:: Article

Writers’ rooms, rewritten

By Karl Whitney.


Brian Dillon, I Am Sitting in a Room, Cabinet Books, 2011 and K.Collins et al, Reception Rooms: An Anthology of Recent Responses to Brian Dillon’s I Am Sitting in a Room, IHUM Books, 2011.

There is a rich corpus of literature about writers’ workspaces, and Brian Dillon’s book functions as both an addition to that canon and a selective guide to it. For a start, the circumstances of the book’s composition deserve attention: Dillon wrote it in the 24 hours between 10am on 10th December 2011 and 10am on 11th December 2011. A photograph of the room in which Dillon sat is reproduced at the beginning of the book: black walls, a simple desk, an iPad propped in front of him, above him a clock displaying the time. This book is the first in a series of ‘24-hour books’ from Cabinet magazine, all of which will be written in similar circumstances.

In the accompanying volume of responses, much is made of the conditions of the book’s production by a series of texts written for the most part by postgraduate students of Princeton University. Only one of these responses memorably engages with Dillon’s text: Enrique Ramirez’s artful ‘Meditation on a Clean Floor’.


The mode of production Dillon’s engaged in is not so far from that of an undergraduate essay being rushed for deadline – indeed he recalls falling from his chair in the library of University College Dublin while writing one such essay. But Dillon is a polished and thought-provoking author who’s done his preparation: in the photo, one can see a number of books stacked around him.

When we read about writers’ rooms, what we seek is the colourful anecdote, the precise description. We want to know that writing happens in a place apart – one that we, mere mortals, have no access to. Writers’ rooms are a fetish, and we can’t get enough. Dillon gives us these examples: Hemingway writing while standing up, Roald Dahl and Virginia Woolf writing with a board set upon their knees, George Bernard Shaw with his revolving shed, Vladimir Nabokov scribbling on index cards in his car for the benefit of a Life magazine photographer.

Dillon is careful to point out the constructed nature of these images: he reproduces a photo of Hemingway, his muscular calves a product, Dillon speculates, of writing ‘very hard’. In a photo of Susan Sontag the back wall of her study has an Italian Olivetti typewriter poster. It seems too perfect. Hmmmm… did Nabokov really write in his car?

In an era when cultural production is becoming increasingly accessible, but also ad hoc and provisional, there’s no doubt that these fables of permanence become seductive: the writer who can only work in his bed between certain times, or the mythical descent to the shed that many writers practice.

Dillon numbers among the latter camp: he reproduces a photo of the ‘garden office’ he bought for his back garden in 2006, along with a description from the supplier’s catalogue. In the photo, the office – a charming looking shed with a curving roof – is surrounded by snow. The warm glow from inside the building provides a sharp contrast to the icy conditions outside.

Dillon’s method draws much from Georges Perec’s approach to the infra-ordinaire – the ultra-ordinary details of daily life that we all too frequently ignore. (Dillon draws on what he calls Perec’s ‘peerless analysis’ of Messina’s ‘Saint Jerome in his Study’ in his own writing about the painting.) Perec’s approach was an attempt at an avant-garde unveiling of the processes of the everyday; Dillon’s is too, except that, through writing about writers’ rooms, even in a critical way, you run the risk of re-mythologizing them, and the writing process.

Instead, one is left with the entertainingly acid judgements Dillon brings to bear on his material: he imagines Shaw’s revolving shed ‘picking up speed as it spins, finally attaining escape velocity and hurtling away above the Hertfordshire countryside, its owner become a pompous and bearded Dorothy’. On a photo of Philip Roth, who claims to be uninterested in the minutae of the writing life: ‘Here is the author sporting open-necked shirt and alarming moustache, grinning away as he leans against his large antique desk in front of his bookshelves and, of all things, his library ladder. I don’t believe Philip Roth. I think he’s obsessed by writerly impedimenta’.

This amusingly sceptical voice is what sustains this short, enjoyable book.


Karl Whitney is a writer and 3:AM editor based in Paris. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 30th, 2012.