A Five Martini Response to “Writers and Rum”
By: Christopher Connor
Two weeks ago, Adam Gopnik, a veteran writer of The New Yorker, published an essay titled “Writers and Rum.” Mr. Gopnik’s post was prompted by The Trip To Echo Spring: On Writers And Drinking, a new book from Olivia Laing tracing the history of booze and literature while examining her own alcoholic family. Though Laing’s book is mentioned once, Mr. Gopnik’s essay deals less with her work and more with his untenable theory that the days in which writers were heavy drinkers are, essentially, over.
Though Mr. Gopnik has written for The New Yorker almost as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve rarely taken the time to read anything he’s written, and have absolutely no opinion of him or his skills. But the underlying points of his essay are presented as fact, and as a young writer living on the opposite side of the country from Mr. Gopnik and his publication, his facts appear as delusional fantasies. Is this what the writing life has become on the Upper West Side? How tragic and untrue, I thought as I read the essay again, right after mixing my first martini of the evening. Gin, not vodka, as if it needed to be stated.
“Writers in this office used to drink,” a grizzled veteran of these corridors once said sternly to a couple of pup reporters, whom he had discovered taking turns trying on a good-looking cashmere jacket in another cubicle.”
Mr. Gopnik’s essay begins with a memory of his early days at The New Yorker, when people still drank after, during, and possibly before work. His description feels like an office scene from Mad Men. Yet, his point seems to be that people who worked in literature once drank in their offices. True, yes, but Gopnik’s opening gives me the impression that literature was one of the only industries in which the occasional afternoon drink was common. From extensive conversations with my parents and grandparents, I have realized that drinking during the day was more common than people think, even well into the 1980s. Like Mr. Gopnik, I don’t have any data to back up my theory, and unlike Mr. Gopnik, I’m unable to provide even an anecdote to help my cause, but heavy drinking seems to have been more socially acceptable thirty years ago as opposed to today, not just in the literary industry, but also across a large variance of businesses. Knowing that the writers at The New Yorker indulged in daily drinking is fascinating to me, but isn’tproof of any larger theory as to the writing life in general.
I am a person of my age and a product of my generation. Despite my years in the work force, I have never experienced a job in which I was allowed to drink while working (officially), so I’m unable to compare Mr. Gopnik’s own stories with anything of my own. Perhaps I was made to live in an earlier time, but instead I’m left to work, write, and then drink. In that order. Sometimes the order gets skewed, but working and drinking never mix. Still, I try to spend all my personal time writing, and just because I can’t drink while I’m on the clock doesn’t mean that alcohol is becoming extinct in my life. I have, after all, finished one martini already. Luckily, my freezer is stocked with ice.
As I mix my second martini, I feel that I should share the recipe I use, one that has likely not made it to the smarmy cliques of the Upper West Side . I learned to make a martini, as every man and woman, artistic soul or not, should: from James Salter. Published in his brilliant book on food Life is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days, Salter lays out the recipe for a perfect martini:
“First, use a good English gin—Beefeater or Tanqueray both ninety-four proof, are preferred. The dry vermouth should be Noilly Prat or Martini & Rossi…In a pitcher or shaker put about six or eight cubes of hard ice cracked by hand (Place the cube in the palm of your hand and hit it smartly with a heavy spoon). It is important that the ice be cracked so as to present the maximum cold surface to the gin and vermouth—a martini is and should be a slightly diluted drink. Pour one or one and a half small capfuls of vermouth over the ice. And enough gin to fill, or nearly fill the martini glass…Stir or shake until the contents are very cold. A martini that is not absolutely icy is a failure.”
My drinking life, before and during my career as a writer, consisted of a wide variety of alcohol combinations: craft beer, cheap wine, gin, mescal. Once I discovered Salter’s exquisite martini recipe, it became my drink of choice. If, in fact, Adam Gopnik’s author friends no longer partake in heavy drinking, I simply suggest they partake in one night of Salter martinis and perhaps their minds, and the point of Mr. Gopnik’s article, might change. It’s a beautiful combination, the Salter Martini, though my second is slightly bitter. No one is perfect.
“I’m just old enough to be able to have seen the tail end of that literary culture of really big drinkers—and a real culture it was, as Laing understands. It may be hard to believe that it was so, when nowadays we mostly ingest our drugs from prescription bottles, early in the morning or late at night—but it existed, and was as alluring as it was utterly toxic.”
