Once upon a time, writers knocked back drinks, knocked about women, and/or knocked themselves off. And people loved it.
*This book was offered to me via the publisher, Harper Perennial, in exchange for an honest review.
In January, a friend and I went to a Half Price Books. We separated, looking at the shelves obsessively. As I moved from one aisle to another, I heard this little gem:
“You know Hemingway hated women, right? He was, like, worse than Eminem.”
I looked at the only other person in the aisle, who happened to be my friend, and raised my eyebrows. Poor Hemingway. Worse than Eminem. For whatever (ok, some justified) reason, Hemingway has always been the poster child of authors behaving badly. But he was far from the only one, and Andrew Shaffer’s Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors takes a look at some of these authors, going all the way back to the Marquis de Sade and running up to (my least favorite) literary bad boy, Brett Easton Ellis.
Though you likely know at least a little about many of the authors included, Shaffer’s focus on their addictions and afflictions makes for interesting reading, particularly in the drugs of choice, which change according to trends. Absinthe, opium, and alcohol all make the list, as does LSD. The presence of all that mind-altering material makes you wonder how these people could possibly get any work done. Give me a glass of wine, and I want sleep. Give most of these guys a liter, and they’re workaholics.
Literary Rogues is like the crack it refers to so often. Even with my knowledge of almost all of these writers, I didn’t want to stop reading. It’s a compendium of bad behavior and a testament to the greatest generation of writers and their capabilities. Often, their stories are incredibly sad, and though Shaffer’s wit lightens the tone a bit, more often than not I was left with a vague sense of unease. Not that Shaffer attempts to romanticize these addicts and mentally ill people, but in a way, we as a culture do. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are revered by many, as is Dorothy Parker. Ginsberg and Kerouac have never lost their cult status. It is their genius in the face of their flaws that we seem to find so appealing. In fact, Shaffer refers to several agents and their inability to rein in their clients’ habits and addictions. Though it isn’t overt, Shaffer does seem to be asking if they were merely powerless or if they encouraged the persona and idiosyncrasies as a means of selling books.
Shaffer remarks at one point that the tame nature of most writers these days might be the availability of rehab and the lack of stigma. However, there’s something else that seems to mark the end of the depraved writers: MFA programs. He does get to some of the more contemporary writers (and two of my favorites), John Cheever and Raymond Carver and their stints at Iowa and its infamous workshops. But these are more cautionary tales – men who couldn’t get themselves out of their cups in order to teach. Once writing became something to learn, perhaps it lost its hedonism. Writing was then institutionalized, another form of constraint. Of course, Ellis and McInerny (who studied with Carver) would be the exceptions here. Shaffer does ponder the image changes, but the book never goes any further, and honestly, it isn’t intended to.
A fun book for lovers of literature, Literary Rogues is perfect for those in a reading slump, anyone who likes to prime their palette between books, and/or those who don’t ordinarily enjoy nonfiction.
Add it to your shelf on Goodreads.