Atwood: I think it’s because writers don’t have jobs. You’re not employed by the government to be a writer. Unless you are employed by the government to be a writer.
MacIntyre: In which case, you’re not a writer!
Atwood: If you’re self-employed, you can’t be fired. A lot of people have jobs, and they might wish to have expressed themselves, to have said something on some public occasion. But they’re afraid to do it, because they are afraid of getting fired. Writers are not part of that culture – I wouldn’t call it of fear, exactly, but of consequences.
What does the public demand of you?
Atwood: They want you to be their spokesperson, and therefore to subordinate your primary responsibility, which is to your writing. They want you to subordinate that responsibility to whatever it is they want you to say.
Vassanji: And pressure you on the kind of writing. When the prize is around, it puts pressure on the writers. And young writers wonder, “How do I win that prize?” This is the downside. There may be great books which are nominated, but if you’re not careful with a filtering process in terms of trends …
Atwood: You mean you might want to write the kind of book that would win a prize.
Vassanji: Right, especially if you’re young, there might be people who are pressured to think like that, by the public, by their friends, by their families.
Atwood: As my sister-in-law once said to me, “Why don’t you write a novel about a great white shark and make a lot of money?”
MacIntyre: I think the downside of the big prize, and the publicity, is toxic celebrity. Suddenly authors are supposed to behave like rock stars, or appear to have a kind of charisma.
Atwood: You have a problem with that? [laughs]
MacIntyre: Well, it does get in the way of the more serious point I was going to make [laughs]. Which is: I think this is, commendably, a country of really avid readers. And you see that in just the number of book clubs out there. I often wish there were a way we could confederate those book clubs into a political, cultural force. When that community, disparate as it is, wants to hear more from you, about what you think, or how you did it, or what you’re doing next, I personally feel an obligation to this community who are dedicated readers. They believe in books, and they believe in writers for all the right reasons. When the prize brings that huge light and singles you out, you feel good, that’s human. But it does bring a responsibility to the culture of reading.
Atwood: So, first responsibility, therefore, to your writing, and your readers.
MacIntyre: I don’t want to be false about this and say that I hated winning, after I picked myself up off the floor and swallowed the rest of my Scotch. But after that immediate and shallow kind of feeling, this sense sets in that now people know who you are, and they’re buying your bloody book, and it better be good. And it’s going to take a lot of your time. And I would rather be doing something else with my time, but it’s something that comes along with all the goodies. And so you live with it, and hopefully, as a writer, you grow and mature on the human energy and connections with people.
Clarke: I take it and run with it. As a reward. But it makes you uncomfortable, since you want to duplicate, or have another book that’s just as good. So you start writing for the Giller. And I think that’s a problem with young people: They want to write a Giller book.
Atwood: But there is really no such thing. There’s been a huge variety.
MacIntyre: You have to write for some internal compulsion, some drive.
Vassanji: For me, I’m looking for a place to hide. You reach a certain age, and you can write as honestly as you want. And you don’t want to be a part of a lot of the things that go on around you, the literary politics, the prize announcements and so on. At some point you just want to write, because you’re not going to live forever. So you just go away somewhere. I haven’t found a place yet, but I just want to get away.
Clarke: Try Barbados.
This discussion has been condensed and edited.Report Typo/Error