Smart Talk: On Arthur Krystal

Arthur Krystal is a suspicious sort of man, the kind you can imagine checking each piece of fruit for bruises and blemishes before buying a single plum. He is also the kind of man who watches Vladimir Nabokov and Lionel Trilling being interviewed on YouTube, and becomes outraged when he sees Nabokov is: “turning over index cards. He’s glancing at notes. He’s reading. Fluent in three languages, he relies on prefabricated responses to talk about his work. Am I disappointed? I am at first, but then I think: writers don’t have to be brilliant conversationalists; it’s not their job to be smart except, of course, when they write.” This observation sends Krystal on a characteristic, essayistic exploration called “When Writers Speak.” In it he tries to tease out what we expect from the public persona of our writers (especially the great ones), and why so many of them seem at a loss for words when the microphone or the tape recorder is substituted for the notebook or the computer.

There is evidence on both sides of Krystal’s argument, writers who were known wits with social grace to spare and those who can’t seem to string two sentences together out loud. In the awkward camp, Krystal cites William Hazlitt who claims, “An Author is bound to write — well or ill, wisely or foolishly. But I do not see that he is bound to talk, any more than he is bound to dance, or ride, or fence better than other people. Reading, study, silence, thought are a bad introduction to loquacity.” On the social side, he lists Oscar Wilde, Samuel Johnson, Coleridge, Shaw, Somerset Maugham, Louis Auchincloss, and W.H. Auden. But even Auden said that “literary gatherings, cocktail parties and the like, are a social nightmare because writers have no ‘shop’ to talk…The literary equivalent of talking shop would be writers reciting their own work at one another, an unpopular procedure for which only very young writers have the nerve.” And would surely make for utterly terrible parties.

Krystal bemoans the publicity machine which forces writers to talk, especially on the radio: “To hear yourself on the radio is to wonder why anyone has ever slept with you.” Thanks to the humilities of publicity, to be a writer in public is to be exposed to one’s audience. Writers have put forth the private self into the public realm. Watching YouTube again, Krystal sees David Foster Wallace on Charlie Rose sum up the writer’s public/private paradox: “Writing for publication is a very weird thing because part of you is a nerd…another part is the worst ham of all…You want to stay in a library and the other part wants to be celebrated.” Krystal claims that even those writers who are good at publicity — he names Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, remarking that the Brits seem overall better at this chatting, self-promotion gambit — don’t talk as good a game as they write. Should Proust or Tolstoy suddenly appear on Larry King, he speculates, expect to be disappointed.

What Krystal builds to is a clever conclusion about how a writer’s work and life intersect: “Like most writers, I seem to be smarter in print than in person. In fact, I am smarter when I am writing.” He does not claim this to be an original thought; rather, he has caged it from Edgar Allan Poe, who says he picked it up from Montaigne (though this might be some typical Poe trickery since Krystal can’t find it in his Montaigne). “‘People talk about thinking, but for my part I never think except when I sit down to write.’” This is why writers — with the exceptions noted — make lousy talkers. They need the discipline of the phrase, the sentence, the paragraph in order to do their best work. Talking is free-form, it’s meandering, it’s floating. Writing, when it is good, is grounded, and that successful tethering of ideas to a world, fictional or real, is what we celebrate when we celebrate writers. Krystal is right to be a little suspicious of those smooth-talking writers. Isn’t there a danger that they are spilling their best thinking all over the place instead of capturing it on the page for posterity? Of course, in the age of Charlie Rose and YouTube, given how much of writers’ talk is recorded for posterity, being a good talker doesn’t hurt — especially if you can manage without crib notes.