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When Authors Turn Reclusive

In a piece that pretty much stems from Denis Johnson‘s blanket refusal to do any press whatsoever for his brand new (and long-awaited) novel TREE OF SMOKE, Scott Timberg at the LA Times investigates why authors of a certain age – Salinger, Pynchon, Lee, and other usual suspects – decided to shut themselves away from media and from publication and why that’s damn near impossible nowadays. Being a recluse can come off as arrogance, sensitivity, or a noble dissent, says Timberg — a high-minded refusal to engage with America’s culture of celebrity, erosion of privacy and self-promotion. It may be just the wishful fantasy that their books might arrive unmediated, might “speak for themselves.”

Arthur Salm, the book editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune, calls it common sense. “Reclusive writers are living perfectly reasonable lives,” he said. “The fact that they’re reclusive isn’t the phenomenon: The phenomenon is our reaction to the fact that they’re living normal lives. It has the opposite effect than what I think these writers want: People are intrigued by it. ‘My God — look!’ Your idea is to disappear and you end up with the spotlight on you.” But in the age of MySpace, Facebook and 24/7 celebrity coverage – not to mention the growing need for self-promotion to get any sort of attention – going the way of Denis Johnson is that much rarer.

“Everybody wants to be famous now,” said New Republic critic Lee Siegel, whose AGAINST THE MACHINE: BEING HUMAN IN THE AGE OF THE ELECTRONIC MOB comes out in January. “That’s what YouTube is about. Fame, for anyone who’s experienced it, is a calamity; you can see it in the faces of actors. People seem to not want a private life now — they’re dancing naked online — but with the recluse you see the most pristine and old-fashioned notion of how sacred a private life really is. And a writer, especially, needs to keep his interiority detached.” Which is why someone like Thomas Pynchon can keep his mystique (I’ve got my own deliberately far-fetched theories that a few drinks will pry out of me), because as David Kipen remarks, “It almost helps that there’s no interviews with Pynchon in print saying, ‘I like to sit around in my underwear and watch soap operas.’ Because we don’t want to know that.”

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