Wednesday, February 24, 2010
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 figured 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 drink, 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… in moderation, of course.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Schnakenberg, Robert. Secret Lives of Great Authors: What Your Teachers Never Told You About Famous Novelists, Poets, and Playwrights. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2008.
Alright—admit it. You’ve completed an English degree or two, you’ve read at least one James Joyce book from cover to cover, and you’ve never so much as scanned the jacket of a Dan Brown novel. You pride yourself on your refined literary tastes and yet… as you stand in line at the supermarket, half listening to the customer two places ahead of you argue with the clerk about the misleading margarine labeling, your eye inevitably drifts to… the tabloid rack. Could it be true? Is she really going to rehab again? Could they really be breaking up? Is that really what she wore to that awards ceremony?
But sadly, a few minutes of reading a tabloid leaves you feeling dissatisfied, and vaguely dirty. The articles are trite, predictable, poorly written, and so deeply devoid of content that you begin to lose faith in humanity. While many of us crave a little voyeuristic sleaze now and then, there’s no need to descend into the basement of the written word to satisfy this craving. In fact, you can stay well within the borders of the literary world and still get your gossip fix. So, if you’re craving some fluff with a little substance, I’ve got three books for you: Secret Lives of Great Authors by Robert Schnakenberg, Alcohol and the Writer by Donald W. Goodwin, M.D., and Literary Feuds by Anthony Arthur. This week; Schnakenberg.
Secret Lives of Great Authors: What Your Teachers Never Told You About Famous Novelists, Poets, and Playwrights offers a short, sharp, snappy look at forty-one of the most famous writers from William Shakespeare to Thomas Pynchon. The book focuses on the more juicy details of each writer’s life and work, such as allusions to masturbation in Walt Whitman’s poetry, James Joyce’s kinky letters to Nora Barnacle, and the grim snack Sylvia Plath left for her children before sealing herself into her kitchen. The book also covers a variety of authors not popularly known for the sordid details of their lives, revealing quirks you never suspected the likes of Louisa May Alcott of having. Secret Lives of Great Authors should hold a few surprises about each writer it discusses, even those writers you thought you knew well.
Secret Lives of Great Authors is pleasing not only for its chunky, comic book illustrations of everyone from Virginia Woolf to J.D. Salinger, and not only because each entry is just long enough to kill off a bout of mid-afternoon boredom, but also because the book is well written. The text is unapologetically voyeuristic, but the logic and research behind the book are sound. It is this soundness that allows the reader to forego the normal tabloid cringing, and sink into the delicious sleaze of the book.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
For the last installment of ‘Mentor, Tormentor,’ I am please to introduce you to the stoned, sweaty, self-conscious book in the corner wearing the Hypermart smock—Jon Paul Fiorentino’s Stripmalling. Stripmalling is a quirky book chronicling the life of Jonny, a Shill Station gas jockey, Hypermart associate, and aspiring writer from Transcona, Winnipeg. The book flits from Jonny’s youth in Transcona to his mid-life crisis in Montreal, sometimes in his voice, sometimes written from the point of view of ex-wife Dora, all of it inter-spliced with comic-strip versions or digressions of the story, drawn by Evan Munday. To give you a sense of the book’s self-deprecating humour, the short, punchy chapters come with titles such as, “It’s Hard to Get Fired from a Gas Station, but I’m Special,” and, “University of Suck.” If you’ve ever worked a job with a polyester uniform and the looming threat of mystery shoppers, this is the vindication you’ve been looking for.
What I am most interested in here, however, is the University of Suck. Jonny has the good fortune of being the least tormented of the writing protégés I’ve discussed, but he suffers nonetheless. Jonny’s mentor, Carmen Adams, is a sharp, sarcastic teacher and important local poet and publisher. When Jonny drifts into his first class late, he bears the brunt of her considerable snark. Carmen is, however, a generous professor who wants her students to succeed.
If you’ve ever had a snotty traditionalist critique your poems in a workshop, like Jonny, you will be forever endeared to Carmen when on pages 86-87 she tells Jonny’s workshop nemesis Alec Bligh, the neo-formalist in the sweater vest, to go stuff it. After he derides Jonny’s poem Wheat Shafts (o shafts/ you remind/ me of my/ father just before/ his vasectomy), Carmen interrogates Alec about what forcing every writer and poem to be the same would accomplish. Alec responds:
“No, Alec. It would lead to row after row of identical artifacts. Each artifact would be so exquisitely crafted, so completely not unique. Your desire is to reduce the literary artist to the level of the artisan. And if you were to have this desire fulfilled, every poem would be an exercise in craft. And every poet would be Alec: a smug, white, young man of privilege, wearing a sweater vest and a necktie, and contemplating the emblematic resonance of a goddamned willow tree.”
As Jonny says, “[a]t that moment, she was perfect.” Carmen continues to lovingly screw with Jonny’s head (while screwing her other students more literally) as she teaches Jonny about the publishing industry. As Jonny’s undergrad progresses, however, Carmen becomes ill. Jonny tells us:
“I wish I could deliver some sort of punchline at this point, but there’s nothing funny about this. And there’s no big lesson to this either, no moral, nothing to be gleaned… There’s no other way to say it. It just sucks.”
