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.