Monday, October 18, 2010

Reclusive Authors

A hermit is simply a person to whom civilization has failed to adjust itself. – Will Cuppy

There’s a certain mystique attached to the idea of recluse writers. I can easily visualize the passionate author who lets nothing interfere with his work—living each moment only to find the perfect word, phrase or sentence. In many ways it sounds like an ideal life.

I like solitude. There are times when I think I could easily be a recluse—simply reading and writing as the world spins around me. Then I realize how much I enjoy my family and friends, going out to lunch and dinner, shopping and traveling and know I couldn’t be a hermit for long.

An article on, “In Defense of Privacy: The 20th Century’s Most Reclusive Authors,” went a step further to convince me that reclusiveness wasn’t the lifestyle for me, but it did contain a lot of juicy tidbits. For instance Marcel Proust soundproofed his studio with cork walls and installed layers of heavy curtains to keep the light out.

“He looked like a man who no longer lives outdoors or by day, a hermit who hasn’t emerged from his oak tree for a long time.

Before he died of pneumonia and a pulmonary abscess in 1922, there was a three year period where Proust rarely (if ever) left his apartment. Dramatic, for sure, but he’s got nothing on Ms. Emily Dickinson, who didn’t leave her family compound for 20 years.”

Most authors would be ecstatic to have their book catapult into instant commercial success like Catcher in the Rye. However J. D. Salinger requested, “…his photo be removed from the dust jacket of future editions and his agent burn any fan mail.”

According to Salinger, “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure… I pay for this kind of attitude. I’m known as a strange, aloof kind of man.”

Other authors in the article are Denis Johnson, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy and Harper Lee. McCarthy was on Oprah and Pynchon appeared as himself (albeit he had a paper sack on his head) on the Simpsons so I’m not sure they really qualify as true recluses. also compiled a list of reclusive authors/artists. The list had many of the same authors , but also included Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist Bill Watterson.

“Following his 1995 retirement, Watterson has spent most of his time painting and drawing in the company of his father and turning down any and all autographs, public appearances, and appeals to license his iconic characters.”

Because she wasn’t part of the 20th century, Emily Dickinson only received a slight mention in the first article. She wrote over 18000 pieces, but only published a small number of them.

“Her exile seemed to come more from a simple desire to stay at home and keep with her beloved hobbies and comfortable routine rather than the expected misanthropy, mental illness, desire for privacy, or disillusionment with fame and the media. On her rare excursions out, Dickinson would generally clad herself in the white dress that would eventually become her trademark.”

The biggest recluse I found, was Portuguese poet/author Fernando Pessoa. According to, “Pessoa, the man, was a bookkeeper. A loner. He had no friends, no loves, no family. He lived most of his life in a single room in Lisbon; his literary alter egos, and their writings, his only companions. He died in obscurity, a recluse, in 1935.

"The poets themselves may have been Pessoa's best creation, but his greatest literary achievement is The Book of Disquiet. It is a "factless" autobiography, filled with observations, aphorisms, ruminations, haphazard musings, dreams, moods and the keenest revelation of an artist's soul. What makes this book — this fictional diary — transcendent is that it deals with the eternal quests: the meaning of life, of death; the existence of God, good and evil; the questions of love, reality, consciousness; and the disquiet of the soul. It quenches the thirsty mind and floods the arid heart.”

I’m wondering, if in this age of multimedia marketing with numerous social sites like FaceBook and Twitter, is it even possible to become a recluse writer? Are you hermit material? Do you know of other writer recluses?

Tags: Will Cuppy, reclusive authors, hermits, Proust, Emily Dickinson, Bill Watterson, Pessoa, Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Salinger,


Jim Murdoch said...

Most definitely. Apart from my wife I’ve only met three other writers (all friends of my wife) socially. Before the arrival of the Internet I briefly corresponded with a poet in England but we had very different approaches and the correspondence dried up. I have only ever been to one poetry reading and that was over thirty years ago; I didn’t enjoy it. I don’t hate blogging but I do find its reciprocal nature a bit hard at times. I’ve joined half a dozen social networks but I never know what to do when I’m there; I really am an antisocial pig at heart. I couldn’t schmooze to save my life.

Jan Morrison said...

When I was twelve I wrote an essay on being a hermit. It got published in some big high school anthology because it was supposed to be a 'fine piece of irony' only it wasn't. ha. I swing between the two states of very gregarious to leave me the hell alone. I'm used to it now but don't know how others perceive me. oh well.

Anonymous said...

I can look for the reference to a site on which there are many articles on this question.

Joanne said...

When I'm in the thick of a writing project, hours, days even, can pass when I'm perfectly content to not leave the house. Except for a walk. But then some pendulum swings, and I have to get out and about and join the world for awhile, to touch base with reality.

Carol Kilgore said...

I always enjoy going out, mixing and mingling. But I must have quiet time at home, too, to read, think, and write. Without that time, I'm pretty cranky. So it's a balancing act for me.

