Does an unreliable narrator mean the author is also unreliable?
In the previous article, about “mad, bad and dangerous to know” authors, I posed the questions of how and why authors create entire œuvres with the same disreputable characters as they themselves are. Interestingly, some authors have led lives as disreputable as their characters, but some have not – contrary to expectations.
Donna Tartt: The answer is hard work
This link puzzled the heck of me, particularly when I read Donna Tartt’s descriptions of a drug-addled existence in The Goldfinch. How could she have gotten it so compellingly realistic? (People called it “eerily accurate”.) People asked the question straight out: Does Donna Tartt use drugs? Well, as the main character, “Theo”, a compulsive liar and petty criminal, put it in the book, and as Tartt herself has confirmed, the “hard, lonely truth” is that it takes years of daily slog and sheer hard work to write a novel – whatever it is about. The famously reclusive author is not known to use drugs, and has never explained what it took to write about it. And that’s that.
Peter Finlay/DBC Pierre – Drugged-up for a decade
Vicariously living the drugged-up, suicide-obsessed life of the delinquent first-person narrator, “Gabriel Brockwell”, in DBC Pierre’s Lights Out in Wonderland, was a strange and unnerving experience for me. But I got through it, mainly because I was too weirded-out to stop reading. DBC Pierre is a pseudonym (DBC meaning Dirty But Clean) and that’s how it gets spelled, but the author was born Peter Finlay. His previous Man Booker Award-winning novel, Vernon God Little, was not about the same types of characters as in Lights Out in Wonderland, but Finlay had some experience in his past of drug addiction. He says that after he turned 27 he spent nine/ten years in a drug-induced haze. By the time he was 37, his prospects were bleak.
Finlay has cleaned up his life and wrote the charming Ludmila’s Broken English (2006), and his latest is Release the Bats (July 2016). So, his past only shapes his characters up to a point. Unlike some authors, his complete œuvre is not defined by his addiction or mental illness. He is an example of an unreliable narrator in a book, not being created by an unreliable author.
NOT writing from personal experience
Some authors write from a basis of personal experience, others, no experience, and these approaches require different amounts of effort, particularly for far-removed subjects, plots and characters. But the fact remains that some authors have written about alcoholism, drug addition, mental illness and generally unsavoury conduct, while being like that themselves. The bodies of work of these authors are entirely about their own addictions and illnesses. The link is extremely close.
David Cornwell/John le Carré – Not the same persona
But sometimes the link may not be so definitive. Take David John Moore Cornwell, who is the owner and creator of the pseudonym John le Carré. (Did you know that?) Though Cornwell had enough of an interesting career and family to give him material on which to base his mysteries and spy novels, there is a very wide gap between him and the fictional author “John le Carré” and John le Carré’s characters in the novels. You could even say he and his pseudonym are opposites.
Don’t misread that. He says “like a dedicated alcoholic”. Interesting that he refers to himself in the third person.
Irvine Welsh – Clean living
Another author who is almost comically sober and civilized is Irvine Welsh whose novels, particularly Trainspotting, is just a riot of depictions of recreational drug use. The titles of his novels pretty much tell you what they are about:
- Trainspotting (1993),
- Marabou Stork Nightmares (1995),
- Filth (1998),
- Glue (2001),
- Porno (2002),
- The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs (2006),
- Crime (2008),
- Skagboys (2012),
- The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins (2014),
- A Decent Ride (2015),
- The Blade Artist (2016), and
- Dead Men’s Trousers (2018).
He said that, as a youth, he used drugs, particularly heroin, which were part of the “normal landscape” when he was in his early 20s. To fund his habit he got into scams and theft, but got clean after a work accident and spent his life since 1991 doing ordinary jobs and writing. He sounds like anything but his characters:
“How does he “choose life” in 2016? Welsh says he’s “talked enough shite with guys in bars”; consequently he’s replaced alcohol and heroin with boxing and yoga and swapped Edinburgh for Chicago, while counting most of his friends now as women, a product of his wife being younger than him and having inherited her social circle.” (Thomas Gorton, Irvine Welsh on 25 years of choosing life, Arts + Culture, Dazed Digital, Oct. 13, 2016)
Nowadays, Welsh’ particular addiction is writing
Alcoholism and drug use as mental illnesses
While drug and alcohol use in many instances just remain peoples’ pleasures, their abuse of them, and dependency on them, make them recognized mental illnesses, or psychopathologies. In the case of alcohol, it is medically classified as alcohol use disorder. “DSM–5 [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) ] integrates the two DSM–IV disorders, alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, into a single disorder called alcohol use disorder (AUD) with mild, moderate, and severe subclassifications.”
The APA (American Psychiatric Association) states that addiction is a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence. People with addiction (severe substance use disorder) have an intense focus on using a certain substance or substances, such as alcohol or drugs, to the point that it takes over their life. So authors who were alcoholics or substance abusers actually already had a mental illness, without also having other disorders like depression, personality disorders or ASD. It is not just a matter that they weren’t stone-cold sober in their lives, but that they were actually ill.
The image of the suave, laid-back author, with drink in hand, tortured but lucid, delivering masterpiece after masterpiece, is largely an urban legend and rarely true.
DEFINITELY writing from personal experience
William Burroughs – Drug-crazed and sick
William Burroughs, who was addicted most of his life, called his drug use “the sickness”. The way he describes why he tried to stop using drugs is a picture of a life in ruins.
By the way, the treatment was not effective. He was soon back on drugs.
Why do writers drink? Or drinkers write?
As to why anyone would turn to drink or drugs while writing a novel? Here’s a good analysis by Adam Gopnik:
So, the problem is that writing is a mental act that has to be made physical. And drinking or drugs help, some people think.
Another reason might be that writing and acting are both deeply personal activities that are just plain darn hard, and writers and creative people are more than usually sensitive about criticism of their work.
Writing as an extreme art form
The Trip to Echo Spring is British journalist Olivia Laing’s group biography of six alcoholic writers — Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver.
She explains in an interview with David Gerrard: