An Irresponsible Statement by Olivia Laing

I’m calling bullshit here.

Several people have sent me this article in the Guardian by writer Olivia Laing about women writers and alcoholism. You may remember I reviewed Lang’s book, The Trip to Echo Spring for the National Post.  I liked Laing’s book, and was happy to say so.  I did question why she chose to write about only male alcoholic writers, since there were so many female ones as well.  In this article she attempts to rectify what I, and other reviewers, saw as a gap in Echo Spring.

It’s not an altogether bad article, and Laing does gather some interesting and heartbreaking facts about the lives of some alcoholic women writers.

However, she makes one horrible statement that I can’t let pass.  She says:

Not many writers manage to get sober and those who do often suffer a decline in output: testament not so much to the power of alcohol as a creative stimulant as to its role in destroying brain function, obliterating memory and playing havoc with the ability to formulate and express thought in former alcoholics. 

Well.  Bullshit.  This is an irresponsible statement, which may cause some people not to try and get sober for fear they won’t be able to write.  If a writer fears they will suffer a ‘decline in output’ as Laing states, it’s just another reason to keep on drinking.  In other words, it is a statement that puts lives at risk.

Let me be clear about this.  I am an alcoholic.  I am a Real Alcoholic, just as I am a Real Writer.  I drank alcoholically for a long time.  I wrote during that time, or at least I did until the last couple of years when my drinking made even that impossible.  But what I wrote while drinking was blither — sloppy, sentimental, self-indulgent drivel.  Hear me now:  I did not write anything worth publishing until I got sober.  I did not publish while I was drinking.  Since then, however, I have published two collections of short stories and four novels (all with Harper Collins).  A fifth novel will be published in spring of 2015.

Since most alcoholics remain anonymous, I am at a loss to understand how Ms. Laing draws this dangerous conclusion.  Was Raymond Carver less of a writer once he got sober?  I think not.  Stephen King?  Please. Elmore Leonard? Snort. John Cheever (who Laing discusses in Echo Spring)?  Hardly.  He wrote Falconer after he got sober, of which the New York Times said, “It is as if our Chekhov had tucked into a telephone booth and reappeared wearing a cape and leotard of Dostoyevsky’s ‘Underground Man’.”

And I know many other writers, terrific writers, whose anonymity I will not break, who sobered up and produced wonderful work, book after book.

Ms. Laing tells us she is not an alcoholic herself.  That’s clear; no one who has recovered from alcoholism would make such a statement.


  1. Fred Allingham says

    Lauren, I hadn’t seen the Guardian article, but now having read it, I think your above comments are entirely appropriate. Thanks for sharing your reaction in such a succinct, clear, and effective manner. You’re a perfect example which proves the point you’re making – I also much appreciate the references to Carver, King, and Cheever.
    with admiration and thanks, Fred A.

  2. says

    Your perspective on this is invaluable. It would be tragic if the risk of “decreased output” would discourage anyone from tackling the hard work of sobriety, especially if that risk is nonexistent. This weekend I saw a preview for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s new movie and cried, watching that enormous talent. Continued substance abuse doesn’t support a talent for writing, or acting, or other creative endeavor, only a talent for destruction.

    • Lauren B. Davis says

      Thanks, Vicki. Hoffman’s loss is heartbreaking, as is the loss of all those people who don’t appear on screen or write books or become famous. Each loss is a loss to us all, and so we have to be careful with out words — those things have power! 😉

  3. Wendy says

    I’ve just read your comments above and completely agree with your perspective.

    Over 35 years ago, socially knew a group of Scottish folks and after awhile realized their drinking habits were not mine & I distanced myself from them completely. Many of them, some brothers, were in a small band playing music of Scotland & Ireland. They were all talented & had many songs in their shows.

    The lead singer, some 35 years later, now due to continued alcoholism, is now living in a care home moving there after hospitalization for nearly a year due to lack of proper self care. He was certified incompetent and moved to a facility for the elderly. He however is only in his middle 60’s. He’s. happy to be there, has no memory of any music or guitar/banjo skills and not much memory at all. So, to infer not getting sober may be the best thing for creativity is hogwash.

    Bless you for speaking out as you have here.

    • Lauren B. Davis says

      It’s a terrible disease, Wendy. But if you get sober, miracles can happen. Thanks for your comment.

  4. pamela mercier says

    Hello Lauren

    I wondered about that one statement in Olivia’s article, too.
    Maybe she meant that alcoholism, over times, destroys the brain’s ability to write well.
    But, you are correct, the way she wrote it implies that once you stop drinking, the gift is gone.
    This is nonsense.
    I will say, though, that other aspects of the article are sharp and insightful.
    I hope she writes a book about female alcoholism and its possible impacts on daughters.
    This is my topic.
    Best regards

    • Lauren B. Davis says

      Thanks for your comment, Pamela. It was certainly unfortunate phrasing, but I suspect the editors of this piece held some responsibility as I do think Ms. Laing gets it. I felt obliged to comment, however, since I didn’t want that misconception to go unchallenged.

      Am I to understand you’re working on a book about mother/daughter relationships and alcoholism? All the best – I hope it’s well received!

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