Nothing secures a literary legacy like an over-sized personality to match the work. On some level, we want our artists to behave badly, feuding with critics and wearing, perhaps, less clothing than appropriate in public. We want to believe that being a talented, successful writer isn’t just another job, like being a plumber or an accountant—it’s a lifestyle, or maybe even a curse.
I mean, Lord Byron drank wine from a human skull. Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald were as well-known for their wild personal lives as they were for their work. And Ernest Hemingway famously said his secret was to “write drunk, edit sober.”
Or did he? Lexington humor writer Andrew Shaffer (he published the popular “Fifty Shames of Earl Grey” parody last year) respectfully debunks this attribution in his new book, “Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors,” which takes a closer look the myths behind Papa Hemingway and his fellow artists who lived lives as large as their texts.
“He actually didn’t say that quote. In fact, he never drank when he was writing,” says Shaffer. “He put in his words every morning and drank the rest of the day, as soon as he was finished with his word quota. He’s supposed to be the image of the macho drunk writer, and then you find out that, well, he really didn’t. But he kept up this aura about himself and perpetuated the myth.”
Aspiring authors, take note.
Ultimately, the actual writing of the book isn’t what’s interesting to most people. (“Who wants to hear about Axl Rose writing lyrics?” Shaffer muses.) If you can type, you can put words on a page. What we look for in the dramatic lives of artists is a hint of the origin of genius. Who wants to hear that what it takes to write a generation-defining novel is eight hours a day of work for three years, plus an editor worth her weight in gold? And if you’re going to write a best-seller, please, for the love of schadenfreude, don’t be a model of health and decorum as well. That’s just too much.
His book begins with the famed libertine Marquis de Sade and runs up to famous memoir-faker James Frey, but for his money, Shaffer says he’ll take Byron, who slept with “thousands of women and men” and could live a carefree life because of his money and aristocratic station.
These days, Shaffer acknowledges the literary life is pretty tame by comparison. Authors are less likely to get into storied feuds with their critics, for example, than they are to engage in a Twitter fight.
“A Twitter fight is not a real fight,” he says.
Shaffer says he wanted to label the book “literary gossip” at first. But over time, the project became the story of different literary movements and how writers were viewed throughout the ages.
“One of the things I realized is every new generation of writers thought what they were going through was different from the past and they were so unique, but really there was a common thread through the whole thing in that they were writing on the margins of society,” says Shaffer.
Read an excerpt of “Literary Rogues.” Shaffer will read from and sign “Literary Rogues” at Carmichael’s Bookstore on Frankfort Avenue Saturday at 4 p.m.