June 12, 2013

Book: Bad boys and girls of book

‘Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors’
By Andrew Shaffer. Harper Perennial; 304 pgs., $14.99..

“There was a time when courtesy and winning ways went out of style, when it was good to be bad, when you cultivated decadence like a taste,” writes T.C. Boyle in “Greasy Lake,” a collection of short stories. “We were all dangerous characters then … (We) struck elaborate poses to show that we didn’t give a shit about anything.”

With this quote, Lexington humorist Andrew Shaffer leads readers into his writers’ den of depravity. “Literary Rogues” is a salacious bumpy ride full of the excesses your parents and clergy warned you about. It starts the well-researched history lesson with Marquis de Sade (of course), hits hard with Lord Byron (Shaffer’s favorite), sails us through Oscar Wilde, the married fighting Fitzgeralds and Dorothy Parker, all the way to Ernest Hemingway, Louisville favorite Hunter S. Thompson, and James Frey.

“Cool writers were easy to spot,” Shaffer writes. “All you had to do was look for the cigarettes dangling precariously from their lips and the whiskey bottles next to their typewriters.”

Many of the 37 writers featured quickly speed past clever to sad, becoming major alcoholics, drug addicts or ill with sexually transmitted diseases. I prefer wits like Parker, soused or not. “I don’t care what is written about me so long as it isn’t true,” she said. Wilde, too, although his quick mind wasn’t the same after prison.

Between writing, fishing and hunting, Hemingway drank (“I have spent all my life drinking, but since writing is my true love I never get the two things mixed up”). Zelda Fitzgerald famously exclaimed Hemingway was “all bullfighting and bullshit.” Her life-of-the-party partner F. Scott is known to have passed out drunk while filling a hotel bathtub, flooding the room.

“I do not advocate the use of dangerous drugs, wild amounts of alcohol, violence and weirdness,” Hunter Thompson once said, “but they’ve always worked for me.” And he wrote about them, too.

Speaking of writing, what do you do with a writer who embellishes the truth? Get dressed down by Oprah Winfrey on TV. James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” was supposed to be a memoir about his drug abuse, but it was peppered with lies, especially regarding his criminal career. Although he relabeled the book a “subjective retelling of events,” he later said, “Writers today are polite and meek and scared of bad publicity. Unless that changes, they will fade away.”

Shaffer has two funny disclaimers: “The writers featured in ‘Literary Rogues’ are professionals. Do not attempt to indulge in any of the vices on display within these pages without first consulting either a physician or a lawyer.” This is followed by: “Ignore the author’s disclaimer. I’ve … turned out all right.”

He concludes on a serious note. “In a way, all authors are literary rogues … it ultimately wasn’t because of their shocking behavior that they left behind anything of value — it was in spite of it.”