Sotted Wordsmithery: Does Liquor Make Good Literature?

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Did Dylan Thomas’ fondness for drink go hand in hand with his literary genius?

Why so many literati happen also to be lushes is a ubiquitous question over which much ink has been spilled. Of the most well known American writers of the past hundred or so years, a third to a half were said to be alcoholic – a staggering (if you’ll excuse the expression) little statistic.  We can add to these an equally swashbuckling party of Brits: Dylan Thomas, Malcolm Lowry, and Brendan Behan are said to have had, aside from great literary talents, a strong liking for liquor. Trying to eke out this article with Sunday morning screaming through the cracks in the window shades, a potent seltzer, a bubbling gastro-intestinal system and a hangover about a mile wide, I wonder what it is that possessed so many a writer to hit the bottle so hard?

Hypotheses as to why wordsmiths tend to be booze-hounds are many.  I think we can eliminate one of these theories right off the bat, though – that the writer is necessarily of a certain kind, one more prone to flights of fancy than the banalities of being a functioning member of society. I think it’s safe to say we’d all – whether doctor, lawyer, Larkin or Cheever – would prefer to get trollied at our local over doing our taxes. The thing is, we don’t. Though the fulltime writer’s timetable may be a bit more conducive to round-the-clock carousing than that of a cubicle jockey, I doubt there’s anything in his DNA that makes him any more wont to drink than Dave in Accounting (a fact you’ve noted when he’s a few rounds in and speaking directly to your breasts at every. Office. Drinks.).

F. Scott Fitzgerald apparently claimed that liquor “heightened feelings” and turned down any treatment because he thought going sober would end his days ink-slinging. Could there be something to that? Does drink do double-duty as both an effective social lubricant and a source of divine inspiration? Donald Goodwin in his book “Alcohol and the Writer” says that so many wordsmiths were swashbucklers for reasons obvious: “Writing requires self-confidence; alcohol bolsters confidence.” All right, no counter here from me. Everybody’s got at least one piece of indisputable evidence of the confidence-proffering properties of booze—whether it’s photos from last year’s Christmas party or a black mark on an otherwise impeccable criminal record. Writing also requires intense concentration, Goodwin says; and booze relaxes, liberating the writer from “the tyranny of mind and memory.” I do remember attempting to transcend the Stalinist Russia of my own psyche at some point during university, thinking a gin and orange would get the juices flowing such that I’d be able to churn out a term paper in the twelve or so hours before its 8 am deadline. I became relaxed to the point that I forgot all about the project at hand as well as some cursory social mores, as I spent the majority of those twelve hours singing off-tune at the top of my lungs to ABBA remixes, making aggressive attempts at everyone within arm’s reach and swinging various items of clothing over my head like a whirligig. So that theory on the drink is just as dodgy as … well … I am.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in a more sober pose. He thought that being teetotal would kill his writing career.

I wonder if the causality doesn’t run the other way, whether to some degree the hooch made the literary heavies. Not in the sense that the booze acted as a vessel for divine inspiration, as our friend F. Scott would suggest. In case you hadn’t noticed, a fetishisation of fags, barbiturates, booty and booze runs through contemporary popular culture – Notice that hacks aren’t reporting on Troubled Pop Tart X’s tour or a knock-out new album, but rather her reported mammary mishaps and belligerent behaviour due to drink. And notice that, despite the fact that Washed Up Child Star Y’s largest audience of late has been a municipal courtroom for various misdemeanors, he’s still a media darling.  It’s not the successful recoveries that make the headlines – it’s the crotch shots. Could it be that by making drunken spectacles of themselves, our alchie authors had a part in the making – or at least the maintenance – of their own infamy?

Either way, you’ve got to admit that irresponsible consumption worked for these guys in a way that it won’t for you or I. They abandon their families for months at a time, get cuffed for vagrancy, or blow the family fortune to drink themselves to death, and they land themselves a spot in the society pages. You or I pull the same thing and we’ve just got a ‘serious problem with alcohol’.  That might be why any of these literary lushes would have greeted going dry with the same kind of consternation as an anorexic would a stuffed-crust pizza. To tale-spinners like the abovementioned, the trappings of recovered life— the early nights, support groups, the unashamed use of the kind of clichés the writer has spent his life avoiding —are simply unpalatable. And feeling very little, if any, of the shame and stigma that comes with alcoholism for us normal folk, much of this drunk-and-disorderly bunch of belletrists did the bunny hop right into an early grave.

It would seem, then, that being a lush is not a one-way street to the literary canon – I’m just as fourth-rate a writer as I was last night. What’s standing between the grumbling, Baraka-chugging blob you’re currently reading and the spectacularly boozy bestselling author?  An analysis of the human condition in a few pages of graceful prose, perhaps; a poignant account of the death of the American dream. Trust me, I’m working on it. But for now, I’m taking my headache and hot water bottle and going back to bed.

Sandra Smiley

Follow Sandra on Twitter @sandraqsmiley.

Sandra Smiley

About Sandra Smiley

Sandra spends her days working in PR and moonlights as a feature writer and blogger. You can follow her on @sandraqsmiley.

Sandra spends her days working in PR and moonlights as a feature writer and blogger. You can follow her on @sandraqsmiley.

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