agreed to talk only under very regimented conditions: “questions have to be sent to me in writing, answered by me in writing, and reproduced verbatim.” In this way, in-person encounters were elevated into exchanges of letters.
Admittedly, many of Nabokov’s peers have fared much better at the podium. Dorothy Parker was renowned for her quick wit, and David Foster Wallace held his own when he was grilled by Charlie Rose on late-night television. But even if a writer happens to be a good speaker, her gift is entirely incidental. To be adept at honing sentences for weeks or months is no guarantee of any aptitude for improvisation. Nor does skill at fictionalizing life or theorizing about it correlate with any facility for entering into the thick of things. Writers who succeed at talking do not succeed qua writers but qua something else.
For a confirmed anti-talker like myself, it is hard to resist the temptation to declare the era of the podcast uniquely debased. But in fact, the impulse to favor speech is not unprecedented. The history of thought is full of reading-bashers: Derrida prefers speaking to writing for convoluted reasons I can’t quite comprehend, and Socrates opposes writing on the grounds that a text cannot answer questions or respond to objections. (In fairness, he dislikes pre-written speeches for the same reason.) As the philosopher argues in The Phaedrus,
Writing is unfortunately like painting, for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence….if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot defend themselves.
Instead, he recommends dialogue.
It is true that speech has the benefit of allowing for direct confrontation, but it also enmeshes us in imprecisions, which may explain why Plato himself wrote things down. What use is the ability to pose questions when their answers are as shoddy as Franzen’s? Conversation extorts immediate responses, but it does not permit us to mull over our replies, or to sharpen the terms in which they are expressed.
It is demoralizing enough that even Nabokov sometimes degenerated into inarticulate normalcy; there is no need to add insult to injury by documenting or publicizing his lapses. The reader’s mania for catching writers speaking is worse than misguided or voyeuristic: it is downright sadistic, the literary equivalent of the paparazzi’s fetish for capturing celebrities in compromising poses.
Most writers are not talkers for a reason. Stop encouraging them to humiliate themselves in conversation so that they can return to the impossibly difficult business of perfecting themselves in print.
Becca Rothfeld is working on an essay collection, to be published by Metropolitan Books. She is a contributing editor at The Point and, beginning in the fall of 2022, will also become a contributing editor at The Boston Review