Literary Rogues by Andrew Shaffer

Well, fuck. Whatever happened to the literary bad boys and girls of yesteryear?” (review copy)

literary roguesPerhaps I’ve missed the headlines but the only recent author scandals that I can think of involve shill reviews at Amazon and the occasional case of plagiarism, but feel free to fill me in if I’ve missed anything juicy. Amazon antics can’t really compare with the riotous tales contained within the non-fiction book, Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors by Andrew Shaffer.  In the very funny preface, the author relates a childhood disappointment–one could almost say emotional shock–at finally meeting a much-loved Marvel Comics writer who failed to live up to his fan’s imagination. From this point, the author explains his fascination with “cool authors“–those “who were as likely to appear in gossip rags as they were to be on bestseller lists.” Slim pickings these days as Hollywood seems to have elbowed its way into tabloid headlines, and this leaves little room for gossip about writers–especially since authors don’t exactly naturally exude glamour or rock star status. Shaffer’s book is a very funny look at the past ‘rockstars’ of the literary world. Have modern-day authors become tamer creatures or have they been pc-d into submission? A rhetorical question, but  jump in with your opinions…

Here’s the line-up of authors covered in the book:

  •  The Marquis de Sade
  • Coleridge
  • de Quincey
  • Byron
  • The Shelleys
  • Poe
  • Balzac, Flaubert and George Sand
  • Baudelaire
  • Rimbaud and Verlaine
  • Wilde and Dowson
  • The Fitzgeralds
  • Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • Hemingway
  • William Faulkner
  • Dylan Thomas
  • Kerouac & Ginsberg
  • Burroughs
  • John Berryman & Anne Sexton
  • Ken Kesey
  • Norman Mailer and Truman Capote
  • Hunter S. Thompson
  • John Cheever & Raymond Carver
  • Jay McInerney & Bret Easton Ellis
  • Elizabeth Wurtzel
  • James Frey

Some of the inclusions were predictable (the Marquis de Sade, for example), and it’s worth noting that the authors that take up the last part of the book are alive and potentially have a few headlines still in them. On the subject of the Marquis de Sade, it was illuminating to discover that as a delinquent child he landed in the care of his uncle the Abbé de Sade, a man who “meticulously curated an extensive pornography collection” which included noteworthy titles such as: History of the Flagellents, The Nun in the Nightdress and John the Fucker Debauched. No wonder he became such a perv.

Since the entries are chronological, one of the things that hit me reading the book is that each age had its vices, so we read about absinthe, the “Green fairy,” and then later move into cocaine and LSD, but this is, of course, too simple a codification, and as the author Andrew Shaffer explains, there’s de Quincey, Coleridge, and Shelley–all potentially candidates to keep the re-hab centres busy–had there been such a thing back in those days. Alcohol is a vice that transcends centuries, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see it appear repeatedly, but what is it about the Chelsea Hotel that attracts doom-seekers?

The author’s light, amusing style keeps the pages turning, and that’s just as well as the subjects, are for the most part, a miserable bunch–along with a number of brave, long-suffering spouses who deserve medals for tolerating the angst, depression, temper tantrums, and all-around bad behavior of some of the authors covered in the book.  I’m thinking of the wives of Dylan Thomas  and John Berryman. There’s a lot of info here I had no idea about: Ken Kesey faking his own death and William Burroughs playing William Tell with his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer:

In the world of awful career moves, becoming a junkie is only a close second to committing homicide, but that’s just what Burroughs did. In September 1951, Burroughs accidentally shot and killed while entertaining some friends at their home in Mexico.

Tired of her husband’s constant bragging about his marksmanship, Vollmer balanced a highball glass of gin on her head and dared Burroughs to take a shot. they were both drunk.

“I can’t watch this–you know I can’t stand the sight of blood,” Vollmer said, giggling as she closed her eyes.

Burroughs took aim at his wife with his .38 caliber pistol and fired. The bullet missed the glass and hit Vollmer squarely in the head. She died instantly.

And who knew that Norman Mailer’s literary parties were so wild?

One time, after asking a model for her number with earshot of his wife, Mailer was treated to a strip show. Adele [his wife], furious at the model (Alice Denham, later a Playboy playmate and novelist), ripped her own shirt off. “Take off your clothes and we’ll see who’s the best woman,” Adele said. “You think Norman’s up for grabs?”

