Monday, February 01, 2010

Literary drunks and addicts

A correspondent sends a link to a Life magazine gallery of “famous literary drunks and addicts.” All twenty-nine are famous, all right, but not always—Ayn Rand, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote—for literature.

Is it my imagination or has alcoholism passed out of vogue for contemporary writers? Perhaps creative writing has knit together a guild of writers who protect one another’s trade secrets, or perhaps professional advancement in creative writing has itself replaced the sauce, but for the life of me I cannot think of any writer under the age of sixty-five who has a reputation for public drunkenness to rival Dylan Thomas’s or John Berryman’s. Perhaps there is simply less literary gossip to go around.

Or perhaps the conception of a literary career has changed. (A “literary career”—now there’s a contradiction in terms!) Poètes maudits are no longer tolerated, let alone celebrated. Clem Anderson, R. V. Cassill’s brilliant 1961 portrait of the unruly modern writer, whose talents forgive his trespasses, could not be written today. Where writers once chose perfection of the work, and life be hanged, more recent creative writers have reversed their priorities.

7 comments:

Richard LeComte said...

Well, now instead of booze culture, we have rehab culture, which a number of writers my age (late 40s -- really late 40s) have experienced and written about. Alcoholism and drug abuse are treated therapeutically rather than as character flaws. A number of late boomer and Gen X writers have had reputations for partying and have written about extensive drug use (drinks, pot-smoking, cocaine) in their novels -- Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis and Michael Chabon, to name just a few. Drugs were readily available and popular at the kinds of colleges these writers went to. Plus we have the Prozac Nation, and I suspect a number of writers from earlier times would have traded martinis for antidepressants(or something like Aslan in Franzen's "The Corrections").

Anonymous said...

An article by Anne Applebaum in the current New York Review of Books on Arthur Koestler - an alcoholic and 'sexual predator' -touches on this. "We are not so many years removed from 1946, in the grand scheme of things. Yet much has changed since then, starting with the rules of acceptable public behavior. It is simply not possible to imagine any three prominent contemporary American public intellectuals—say, Malcolm Gladwell, Niall Ferguson, and David Brooks—indulging in a night on the town such as that one, let alone weeping over the human condition and threatening to throw themselves into the Seine at the end of it. Hollywood starlets and pseudo-celebrities behave that way in our culture, not serious people."

D. G. Myers said...

It is simply not possible to imagine that the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Niall Ferguson, or David Brooks belong in the company of Arthur Koestler.

After all, Koestler wrote one of the great novels of the twentieth century—Darkness at Noon.

Come to think of it, few American writers now writing belong in his company.

Anonymous said...

You can't place all of the blame on American writers. My agent has advised me that my novel is too "cerebral and subtle" to find a publisher, and that I should revise it because right now, "the reader has to work too hard." I was aiming at lyricism and truth, but I should point my efforts more squarely at high concept, apparently. I despair, you know. Authors are told to be "edgy" and to have "an original voice" but that only means we are expected to write with an ironic, urbane style while having no underlying substance.

Anonymous said...

Sort of like professional critics too, eh? All cozy and dull and safe.

Marques said...

Wow, according to Anonymous, America's prominent intellectuals kind of suck. Ferguson is British.

Books are done in America. There are plenty of drunks and addicts, just not necessarily literary ones. They make films and television and do other creative work.

Anonymous said...

Er, anonymous #2: there are ten million ways agents and publishers can tell you that your work aint getting published. "It's crap," is the only one that's true and it's the only one you won't hear. "It's too cerebral and subtle," ranks in the top 5 of those ten million and what it actually means is "it's the kind of crap that exposes you as too narcissistic and tendentious to be reasoned with."