Some people swoon over Ryan Gosling in The Notebook. Others prefer Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise. A twist of Mick Jagger’s hips drives some people wild. Others can’t get enough of Ricky Martin’s rumba.
All it takes to pique my interest is an intricate plot and clever turn of phrase. Yes, I am a literary groupie. (Before you jump to conclusions, I have to clarify that my obsession is purely intellectual; if you see me lurking by the stage door after an author’s appearance, it will merely be for a book signing or a quick selfie.)
There is little I enjoy more than attending a literary event to see a writer in the flesh. There, I can put a face to the words, and hear the tenor of the voice which has spoken to me through the pages of a book.
There are no prejudices when it comes to my fascination with writers. Age, beauty, charisma and charm are no factors – some of my favourite authors are notoriously prickly, others seasoned media performers. It is their words between the covers that cast the spell.
And I am not alone. Lately, I’ve found myself jostling with this new breed of groupies for a glimpse of the latest author to enter the touring circuit. A far cry from the traditional image of a groupie, the literary groupie is largely clad in black, with draped clothing, instead of the tight, short skirts and skin hugging flairs of Almost Famous.
The relationship that the reader shares with a writer, even without meeting them, is an intimate one, reversing most relationships we experience. Rather than knowing a person’s physical presence longe before you get a glimpse of their interior, a writer’s heart and soul is first laid bare in their work, while their physicality and tone of voice long remain unknown. It is the antithesis of Tinder and other dating apps, where photographs provide the first introduction to the person. In almost any social situation, the physical is the first point of contact.
Virginia Woolf spoke of the way writers expose their inner selves, even when they write fiction: “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.”
When you have loved reading a book, and saddened when it was finished, abruptly ending your relationship with characters that had become so familiar, seeing and hearing the author speak is like some kind of continuation of the story.
And authors do in some ways embody their books. As expected, in real life the author of The Rosie Project was jaunty and appeared to be surprised by his path to success; Jonathan Franzen was droll in his observations about writing and life; and Peter Temple was as reticent as some of the silent types that populate his novels.
When a writer opens up about themselves to an audience or interviewer, there is also the possibility of gaining a new insight into the human condition. I was inspired when I heard the author of some of my favourite books, Ian McEwan, talking about aging. McEwan said that while in his 30s, his mother told him she considered the age of 45 to be the peak of life. He had been doubtful, wondering why the age hadn’t been 21, or perhaps 17. However, at 67, life had taught him the appeal of being 45. It was a small insight, but a poignant one.
Although my passion for writers is purely academic, interestingly, for many, the attraction of a storyteller is physical.
In The Age this week there was a story about what attracts women to men. It turned out that the ability to tell stories was a highly attractive attribute.
A study by University of North Carolina psychology researchers found the ability to tell stories made men more attractive and improved their status in the eyes of women. The effect of the ability to spin a yarn did not have the same affect in the eyes of men (I find this very interesting, as I would have thought the cool intelligence of Lionel Shriver and Anna Funder would have been highly attractive to men.).
Lead researcher John Donahue explained the attraction of a storyteller:
“Telling stories is a universal human activity, and effective storytellers can bring about comfort, joy, and excitement to their audiences,” he said.
“The fact that storytelling ability was not valued for both men and women, but only for women alone and primarily for long-term relationships, suggested that women desire a “good dad” and that storytelling ability reflects a man’s having the potential to gain resources.”
The popularity of the storyteller has also been evident in the success of the ABC’s The Book Club, which surprised even its presenter, Jennifer Byrne. Byrne recalls one million people tuning in for the first episode of the program in which she discusses books with writers. Since then, such is the popularity of the program that it has moved from being a monthly show to a weekly one.
The popularity of writers’ festivals has also exploded. In 1962 there was only one writers’ festival in Australia, but by 2012 there were more than 30. Several of the Williamstown Literary Festival’s events have been booked out, while the Sydney Writers’ Festival has become the third largest of its in the world, attracting more than 85,000 in 2007.
Swarms of Australian booklovers go as far as to travel to Bali to attend the annual Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, while Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre events are regularly fully booked, even at huge venues such as The Melbourne Town Hall.
Perhaps all of this infatuation with writers is a symptom of the age of celebrity, in which people want a sense of knowing famous figures, even those whose names merely appear on the cover of a book. We want to see our politicians cooking for their interviewer and our chefs creating their dishes in their own kitchens. We want to see and hear those whose books have touched us.
But, if becoming a literary groupie is a symptom, then I’ve well and truly caught the disease. Now, if only I can arrange a leave pass from the kids to get to Ubud by October.