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“Writers used to be cool… now they’re just sort of wimps.”

from The Sydney Morning Herald

Badder but wiser

Jane Sullivan

The ever-excessive Hunter S. Thompson.
The ever-excessive Hunter S. Thompson. Photo: Getty Images

I think I’ve finally worked out what’s gone wrong with my brilliant literary career. I need to smoke opium, swig absinthe and keep a pet bat.

It worked for Baudelaire, and it’s a comparatively modest aim. Unlike Lord Byron. Not content with having sex with hundreds of women and men, firing pistols indoors and drinking wine out of a human skull, Byron also kept a menagerie of exotic pets: a bear, a goat, a wolf, horses, an eagle, a cow, a falcon, peacocks, several monkeys and an Egyptian crane.

The poet who was ”mad, bad and dangerous to know”, according to Lady Caroline Lamb, is No.1 on the list of Andrew Shaffer’s famous bad boys and girls of letters, closely followed by Hunter S. Thompson, who once said: ”I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”

They are front-liners in a ragged army of scribblers, from the Marquis de Sade to James Frey, who romp, stagger and crawl through Shaffer’s entertaining book Literary Rogues. The tone is set in an epigraph from T.C. Boyle: ”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. We struck elaborate poses to show that we didn’t give a shit about anything.”

Of course, there’s a sad side to all this literary badness. Careers were cut short, lives were ruined, deaths were sordid and painful. Edgar Allan Poe drank not to raise hell but to stave off depression. And, in the end, maybe excess and abuse didn’t have much to do with literary genius. As Shaffer points out, wayward authors appear more human and less remarkable when you get up close. ”It wasn’t because of their shocking behaviour that they left behind anything of value – it was in spite of it.”

And yet there’s still this curious elegiac tone to Literary Rogues, a lament for the good old days, even though they probably weren’t that good. ”Writers used to be cool,” says the last of Shaffer’s rogues, James Frey – a writer notorious not just for hellraising but for fabricating stories for his tell-the-truth memoir. ”Now they’re just sort of wimps.”

[ click to continue reading at SMH ]

Posted on April 14, 2013 by Editor

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