Why We Love to Read About What Writers Drank

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Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Parker, Cheever: These are among the names trotted out every time someone publishes yet another piece about why writers drink so much, even if it seems these days you are far more likely to find your local scribe pecking away at a Starbucks than pounding back whiskeys in some dingy bar. Which, come to think of it, is probably why nostalgia for alcoholic writers is running so high.

Certainly, the drunk writer trope has been appearing with great frequency of late. Some of this is tied to The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing, a new British book that is gathering attention both here and in the U.K. Writing in The Guardian, Lang notes that Hemingway, Faulkner and Cheever, among others, "are among the greatest writers of our age, and yet ... their addiction to alcohol damaged their creativity, ravaged their relationships and drove many of them to death." A review of her book in The New Statesman praised its "notes of melancholy" and Laing's ability to explain "the need of hyperarticulate people to get raving drunk."

Of course, plenty of hyperarticlate people don't drink or abuse alcohol. And many of those who do are not very articulate in the least. Nevertheless, we are endlessly fascinated by the conjunction of these two sets: the artistic genius and the hopeless alcoholic.

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Blake Morrison, writing about Laing's book, notes that the archetype of the drunk writer is not a new one, tracing back to third-century China, where the "seven sages of the Bamboo Grove retired to the country to drink wine and compose verse." The logic was simple, according to Morrison: "The drunker the bard, the more the words flowed." Meanwhile, over at Flavorwire, Michelle Dean puts the matter quite pithily: "Writers, depression, addiction: these are magical elements for public legacies. Scott Fitzgerald wouldn’t be recognizable without the drink, nor Hemingway." 

That is a sentiment we take largely as an article of faith — and love to articulate. In a post unrelated to Laing's book, Mason Currey recently wrote on Slate about the drinking habits of famous artists, singling out the painter Francis Bacon, who "drank tremendous quantities of alcohol during his long nights out on the town, but...always woke at the first light of day and painted for several hours, usually finishing around noon." 

There is even a new site, Literature & Libation, about the intersection of the two pursuits, which explains its raison d'être as follows:

What makes alcohol special? There are many other ways to alter one’s mind if that’s the goal: meditation, prayer, marijuana, mushrooms, opiates, exercise. But all of those things are hard to do while writing. Ever tried to write while jogging? Believe me, it doesn’t work like you’d hope.

William Styron actually said that walking with his dogs was a great way to think through his writing, but never mind that. The point is that we want to believe in the image of the hard-drinking writer, even as that persona falls out of favor. Actually, precisely because that persona has fallen out of favor.

After all, advances in public health since the time when F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald drunkenly frolicked in the Plaza's fountain much more likely to be met with opprobrium — and a pamphlet for Alcoholics Anonymous, which was founded in 1935, the same year that Faulkner published the novel Pylon. Moreover, most writers today cannot simply live as writers of ages past: they have to teach, work as journalists or have some other occupation that probably prevents them from going on Cheever-style gin benders.

Speaking of the Ovid of Ossining: It is perhaps the irony of ironies that the bastion of the contemporary literary establishment, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, once hosted Cheever and Raymond Carver at the same time. Not only were they both utterly unconventional (though both would be co-opted by convention), they were terrific drunks: In his biography of Cheever, Blake Bailey describes how the two would get to the local Iowa City liquor store as soon as it opened in the morning.

Hemingway never even graduated college; war, back then, was a much more promising outlet for an aspiring novelist. Today, the classroom has replaced the battlefield as the repository of talent, which in good part explains why we romanticize the alcohol-fueled bravado of writers of past generations: it simply does not exist anymore. It is, after all, much more romantic to imagine writing as the pursuit of a whiskey-guzzling Faulkner, or a Parker who got more witty with every martini, than as the domain of writers who treat writing like a vocation, not an art, for whom Rimbaud's "derangement of all the senses" could mean a roadblock to tenure.

I am guilty, too, sitting here in my comfortable office, deranging myself with nothing more inappropriate than two glasses of wine with dinner, maybe a sauterne with dessert if it's Saturday night and the babysitter knows we might be home closer to ten than nine. Reading about the drinking habits of writers is a perfectly safe way to vicariously relive their exploits — minus the hangover, of course.

But the drunk writer trope also expresses an anxiety: that the drunker they were, the better they wrote. That the writer belongs in a bar, not at the seminar table. I am not condoning this, or suggesting that writers who were alcoholics were superior to those who were not. But it is impossible to escape the subtext of, for example, BuzzFeed's "10 Authors That Could Party Way Harder Than You." They could write and they could drink — and they could do it all without an MFA.

Photo of Ernest Hemingway courtesy of JFK Presidential Library.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.