Mason Canyon said...

I can understand a writer wanting to be a recluse. Once you step out into that spotlight so to speak, any and every thing you do becomes food for fodder.

Thoughts in Progress

Karen Walker said...

I am not hermit material, but I do love quiet and solitude. I don't enjoy social occasions where I don't know many people. I find it hard to introduce myself. That's what makes it hard at book signings and the like - reaching out and putting myself forward to strangers is just not me. I think if one wants to publish and be successful as a writer, they must be visible and accessible.

Darcia Helle said...

I love the idea of a soundproofed room! However, I do love the light and require lots of windows, so the heavy curtains wouldn't do. I'd go for the 20 foot electric fence to keep out unwanted visitors!

I need privacy and have always been an introvert. But I can't imagine becoming a true recluse, with no human contact whatsoever.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Jim, schmoozing is my strong suit, either.

Jan, I wonder if there’s a way we could create a type of meter, with gregarious at one end and leave me the hell alone at the other, and a lot of options in between. We counld then display it in a prominent place when we’re writing to warn of our mood.

Joanne and Carol, it sounds like you both are able to manage a healthy mixture of alone and social time.

Mason, there’s got to be a happy middle ground, where a person can claim some sort of recognition without becoming a full-fledged-watch-your every-move celebrity.

Karen, I think you’re right – in this age, most writers do have to be visible and accessible.

Darcia, I couldn’t stand being in the dark either and agree that soundproofing doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

Teresa aka JW said...

I am a happy (or could be) hermit writer. I like the reclusive life, but others taunt me out of my safe aloneness. :)


Arlee Bird said...

To each his own I guess. I like to be at home and have times of solitude and quiet, but I also like to socialize at other times.
I think there is also a difference between being reclusive and reserved or introverted. An author like Salinger seems to me to be arrogantly self-centered and I don't think he could become the legend today if he were just breaking into the writing scene. On the other hand, I think someone like Cormac McCarthy tends to be a quiet intellectual who is not overly predisposed to social activity, but is willing to be part of the scene to whatever extent is necessary to promote his books.
Different personality types is the bottom line. And maybe there is some kind of fear of having to deal with criticism.

Tossing It Out

Hart Johnson said...

I can sort of see being a hermit. I love interaction, but of the variety I get online more than most of my every day interactions. That isn't to say I don't have people I REALLY enjoy, and I'd want them around... and I like travel... but the every day stuff that forces us out there I'd happily give up, and I would be content for days at a time without seeing anyone.

Not giving up the outdoors though. My walks are very important.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

In some ways, I think it's almost easier to be reclusive--with all the social media, I hardly have to promote outside of my house at all! :)

Holly Ruggiero said...

Oh, I’m hermit material – ask anyone. (teehee)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'm sure I qualify! I like socializing in real life with friends, family, and church, but I'm leery about going out in front of the public as an author. And I can relate to not wanting a photo on the dust jacket.

Helen Ginger said...

I could be a hermit if the notoriety or paparazzi got too bad. It'd be more fun, though, if I had lots of money.

Rayna M. Iyer said...

I am not gregarious by nature, and can survive on my own. But I have increasingly come to realise that I do crave intelligent human company, though I am happy for that to be from my virtual community.

But in this day and age, it must be hard to be a successful writer if you are a hermit.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Fortunately I'm not shy! I have no problem getting out in front of the public.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Teresa, we all need those “others” in our life to give us some sort of balance.

Lee, I never thought about the fear factor of criticism as a reason for becoming a recluse, but it does make sense.

Hart, I do think fresh air and walks are important for getting the brain to work. I couldn’t give those up either.

Elizabeth, good point – the online community might make it easier to be a recluse.

Holly, I want to know more!

Alex, from what I can tell from your virtual tour so far is that you have nothing to fear about going out in public as an author.

Helen, the money thing might make it a lot easier to be a hermit.

Rayna, I agree it is nice to be a part of a virtual community.

Diane, I think you are the type of author publishers want – one who enjoys public speaking and pursues it. I'm envious.

Helen Ginger said...

The money would make being a hermit easier, but then what would you spend your money on?

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Anonymous said...

I'm a bit of an introvert but not reclusive. With the Internet anyone can stay home while reaching the global masses. So yeah, a writer can still be reclusive in this day and age.

Stephen Tremp

DazyDayWriter said...

I value quiet, stillness, and peace a great deal, but I also enjoy, and need, a community of friends and fellow writers. I guess finding the balance is the tricky part. Great post, Jane, thank you!

Christina Rodriguez said...

While he's not a writer, illustrator Stephen Gammell of "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" fame strikes me as a bit of a recluse since he doesn't even maintain a website, nor do I see him at the various literature-related events here in MN. Of course, reclusiveness is sort of the nature of most children's book artists while we're on deadline. I hardly leave the house myself on some days!

Jane's Ride - Novelist Jane Kennedy Sutton's journey through the ups and downs of the writing, publishing and marketing world