And that’s the thing about good mentors—it’s hard to let them go.
Mean Boy, by Lynn Coady, may cause you some embarrassment if read in public. This is mainly because of the intense, gasping, hyena-like laughing fits it induces in inappropriate places where you thought it would be perfectly safe to read a book, such as on the bus, in the library, or alone in a coffee shop. It doesn’t matter how many times I read this novel—it has me practically rolling on the floor every single time.
Mean Boy is told from the point of view of Lawrence Campbell, a young, skinny, second year student obsessed with writing, and with the idea of becoming a poet. Lawrence leaves his home in PEI, where his parents run a motel, to attend Westcock University in Timperly, New Brunswick. Lawrence makes his move to the mainland in the hopes of studying with Jim Arsenault, popularly considered among Canada’s best living poets. Lawrence idolizes Jim, is paralyzed by self-consciousness around the famous poet, and is completely in awe when Jim chooses Lawrence as his favourite. Lawrence’s nerves never calm, however, and we get to watch him nervously bumble through his relationship with the moody Jim, who is as likely to tell Lawrence that he loves him as he is to tell Lawrence to go to hell.
Things devolve as Jim reveals himself to be deeply petty in his dealings with his peers and colleagues, and as his depressive moods begin to take over his life, his teaching, and his relationship with Lawrence. Mean Boy follows the ever more complicated mentor, tormentor relationship of Jim and Lawrence, while seamlessly weaving in a cast of lovable and bizarre fellow students who weather Jim’s moods and unprofessional favouritism along with poor Larry. Mean Boy’s particular brand of Canadiana will also keep you wrapt, from the squirrels who trash Lawrence’s apartment, to the sarcastic speculations about whether the quotations around the “Ham Dinner” on the Legion’s sign are supposed to signal some kind of euphemism.
Though Lawrence is arguably better off than Annabelle from last week’s book, he too suffers the sting of disappointment when he finds out his poetry hero is only human—and not a very good specimen at that. Like Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z., Mean Boy is a wonderful refresher on the excitement of stepping into a creative writing workshop for the first time. However, Mean Boy delves deeper into the desperate need young writers have to impress their mentors, showing how invested writers become in the opinions of their teachers, and exploring the injuries a mentor can inflict if they take advantage of this need. Mean Boy outlines an important lesson for any creative writing student—whether they have an altruistic teacher or a vindictive one—that is, not to forget how to write when their mentor isn’t around.
Weinstein, Debra. Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z.. New York: Random House, 2004.
It may be a touch of writerly narcissism, a latent sadomasochistic streak, or simply the need to commiserate, but as a former creative writing student, I find few novels more appealing than those that explore the triumphs and traumas of being a creative writing student. I don’t mean books that mythologize or deify the writer, but rather, books that delve into the uniquely inspiring, usually stressful, occasionally petty, and often ridiculous world of university poetry workshops. The books I’m referring to indulge the paranoia that claws at the minds and intestines of any young poet cringing to the sound of her work being read aloud by her poetry prof, or the ego of any debutant writer sitting in silence while his work is berated by a much loathed and (to his mind) inferior classmate. I mean books that expose the nonsensical gnarled labyrinth of department and poetry scene politics and gossip. I mean books that wince along with you, roll their eyes along with you, but still puff up your ego. I mean Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z. by Debra Weinstein, Mean Boy by Lynn Coady, and Stripmalling by Jon Paul Fiorentino. This week, Weinstein.
There are all kinds of poetry mentors and creative writing teachers; nurturing ones who want to help you grow, tough ones determined to see you succeed, and well-meaning eccentric ones who muddle through their attempts to teach. Annabelle Goldsmith of Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z. has the terrible fortune of having none of these as her mentor. Infatuated with poetry and the idea of becoming a poet, Annabelle moves from her broken suburban family home in New Jersey to New York City on a scholarship, and is, she thinks, blessed with the opportunity to become the assistant of her favourite writer, the celebrity poet Z. Despite rumours that Z. eats her assistants alive, Annabelle diligently types letters, buys cat food, and researches random snippets of half remembered lines for the enigmatic Z., who rewards Annabelle by paying her to sketch out the groundwork of the famous poet’s next book, and by encouraging Annabelle in her own creative work. The bloom begins to fade, however, as Annabelle is pulled into the twisted, resentful, and adulterous home life of Z., her husband Lars, and their daughter Claire, as Z. slowly reveals her petty and vindictive side trying to annihilate the career of a fellow faculty member, and as it becomes clear that Z. could care less about Annabelle’s poetry. The book culminates in Z.’s spectacular betrayal of Annabelle’s trust, and Annabelle’s attempts to put her writing life back together after her first discouraging experience in the poetry world.
Weinstein’s wit is as sharp as her prose; by page two, Annabelle already feels like an old friend. This book not only indulges the creative writing student’s fleeting fears, after a particularly discouraging workshop, that their prof must hate them, but Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z. also captures the beginning poet’s irresistible raw need to write, and the new poet’s desire to immerse themselves in a world that understands this hunger. If you need a refresher on why you wanted to be a poet, this book is a great place to start.