Wednesday, 8 June 2016
Dead Women and Rehab: Who Writes the Story?
One reason for calling my novel Dead Writers in Rehab was to deflect questions from people asking what my book is about. I thought that putting the answer in the title might save time. However, some people still ask what it's about. When they do, I enquire if they're familiar with the film, Snakes on a Plane. They always say they are. "Okay," I say, "do you know what that film is about?" "Ah," they say, "I get it!" "There you go," I say. If they then ask if my book is about snakes, I figure they're probably outside my target demographic, which is, broadly speaking, sentient human organisms.
So, it's about dead writers who are in rehab. And when I selected the inmates for my imaginary institution there was no shortage of deceased literary substance abusers to choose from. The challenge would have been to find enough writers who didn't exhibit addictive behaviours to fill any establishment larger than a phone box. I left a lot of people out, for many different reasons. On reflection, some of those reasons probably need to be considerd in terms of gender, race and power.
Most of the writers in my book are dead, white and male. As we know, these qualifications used to be pretty much a requirement for inclusion in the Western literary canon, until people began to challenge the membership criteria. The imbalance they deplored had many causes, much discussed. My own difficulty in avoiding it probably has some of the same causes. But my perspective shifted when I started to look at female literary figures in the context of addiction.
For one thing, history is generally more forgiving of vice in male writers than in their female counterparts. This is both a cause and a result of men being freer to pursue, and even to celebrate their self-destructive pathologies. When women adopt the kind of swagger that men get away with in this respect, society doesn't quite know where to look, or if it does, it looks down its nose. As a result, the biographies of women writers who may have had addictive personalities are often more narrowly focused than those of male authors who showed the same tendencies - and there are fewer of them.
This raises a question about who controls the narrative of your life. In the twentieth century, the reputations of writers like Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, Jane Bowles or Elizabeth Bishop became inseparable from the substance abuse issues they were known to have had, and in some ways those issues came to define their lives. Meanwhile, the addictive behaviours of male writers like Hemingway, William Burroughs, Malcolm Lowry, John Cheever, Patrick Hamilton and many others were often seen as adjuncts to their literary genius – which remains the spine of their life's story – partly because they had more control of their self-image. They tried, with varying success, to make their addictions a subplot – whether Dionysian, tragic or comical – in the narrative.
Go back a hundred years or more, and the picture gets cloudier and more complex. A good example here is Charlotte Bronte. Some people have speculated, on admittedly scant evidence, that she may have shared her brother Branwell's predilection for opium. Did she? It's not impossible, but we'll probably never know, for two reasons:
Firstly, the reputations of many women authors in the 19th and 18th centuries were sanitised, and not always posthumously. Even before Charlotte Bronte's death Elizabeth Gaskell was making choices about the biography she was planning to write. She got hold of most of Bronte's letters and papers, and subjected them to censorship or selective interpretation.
Secondly, even if Bronte had dabbled with opium, it wouldn't have been considered much of a vice, unless pursued to excess. A great many people took opium, often in the form of laudanum, for medicinal reasons. As, indeed, many of us do today: if you'd care to undergo, and recover from, major surgery without the help of opioid painkillers, good luck with that.
Gaskell records that she asked Bronte, point blank, whether she'd used opium, and says that Bronte denied it. However, we can't know whether either woman was telling the truth about the question, or the answer.
None of this is intended to be an excuse for not including more female authors or writers of colour in my book. Those omissions are probably a result of my lack of familiarity with the work of enough writers. But there are a few women in the strange country house that serves as the rehab faciity in my book: Dorothy Parker, Colette, Mary Seacole and Gertrude Stein. As you may have spotted, some of those writers weren't known to be addicts, and you'll have to read the book to find out why they're in there. The same goes for certain fictional creations who show up on the premises, but I'm not going to reveal here who they are.
So, read the book. And if you have any thoughts about this blog, let me know.