Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Literary Sleaze (Part 2 of 3)

One of the most time honoured sleazy stereotypes about writers has something to do with a dark, dank pub and a bottle of whiskey. High-profile bingers like Dylan Thomas have done much to cement this ‘drunk as a poet on payday’ image. For some contemporary evidence of writerly drunkenness, keep an eye out for Matrix Magazine’s upcoming Drinking Issue (http://www.matrixmagazine.org/submissions/). Sadly, many well-known writers have suffered from alcoholism—some said they couldn’t write without drinking, and some stopped writing because of their drinking. Alcohol and the Writer by Donald W. Goodwin, M.D., explores the link between alcoholism and writing, focusing on American writers of the first half of the 20th century. The book’s introduction presents some interesting anecdotes from writers, along with some shocking statistics. For example, Goodwin tells us that after bartenders, 20th century American writers died of cirrhosis of the liver, a disease closely related to alcoholism, more than any other group. Goodwin asserts that about 70% of Americans who won the Nobel Prize for Literature were alcoholics, the highest rate of alcoholism among any defined social group. Goodwin also tells us that, when compiling a list of famous American writers from the 20th century, about one third could be considered alcoholics.

After establishing that alcoholism among 20th century writers constitutes a kind of pandemic, Goodwin performs eight case studies, examining the biographical details of Poe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Simenon, Faulkner, O’Neil, and Lowry. Goodwin tells us that this selection was meant to provide an overview of the many different paths a writer might take to the bar. Though each of the writers discussed begins their path to alcoholism differently, each of their stories ends in rum, tequila, or whiskey soaked misery.

Though Alcohol and the Writer is an interesting exploration of the link between writing and boozing, driving at the question of why writers seem so likely to abuse alcohol, the book is also problematic. First published in 1988, the text’s leaning towards Freudian analysis is somewhat painful, especially in the case of Poe who had more than a few complexes where sex was concerned. These passages present an antiquated, stereotyped view of both female and gay sexuality, and are quite annoying to read. The book also tends towards using him/he/his when referring to ‘the writer,’ which can be more than a little irritating to a contemporary audience.

Though it’s favouring of Freudian analysis and sexist use of pronouns date Alcohol and the Writer, the book remains a sobering look at alcoholism and writing. In the conclusion of the book, however, Goodwin tells us that alcoholism no longer endears a writer to the public, and that alcoholism among writers has been on the decline since the first half of the 20th century. While writers might still be spending a lot of time in the pub, according to Goodwin, it no longer seems to be ruining our lives on a pandemic scale. I’ll drink to that… but always in moderation, of course.


Helen Hajnoczky recently completed her BA Honours in English and creative writing from the University of Calgary, where her research focused on feminist avant-garde poetics. Her work has appeared in Nod, fillingStation, Rampike, and Matrix magazines, as well as in a variety of chapbooks. She is the current poetry editor of fillingStation magazine. Her first book of poetry, Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, is forthcoming from Snare Books.