There is nothing intellectually superior about being inclined to assemble words. The ability to write is very nearly universal in many parts of the world, on the increase in others and not needed by some traditional communities. It is by no means essential for peace of mind or to find enlightenment. Why then is it so coveted as a badge of supposed superiority?
What is it about being regarded as a writer that is so alluring? Most people are writers in the same way that most people are counters, but few people seem to desire to be counted as a counter. The term ‘writer’ has a presumed lustre. There is no logical reason why that presumption should be considered valid.
More people than ever are engaged in writing today, largely as a result of modern technology, and that is wonderful. We should celebrate the cornucopia we create, even if our outpourings do not meet with widespread approval. What we should not do, however, is presume that practising our art qualifies us for enhanced esteem. It does not. Nor should that be its purpose, or consequence.
One of the most irritating instances of this presumed superior status is to be found when well-known people insist in introducing themselves as writers in addition to the principal reason for their fame. This can often be witnessed on ‘celebrity’ versions of quiz shows or panel games when they might introduce themselves as an “actor and writer” or “comedian and writer” or even more likely as a “writer and comedian”. In these cases, the pronunciation is often slightly enhanced to “righteh” which, coincidently, rhymes more resonantly with brighter.
The source of this phenomenon lies in the reverence that was previously attributed to published authors, awarding them the status of being an intellectual. That distinction is invalid when universally applied either to all who write, or to all who are published. Authorship covers everything from scientific journals, to an infant’s first reading book, or a pornographic screenplay. Where should the intellectual line be drawn? Should it be drawn anywhere? Drawing it would risk it being considered inferior. It would have to be written.
There are intellects that defy transcription into ink or pixels. There is the intellect of sound for example. Music can be notated but no-one would suggest that such a transition retains the experience encapsulated in the sound itself.
Because societies have risen to be dominated by those proficient in words and numbers there is a disinclination to attribute an equal or superior standing to intellects that do not necessarily need words or numbers such as dance, or spatial appreciation, or the capacity to form visual compositions. Exploring expression in those areas does not seem to attract the same presumed kudos. Far fewer people use music, dance or the visual arts to claim elitism.
Other types of intelligence are even more vital than aesthetic creation or cerebral contemplation – the intellect of empathy for example, exercised by millions of the most underpaid who work in basic care of the sick, elderly, vulnerable or disadvantaged. There is no clamouring among either celebrities or frustrated unknowns to classify themselves as a “comedian and care-provider”. It would be admirable if there was.
We scribblers and wordsmiths should not aspire to be considered as superior because of our chosen art form. Choice should not enter into it. A genuine artist is not someone who chooses their form of expression. The true artists are those who cannot choose to not express themselves.
A real artist understands all too well that expression is beyond compulsory; it is obligatory. Life cannot be lived unless it is lived that way. Succumbing to that obligation does not make us in any way superior.
The Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller was asked on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs to what degree he thought artists should be revered. He replied:
There should be no reverence at all for artists. They’re just lucky people who get to do what others don’t.”
He is right. Success is a function of luck, not of talent nor even of hard work, though those qualities can be useful if good fortune calls. There are, however, many successful people who lack talent or the inclination to work hard, or both. There are even more who have talent in abundance but never get the lucky break to widely share what they create.
The publishing industry is complicit in the esteem charade, for understandable reasons – it exists primarily to make money despite any collateral intellectual respect it may attract. Changing a book cover can revolutionise its sales which proves that the public eschews the most famous axiom with respect to judging a book. It also proves that publishers sell covers rather than content. Publishing the writing of the well-known is an irresistible temptation for an industry specialising in impulse buys.
Scott Pack, editor in chief of Eye Books said
Publishing is a great industry, but it can also be a lazy, copycat industry. If you can sell a book because of the image of the author, whether a comedian or a pop star, and get some free publicity for it, then that ticks at least some boxes.”
The unknown children’s author hammering her keyboard in Hebden Bridge is a long way from the privileged launch pad enjoyed by a celebrity with a book deal. Celebrity ticked boxes are a Catch 22 type barrier for her. Scott Pack added:
In the end a book will only sell in bigger numbers if it is also a really good story.”
That’s not commonly true for some of the best-selling books of all – cookery books – and the best-selling cookery books are by celebrity cooks. (How many of the recipes within are ever used; or even read?)
When it comes to fiction celebrities may well be on a par with non-celebrities at writing it. Fiction is not very hard to write. It’s very hard to sell. It does take time, tenacity and discipline to hone into shape but then luck plays its cruel part. Regardless of their starting point, creative people who capitalise on their good fortune with commendable skill and effort do not necessarily deserve esteem – except perhaps for their generosity.
We cannot take credit for our natural inclinations, even when others may classify those inclinations as talents. We can only take credit for the way in which we nurture, apply and donate our gifts. The credit should be for the generosity, not for any implied superiority. On the contrary, our calling is to not be admired, but to serve.
Successful or not, our duty is to expose the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful and share our version of the vision.
True artistry is a disease. The obligation to investigate, explore, discover, reshape and reveal is a cruel instinct. It does not lead to public paradise, but to Pandora’s box. The casket we cannot resist contains much that burns. Those interminable fires can shed generous and uplifting light, or they can illuminate the darkest depths and show terrible demons.
If you aspire to be a righteh beware; it will probably not raise your esteem, but it may lead you to something much, much brighter.
 The Observer newspaper 20 January 2019.