If you were wondering, women are also susceptible to the drunkard-as-literary genius cliché. Here's Michelle Dean for the New Republic on the phenomenon. The full piece here.
What might be called “the artistic temperament” is a subject about which many people have grandiose, romantic notions. All those biopics with people staring hard out windows at beautiful scenes, pen in hand, bearing the fruits of louche genius while maintaining excellent dental hygiene. Whoever the culprit, we clearly like our geniuses to be “consumed” by their craft, and we like them tortured—and if possible, drunk. The idea, broadly put, is that the liquor frees up creative energy. Or else, that an artist drinks to soothe the ravages of creativity on his psyche.
Artists have rarely wanted to correct the public on this point. This was especially true of writers in the middle of the twentieth century, laboring in the long interval between Prohibition—-when writing, celebrity and drink got tangled up at the Algonquin Round Table and in the lives of modernists—and the 1970s. (Hard drugs slipped in after that but began to signify a certain cynicism rather than angst in the writer.) The trite liquor-soaked romance of their craft suited these writers, it seemed; it gave them a handy excuse. However many degenerate nights were lost at a bar, however many times a person might be rushed to a hospital with a suicide attempt, it was worth it. The blackouts and bad marriages and every sordid bit of it could be explained away by art with a capital A. Who wouldn’t trade a few years of misery to write something like Gatsby? Or A Farewell to Arms? Or “The Swimmer”? Or “Fern Hill”? Put that way, the math of art and drink comes out looking attractive, glamorous, in spite of the death and in spite of the suffering.
But, as ever, the benefits of the myth were doled out unevenly, because there was always a different kind of weight attached to a woman drinker. “When a woman drinks it’s as if an animal were drinking, or a child,” Marguerite Duras once wrote. “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.”
We are mostly beyond the point, in this world of ours, of calling women “divine,” and we are also past the point where a woman alcoholic is truly rare, in the open, public way Duras meant. Women now talk often about drinking and being drunk. Their memoirs on the subject are best-sellers. But the genre of personal testimony turns the role of drinking in writing on its head. Instead of being the engine, it is the subject.
A KEY METAPHOR for alcoholism is that of unquenchable thirst. It sounds simpleminded, I know, but you have to start there to get anywhere at all close to the psychological nihilism of it. When you pour the spirits down your throat, you are pouring them into a void. For a drunk, the emotional equivalent of stomach lining simply isn’t there. The need to drink just goes on and on.
The contours of the void aren’t always obvious, not even after its existence has been seen and reckoned with. That is probably why, in pretty much every alcoholic’s memoir I’ve ever read, the need to drink is described in simple language, even cliché. For Sarah Hepola, in her new, best-selling Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, it’s “a God-shaped hole, a yearning, a hunger to be complete.” For Mary Karr, in Lit, a book governed by a poet’s love of wordplay, it’s simply a “black hole.” For Caroline Knapp, writing Drinking: A Love Story before either of them, it’s a “pit of loneliness and terror and rage.”
The paradox of the alcoholic’s memoir is that the feelings are not less powerful for being described in such a pedestrian way. If you are the right kind of reader for them—which is not to say a fellow alcoholic, as I am not—these books go down easy. It may be in part a voyeur’s thirst for stories of abjection that makes them such compulsive reading—that’s another cliché, a critical one—but good writers can take your curiosity and mold it into an empathetic movement. Empathy needs a supporting note, because it’s a self-help word, and we live in a culture that both guzzles and disdains self-help mantras: The understanding of self and others is obviously the only escape from addiction. If the point is to get out of your own head, then understanding yourself as part of a community is what will pull you out.
A lesser sort of empathy can, of course, be cheaply bought—sentimentally, in the Wildean sense. You can get caught in the trance of your own sad story. But Knapp’s, Karr’s, and Hepola’s books are not self-pitying in this way. Each tracks a process of becoming whole (or at least, more whole). And all three are good writers in different ways, and they are somewhat different drunks, too, as it happens. Knapp has the psychoanalyst’s daughter’s knack for self-diagnosis, constantly tracing her own repressions back to her father’s; Karr cracks jokes in the middle of every miserable anecdote; Hepola has a deeply generous persona. They all get up in front of you with the self-critical attitude of the person at a recovery meeting, eager to describe their past and present selves but frustrated by how they got to this place.
"When a woman drinks it's as if an animal were drinking, or a child," Marguerite Duras once wrote.
Blackout, the most conventional of the three books, offers the clearest illustration of the appeal of the genre. Here we have the straightforward story of a young, talented, middle-class woman, who nonetheless keenly felt a gap in her soul. At seven, she stole her first beer. All along, one knows what’s coming: Hepola’s book opens as she snaps awake in a strange bed. Hepola deftly manages to preserve the ambiguities of the incident—she doesn’t remember the seduction, if there was one—without forgiving it all. “I closed the door,” of the hotel room, she writes, “and the click of the lock’s tongue in the groove brought me such relief. The sound of a narrow escape.”
There are other horrors, and voyeurs, if so inclined, can drink this book (a metaphor that kept occurring to me as I read) in an evening. But that elegant presentation of the bad incident gives you a hint that Hepola smooths out the events she describes. As a narrator she is always measured and careful. There is a level on which her maturity begins to actually work against her recovery story in a way she can hardly have intended. I began to think to myself: If it will make me seem this grounded and wise and judicious with my imagery and metaphors as she, maybe a few years of getting lost in a void would be worth it.
Of course, I then dismissed that thought. Mostly.
MATURITY COMES FROM self-possession, and self-possession can be a powerful thing for both a drinker and for a woman. It is power, somehow, that makes us see men and women drinkers differently. The “line for decades,” Hepola acknowledges in her book, has been that women hide their drinking, that they are unduly punished for it. Hepola says this wasn’t true, not for her. She “looked up to women who drink.” And gatherings of women, she said, were pools of wine. “Rivers of wine. Waterfalls of wine. Wine and confession. Wine and sisterhood.” In an age when female intoxication is everywhere, drinking is often presented as part of a kind of feminine self-determination.
She has a point as to popular culture. Her own book is a best-seller (as Knapp’s and many others have been, too), and we needn’t limit ourselves to gauging attitudes that way. Tune in to ABC on Thursdays and you’ll find ur-career woman of the moment Olivia Pope drowning her sorrows in a giant goblet of red, usually Shiraz. The poster for Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, depicting her drinking from a bottle in a paper bag, did not so much as sway in a breeze of commentary. Even Hillary Clinton is happy to be photographed drinking white wine these days. So publicly feminized has the activity of drinking become that The Guardian recently published a defensive article about what it called—and I am not kidding—“brosé.”