Soon a crowd gathered around the two women. Mailer, egging his wife on, began stripping his own clothes off. Eventually both he and Adele were stark naked. Denham, refusing to strip for free (she was a professional, after all), left with her date. “At least it ought to be a good night for you  two,” she said to the Mailers on the way out.

Not that I’ve done extensive research on the issue, but I’ve read a couple of bios of Byron that include the question of whether or not he had sex with his half-sister, Augusta and by extension, whether or not he fathered an incestuous child.  I think we all tend to come to our own conclusions on the matter, but it’s pure speculation–not proven one way or another yet the chapter on Byron and his lifestyle of “bling, booze and groupie sex” states unequivocally that he “impregnated his half-sister Augusta Leigh.” I think it’s impossible to say that definitively one way or another although we know that there were plenty of rumors at the time that culminated in the general vilification of Byron who was oh-so-effectively drummed out of British society (as was Oscar Wilde who is the subject of another lively chapter).

The author obviously has great fun with his material and his style matches the subject with its riotous irreverence tinged with just a flash of admiration for these authors who figuratively give society the finger while sinking deeper into their self-destructive odysseys. On a final note, I have to take issue with the idea that Balzac bears a “striking resemblance to adult video star, Ron Jeremy.” Although on second thoughts, now that I look at the pictures….

ron jeremy220px-Balzac


Filed under Non Fiction, Shaffer Andrew

19 responses to “Literary Rogues by Andrew Shaffer

  1. I’ve always found this poem by Byron to be rather… suggestive.

    On pure textual evidence – both Childe Harold and Manfred, which are regarded to be at least semi-autobiographical poems – have numerous references to the protagonist’s frustrated desires and past crimes respectively, both of which rather strongly *hint* at love for someone of “his blood”.

    • Thanks for posting that, but I still have doubts. I could see a libertine (like Byron) having a deep love for a sister, the only woman who understands him. We’ll never know for definite and I don’t think Augusta ever admitted anything (not that I blame her).

  2. Now this sounds like a fun book.
    There are author scandals in Germany. The reasons are varied but it really does still happen. Wonder what that means.

  3. This looks to be enormously funny and entertaing!

    I agree that it is a pity that writers have been behaving so tamely as of late. Another sign of the decline of Western Culture 🙂

  4. leroyhunter

    Sounds a lot of fun.

    Similar – but also quite different – is a short little treat by Javier Marias called Written Lives.

    I wonder if the MFA-corporatisation of writing, especially in the US, has lead to better behaved writers who just view it as “a job?”

    • I wouldn’t be surprised that that has something to do with it. There’s a postscript with a quote that writers nowadays don’t seem as interested in promoting a macho image, and if a great deal of new authors come from the MFA route, I’m suspect that there’s a certain group behavior conditioning.

  5. Interesting list and probably a funny book.

    But why Flaubert with George Sand and not Musset? And why not Rousseau? After all he had a mistress a lot older than he and he used to call her “maman”. How sick is that?

    Are the stories all about sex or bleak relationships?

    I can think of a few other ones: Christine Angot, Marguerite Duras, Catherine Millet. Sartre & Beauvoir. Houellebecq.
    Frédéric Beigbeder qualifies for the book if Jay McInerney does.

    • I was a bit mystified by Balzac being in there because he was relatively tame in the big scheme of things, but the author not only focused on individuals but also literary movements. Sex and bleak relationships appear frequently but it’s all so amusingly written.

      I don’t know much about the private lives of those modern French writers. What am I saying…. I know NOTHING.

      • Well:
        – Begbeider was arrested for carrying cocain and is quite into partying. (he’s McInerney’s friend, actually)
        – Angot is provocative, dating a controversial rapper
        – Duras had a long relationship with a younger man and gave her opinion very publicly on a crime case. And this opinion wasn’t exactly politically correct.
        – Millet, well, you know her.
        – Sartre & Beauvoir were into free love. I think she had relationships with women as well.
        – Houellebecq is provocative.

        Two women writers had a fight about one plagiarizing the other but I don’t remember who they were.

    • Thanks for the suggestions! I wrote about Rousseau, Sartre, and Beauvoir in my first book on philosophers, so didn’t want to repeat their stories in this one. I’m not familiar with the other writers you listed—French literature is one of my weaker points, unfortunately.

  6. PS: I can’t help thinking that if Byron or Rimbaud were alive now they’d be controversial rock stars writing bleak and obscure lyrics.

  7. Pingback: Extreme mid-life crisis and artistic calling | Book Around The Corner

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