A Writer’s Vacation

In honor of this being Labor Day weekend, the last three-day weekend of summer, let’s look at “The Writer on Vacation,” a short essay by Roland Barthes contained in his collection Mythologies. In the summer of 1954, a footnote in the 2013 edition of the book says, the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro asked French writers to contribute a picture of their summer vacation along with commentary. Barthes, in about a thousand words, calls bullshit on the entire enterprise.

In the first paragraph, he calls this series “a nice piece of journalism…which candidly informs us about our bourgeoisie’s notion of its writers.” Before we get any further, it’s worth noting that the French bourgeoisie is not merely middle class, as it is according to American English dictionaries. It’s more like a Marxist class that sits above the proletariat yet is not aristocracy or royalty. The bourgeoisie does have real power, though it would prefer you didn’t notice that fact. These are basically the people who ran the guillotines in the revolution.

Summer vacations, Barthes writes, began with academics and spread to the working class. So by taking vacations, writers are showing that they are also part of the working class. “The specialists of the human heart,” says Barthes, “are also subject to the general status of contemporary labor.” Yet writers are also granted a “glamorous status” by the bourgeoisie—“provided they remain harmless.”

Barthes points out that according to the mythology of the writer, “during those famous vacations, which he fraternally shares with workmen and shop assistants, he never ceases, if not working, at least producing.” And here we have the crux of the essay: “A false worker, the writer is also a false vacationer.” I’ll return to this bit of logic later.

The writers who submitted their photos and commentaries to Le Figaro have been granted status somewhere above the working class by the bourgeoisie—as long as they don’t push back on those who granted them this special status. So, Barthes says, writers are false workers. And while sitting poolside, they’re still attending to memoirs, proofs, and drafts of their next books. Only one author in the newspaper’s series confesses to doing nothing on his vacation, which gives him an aura of iconoclastic individualism. If Barthes had had the term “humble brag,” he would have used it for this guy.

The daring, subversive writer who does not write on vacation is the signal to the reader that “it is entirely ‘natural’ for the writer to always write, in all situations.” Natural, to Barthes, is the idea that a concept’s meaning is so intrinsic that no one considers that it could be no other way. More than half a century after this essay first appeared in print, we still think of writers as writing nonstop, and writers still present themselves as always writing, even when on vacation, even when not writing. Everything is writing for a writer, according to the myth. Barthes says this makes writing into a kind of involuntary “secretion,” which is the ickiest description of writing I have ever read.

A more typical (or not false) worker on vacation can exhibit a different identity while away from their job—they shed being a pipe fitter or a customer service rep or a hair stylist to become a person who eats ice cream for lunch and sits on the beach all afternoon. But a writer is special. They maintain their identity—and their production—as a writer even while seated on the sand.

Barthes is not keen on this concept of the writer, and he’s very not keen on Le Figaro’s propping up this idea. “The ordinary-guy image of ‘the writer on vacation’ is nothing but another of those cunning mystifications which society practices in order to subjugate its writers,” he writes. This photo and caption series performs the same trick as modern “Stars! They’re just like us!” features. By showing writers on vacation, or movie stars getting coffee, or models in sweatpants, the viewer feels a little closer to literary achievement or stardom or beauty. I also go on vacation, get coffee, and wear sweatpants! But the very fact that we share these mundane things actually puts the star a little further beyond regular humanity. Though many people get coffee and wear sweatpants, most people are not starring in movies or modeling clothing. It’s strange—seeing a movie star wearing the same sweatpants and carrying the same to-go coffee cup as me provides an instant of connection before exposing the valley of difference between my life and theirs. Similarly, many people who vacation are able to shed their work identity while doing so. The writer does not because they are made of different stuff. Special stuff. Mythical stuff, according to Barthes.

That, however, was maybe more true in the mid-1950s than it is now. Today writers often take vacations in order to write at all. They gather up the scraps of writing sessions they’ve squeezed between paying jobs and childcare, then schedule the biggest possible block of time to press those scraps together like lumps of clay until the have a statue, or a bowl, or at the very least an ugly but usable ashtray that can be fixed later, on another vacation from their usual lives. They are shedding their identities as pipe fitters or customer service reps or hair stylists to put on the myth of the writer for a while. Temporarily shedding an identity is part of vacationing, according to Barthes, so these writers are on real vacations from their regular identities. If writers are no longer false vacationers, then they are no longer false workers.

Real workers do push back against the bourgeoisie, as in the Hollywood writers’ strike going on right now. When writers become less harmless to those in power, the myth of the writer’s special status evaporates, which we’ve also seen in the devaluing of writers’ work. Losing the glamorous myth of the writer on vacation is the trade-off for making plain the realities of the writing life. Writing and working outside the myth allows writers to find common cause with millions of other real workers.