If you write a book about alcohol and male writers, as Olivia Laing did, the one question you’ll be asked more than any other is: what about the women? Are there any alcoholic female writers? As Laing writes in The Guardian, “And are their stories the same, or different? The answer to the first question is easy. Yes, of course there are, among them such brilliant, restless figures as Jean Rhys, Jean Stafford, Marguerite Duras, Patricia Highsmith, Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Bowles, Anne Sexton, Carson McCullers, Dorothy Parker and Shirley Jackson. Alcoholism is more prevalent in men than women (in 2013, the NHS calculated that 9% of men and 4% of women were alcohol-dependent). Still, there is no shortage of female drinkers; no lack of falling-down afternoons and binges that stretch sweatily into days. Female writers haven’t been immune to the lure of the bottle, nor to getting into the kinds of trouble – the fights and arrests, the humiliating escapades, the slow poisoning of friendships and familial relations – that have dogged their male colleagues. Jean Rhys was briefly in Holloway prison for assault; Elizabeth Bishop more than once drank eau de cologne, having exhausted the possibilities of the liquor cabinet. But are their reasons for drinking different? And how about society’s responses, particularly in the lubricated, tipsy 20th century; the golden age, if one can call it that, of alcohol and the writer?
“In her 1987 book Practicalities, the French novelist and film-maker Marguerite Duras says many shocking things about what it means to be a woman and a writer. One of her most striking statements is about the difference between male and female drinking – or rather the difference in how the two are perceived. “When a woman drinks,” she writes, “it’s as if an animal were drinking, or a child. Alcoholism is scandalous in a woman, and a female alcoholic is rare, a serious matter. It’s a slur on the divine in our nature.” Ruefully, she adds a personal coda: “I realised the scandal I was creating around me.” Continue reading “Women writers drinking”
Iceland is experiencing a book boom. This island nation of just over 300,000 people has more writers, more books published and more books read per head, than anywhere else in the world, reports the BBC.
“It is hard to avoid writers in Reykjavik.There is a phrase in Icelandic, “ad ganga med bok I maganum”, everyone gives birth to a book. Literally, everyone “has a book in their stomach”.
“One in ten Icelanders will publish one.
“Does it get rather competitive?” I ask the young novelist, Kristin Eirikskdottir. “Yes. Especially as I live with my mother and partner, who are also full-time writers. But we try to publish in alternate years so we do not compete too much.” Special saga tours – saga as in story, that is, not over-50s holidays – show us story-plaques on public buildings. Dating from the 13th Century, Icelandic sagas tell the stories of the country’s Norse settlers, who began to arrive on the island in the late 9th Century. Sagas are written on napkins and coffee cups. Each geyser and waterfall we visit has a tale of ancient heroes and heroines attached. Our guide stands up mid-tour to recite his own poetry – our taxi driver’s father and grandfather write biographies. Public benches have barcodes so you listen to a story on your smartphone as you sit. Reykjavik is rocking with writers. Continue reading “In Iceland 1 in 10 will publish a book”
Olivia Laing’s second book, “A Trip to Echo Springs,” takes its title from a line in Tennessee Williams’s play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It’s an apt phrase for a book about writers and alcoholism, with its combined dose of the sublime and the helplessly mortal. But “Echo Spring” is only the liquor cabinet, named after a brand of whiskey, as discussed in a review in the New Statesman
“Laing’s ear was apparently made to catch such notes of melancholia; the book’s subtitle, Why Writers Drink, undersells her achievement. She has produced not an answer to a glib question, but a nuanced portrait – via biography, memoir, analysis –of the urge of the hyperarcticulate to get raving drunk.
“The biographical focus is on the lives of six writers – Williams among them – and Laing visits the places in America where they variously lived, drank and dried out. The journey imposes a stagey narrative that the book could have done without, but Laing’s experiences give line-by-line pleasure and make for bright collisions with the past. A pastrami sandwich from Katz’s Deli in New York in hand, she walks to the Queensboro Bridge and remembers that this is where “John Cheever once saw two hookers playing hopscotch with a hotel room key”. Continue reading “Why writers drink”
Wikipedia stands accused of sexism and being the “encyclopaedic embodiment of the male gaze” after it was revealed the website is moving female authors from its ‘American novelists’ category into a sub-section called ‘American women novelists.’ As today’s The Post (UK) reports
“Successful novelists such as Donna Tartt, Harper Lee and Amy Tan have all been relegated to the sub-category by Wikipedia editors and the process is ongoing. American novelist Amanda Filipacchi says female writers whose surnames begin with A or B have been “most affected” so far. The explanation given by Wikipedia at the top of the page is that the American novelists category is “too long” and authors have to be put into sub-categories wherever possible, Filipacchi notes in the New York Times.
“For Filipacchi the relegation of women authors to a sub-category is a pernicious process as people “get ideas” about which authors to “hire, or honour, or read” from Wikipedia lists. “They might simply use that list without thinking twice about it. It’s probably small, easily fixable things like this that make it harder and slower for women to gain equality in the literary world”, she writes. Continue reading “Encyclopedia of the male gaze”