I am reading Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives by John Sutherland. This is an entertaining and enlightening book. I am hooked. It’s kind of like a “Behind the Music” for the literary set. I am now about 120 lives in, and one thing is clear: Literature may be enlightening and even life-changing for the reader, but, in general, it doesn’t seem to do much to make the writer a better person.
I have lost count of the number of adulterers, philanderers, pederasts, and just plain old sexual scoundrels. Add in a good mixture of alcoholism and drug abuse. Then we have the bad and indifferent parenting skills. Oh wait, I forgot to mention the incessant gambling away of inheritances and rent money.
Sutherland looks at both the great and the popular, but the pattern is discouragingly the same. The only discernible break is with a group of mainly Victorian women writers, many bound by strict social mores to stay ‘decent.’ Many of those were also writing to support families where fathers or brothers had succumbed to one of the problems listed above.
Luckily, I have been fortunate to know some writers who defy the stereotypes. They have not left their spouses. They have not drunk or gambled away the family’s money. So I have hope for writers as a group.
Still, perhaps there is something to the old saying, “Don’t ask how the sausage is made.”