Flannery is an aging writer who has figured out a very successful formula for creating best-selling detective books. Just one problem: the formula is a little too predictable, because Ermes Marana says he can write books by Silas Flannery just by plugging the formula into a machine.
How's that for making an author feel special?
When we first hear of Flannery, we learn that he's been suffering from a major case of writer's block. He's concerned that he's too much of a sellout, creating books in which "the brands of liquor to be drunk by the characters, the tourist spots to be visited, the haute-couture creations, furnishings, gadgets […] have already been determined by contract through specialized advertising agencies" (11.24). Basically, he realizes that he's writing trash just for the money.
We're pretty sure that, as always, Calvino is trying to make a point here. What point? That art should never lower itself to such shameless concern over money, but instead, should continue to struggle in the effort to capture some sort of truth.
For much of If on a winter's night a traveler, Flannery plays second fiddle. Or more like tenth fiddle. But he makes a big splash when Calvino shows you a long excerpt from his diary. Suddenly, he's one of the most interesting characters in the story. All it took was a little snoop into his private life. Who knew?
In his diary, Flannery continually speaks of a desire to develop a new relationship to his writing: not one where he can sell thousands of books just by slapping his name on garbage, but one in which he can "annul himself in order to give voice to what is outside him" (15.59). Flannery no longer wants to write within the limits of his own personality, but wishes to become a "conduit" for something beyond himself.
This dream draws closer to reality when Flannery meets a group of young boys who tell him that extraterrestrials are using him to channel secret messages. (Yeah, Calvino kind of comes out of left field on that one.) At this point, Flannery realizes that even if he were channeling something beyond himself, he'd never be aware of it. He's living in a paradox, and once again, you the Reader are totally lost in it.