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Why Do We Treat Literature’s Male and Female Alcoholics So Differently?

This weekend, the Guardian ran an excerpt from a new book by the writer and critic Olivia Laing called The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink. The book will not be out in the United States until December, but the excerpt was a hit on social media. Writers, depression, addiction: these are magical elements for public legacies. Scott Fitzgerald wouldn’t be recognizable without the drink, nor Hemingway. Both of them appear in Laing’s narrative, along with Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver. It sounds fascinating, and I can’t wait to read it.

We’ll have more on the book when it comes out in the States. Meanwhile, the excerpt got me to thinking about the lesser legends who populate the long history of drunkards in literature. People like Patricia Highsmith, whom Laing names, yes, but also Carson McCullers, Dorothy Parker, Shirley Jackson, Anne Sexton, the short story writer Jean Stafford, even Grace Metalious, who wrote the bestseller Peyton Place and then promptly died of cirrhosis at age 39.

None of these women enjoy quite the stature of the men Laing names, though perhaps Parker and McCullers are as famous as they. Even so, they are viewed as “minor” writers when compared to any of Laing’s examples. And I wonder whether the intersection of women and drink is somehow less productive, in the sense that for men the dissolute drunkenness has a romantic, stormy quality. For women, the thing is only sour breath. And it’s hard not to conclude that it’s had a posthumous effect on the interpretation of their work.

“Grace swore, a lot, and she drank, a lot, and she had lots of guys around her. She got married and divorced and had affairs. And she talked about sex and she talked about real life and she didn’t filter it,” is how Metalious’ friends remembered her in Vanity Fair, her novel mostly a camp classic. Marion Meade’s biography of Parker depicts someone so difficult that towards the end of her life that even her close friends, like Lillian Hellman, were exasperated with her. Shirley Jackson died in her bedroom, agoraphobic and overweight, and the rancidness of the end seems to hover over apprehension of her work, too. (Hopefully the biography that The New Republic critic Ruth Franklin is working on will correct that.) Jean Stafford, of course, suffered the different-though-related fate of barely being remembered at all, except as a stormy presence in the life of the poet Robert Lowell, to whom she was briefly married.

I do not think you need to believe that these women were writers of the same order as Hemingway or Fitzgerald to see that the affliction of alcoholism has, at least in recent history, been a different thing for women. It is not that the physical symptoms change, but the way you are treated by others does. A loud, dissolute, drunken man is a lout and a bother, a frightening thing. But if a woman dares to be such a mess the commentary is less the sort of frightened admiration the men get and more on the order of, “She’s debasing herself.” Women are pitied, and not in the generous way of recognizing tragedy, but with bitter distaste.

It doesn’t have to be that way. As the writer Chris Kraus put it, “Why does everybody think that women are debasing themselves when we expose the conditions of our own debasement?” Writers like Hemingway were always accorded that privilege; his depiction of machismo, his defenders say, has such an element of craft that it deserves to be excused for its excesses. Laing, too, seems to suggest that when she observes that with her drinking writers, “On the one hand, there’s dissolution and degradation, and on the other there’s dogged labour, compulsive honesty and the production of enduring art.” Hopefully someday someone will find that in women, too.

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