Keats House in Hampstead, North London, is a dangerous place for a writer. Walking through the spare, clean rooms; admiring the sketches of his boyish, elegantly wasted face it’s hard to feel anything but crushing inadequacy.
Keats was more than a Romantic poet. He was the apotheosis of popular notions of what constitutes the “writer’s life.” From the giving-up of a profitable career in order to write poetry, to the dying young, broken-hearted and far from home, Keats marked out territory generations of writers and wannabes have struggled to claim. In our minds, tragedy authenticates talent. We roll an envious eye at Hemingway’s suicide, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s tear-and-alcohol stained romance, and Flannery O’Connor’s terminal illness. Perhaps it is because we secretly long to be not only the tellers of stories, but also the heroes. Maybe the impulse to lionise flawed lives is a defence against overwhelming expectations (“I, too, would be a literary giant if I could escape the suburbs and spend my time drinking rum in Old Havana.”) Whatever the case, the unthinking acceptance of clichés about the “writer’s life” is absurd and dangerous.
Dangerous, because it creates and artificial distinction between writing and life, and diminishes the achievements of writers of every caste. Ian Sansom notes that his literary hero Flann O’Brien, “had a proper job and took his family responsibilities seriously” then adds lugubriously that, “in the end he was destroyed by them… [and] descended into journalism.” What arrogant nonsense. O’Brien wrote surreal, brilliant books that prompt other novelists to call him their literary hero. Why is it a cause for complaint that he also had a family and a profession?
Many great writers reconcile their art with other vocations. Edith Wharton was a designer before she was a novelist (her first book was about architecture) and she spent World War I in France doing relief work. George Orwell didn’t just write about the Spanish Civil War, he went to Catalonia and carried a gun. The truth is, few writers are exclusive. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf both wrote brilliant modernist literature. He did so by spending twelve hours a day at his desk; she also ran a printing press, gave lectures, and wrote spirited anti-war essays. That doesn’t make her less of a writer; it makes her more of a person.
Therein lies the nonsense of romanticising the short, solipsistic, stymied writer’s life. “Suffering doesn’t ennoble,” Martha Gellhorn wrote, “Why should it?” And if it doesn’t ennoble, why should it inspire? Conflating talent and tragedy asserts the unprovable theory that bad lives make good books. If Scott Fitzgerald were happy he wouldn’t have written Tender Is The Night but he might have written something better.
Mythologising the “writer’s life” is alluring because we can use it to justify recklessness, self-hatred, chemical excess, and emotional cruelty. All of which have a certain bent appeal. The problem with looking for artistic validation in unhappiness, though, is that only the unhappiness is guaranteed; the art is still up to us.