Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History Of Wayward Authors, by Andrew Shaffer
Reading this book for me was a rather Nathanish experience, full of ambivalence and amusing irony and complexity. The author is himself a successful writer of multiple volumes of material that has been generally humorous and sometimes decadent, and here he turns his attention on the struggles and failures of writers to live decent and decorous lives. Yet if this book is written with a somewhat moralistic purpose of showing how writers have often lived dysfunctional lives and how writing has typically been viewed as a rather poor route to financial success and personal happiness, the point of the book is undercut at least slightly by the author’s own success at writing, which would tend to encourage the reader to try to be the exception rather than the depressing rule detailed here. It seems likely, given the humorous nature of the author’s work as a whole, that this ironic undercutting of the book’s sentiment is intended, as there is little that is more consistent about the author’s body of work as a whole than a commitment to the undercutting of sentiment in favor of humor and sarcasm. Whether or not this is to every reader’s taste is left for each reader to decide for oneself.
This short book of roughly 250 pages or so is mostly divided into twenty-five looks at writers who frequently lived fast, died young, and left diseased corpses. Beginning with the notorious Marquis du Sade, the author examines drugged out writers like Coleridge and De Quincey, the afflicted and tormented Lord Byron, the romantic Shelleys, Edgar Allen Poe, and French realists like Balzac, Flaubert, and Sand. The author then continues in discussing the lives of Baudelaire, the French decadents Rimbaud and Verlaine, as well as English decadents like Wilde and Dowson. Moving into the twentieth century the author discusses the Fitzgeralds and the lost generation, flapper poets Parker and Millay, as well as Hemingway and Faulkner. Dylan Thomas and the beat poetry of Kerouac and Ginsburg, the funky Burroughs, and more dead poets like Berryman and Sexton follow, along with merry pranksters like Kesey, new “journalists” like Mailer and Capote, and freaks like Thompson follow. The author then closes with a look at Cheever and Carver, McInerney and Ellis, Wurtzel, and Frey, and examines where the cowboys have gone in contemporary writing before ending with the usual acknowledgments, endnotes, bibliography, and index.
A book like this has a difficult line to straddle. The moralistic condemnation of lives of vice and debauchery (of which there is plenty to be found here) can easily romanticize the sort of vice that is being condemned. The author seems to be mocking the difficult lives of so many famous writers in a way that seeks to encourage others to follow the example, despite the fact that there are a great many amazing writers whose lives were far more honorable than those discussed here. There is a certain appeal that rogues have to a large audience, and it may seem boring to write novels about those who lived exemplary but confined lives without getting themselves into various kinds of trouble. The rise of Enlightenment culture and the celebration of the author and creative types in general led quite immediately and possibly predictably to the sort of lamentable lives lived by people who were intensely creative but lacked good moral sense and sound judgment, which may not be necessary to write culturally significant poems or novels or plays but which is of vital importance in living a worthwhile life. It is not certain that this sort of life deserves to be praised and celebrated as it is here, given the misery such mice spawned.