According to several biographical capsules that I briefly scanned, Adam Gopnik was born in 1956. Presumably, the tail end of the literary culture of big drinkers, to him, ended with Raymond Carver. Of the people that Mr. Gopnik references in his essay, along with the notables listed from Ms. Laing’s book, Carver appears the most contemporary, though he died over twenty-five years ago. The authors that have defined our literary culture in the last twenty-five years are, admittedly, not the heaviest drinkers of the last century, but at the same time, few of them hold any cache with the up-and -coming writers publishing their first works. Ask a non-New Yorker bred writer for their influences and names like Franzen and Munro are bound to be high on the list — but Carver, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald still hold a power that many of the best selling fiction writers of the last fifteen years do not. I don’t know if this situation has been true for the last two hundred years, that the earlier works influence us more than recent books. I can only speak about what I see and hear within my own circles, and no writer I know views recently published authors as influential.
“At the other, soberer end, John Updike once said to an admirer that the reason for the astonishing longevity he shared with Philip Roth—not just achieving the second acts that Fitzgerald said were impossible in American lives but third acts and fourth acts and then both men appearing, so to speak, out in the lobby to shake hands and do card tricks after the show—was, simply, that neither drank.”
On the surface, the strongest point Mr. Gopnik makes in his essay is that two of the most successful authors of the twentieth century didn’t drink, and therefore enjoyed successful careers. Obviously no one with a hint of literary history can dispute the success of Updike and Roth, but his argument is simply cherry-picked to prove a point.
A strange phenomenon exists inside the current ranks of developing writers. The authors that may have been heavily influential to the generation before us are still influential for the odd and simple reason that they still live and write. I previously mentioned James Salter, who has written about his love for “massive” gin martinis in both Life is Meals and the stunningly beautiful Memorable Days. Despite his predilection for gin, Salter published a new novel, All That Is, last spring at age 87. Similarly, Jim Harrison published three new novellas in two different books in 2013, all at age 75. I can’t speak to Adam Gopnik’s knowledge of Harrison’s work, but his extensive nonfiction tells the story of a man who loves to indulge on food and drink. Neither he nor Salter has been slowed, nor has the quality of their work suffered in old age, due to heavy alcohol consumption. For every Updike, there is a Harrison, for every Roth, a Salter. Simply put, drinking does not ruin a literary career, and the men who were considered the old guard still drink, still write, and are still influential to a new generation of writers. If anyone disagrees, pick up a copy of A Sport and a Pastime and read it again before drawing conclusions.
I, unfortunately, don’t possess the same gift of making martinis as James Salter, but I’ve learned to make them well enough that I can barely tell the difference if my ingredients are slightly out of portion. Following his directions, my second drink, nearly finished, is made with Tanqueray and Noilly Prat. I’m rarely a slave to recipes. This is my exception, as I shake my third, though my hand is growing tired of crushing the ice.
“Anyone not a writer is probably sick of hearing how hard writing is, and obviously writing is not nearly as soul-destroying as coal mining or burger flipping or whatever you like. But writing is, if not uniquely hard work, then uniquely draining work.”
Perhaps, after initially reading Mr. Gopnik’s essay, I could have simply continued on living my life. I could have kept working, kept writing, and remembered to water my houseplants that beg attention. But his simple assertion that writing is not soul-destroying hit a wrong note with me, one I feel I should address on a more personal level.
Admittedly, I’ve never read any of Mr. Gopnik’s books. He writes nonfiction. Apparently, he’s quite skilled at what he does. But writing nonfiction, penning essays on life in Paris or raising children in Manhattan is a completely different process than writing fiction. I’ve never mined coal. I’ve never flipped burgers. But in my short lifetime, I’ve held uniquely different jobs: dishwasher, pastry chef, sperm donor, lobbyist, criminal defense investigator, and private eye. Nothing on my resume was as soul-destroying as working in criminal defense. I helped lawyers work on homicide and rape cases. Sometimes, I saw people sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Occasionally, I recovered in days. Some of those cases I still hold with me, never to be erased from my nightmares.
Yet, in writing fiction, many of my peers and I take ourselves to a different level of emotional wreckage. I don’t believe a story or a book is readable unless it contains raw emotion, and as an author, that emotion has to come from me. I have to put my own passion on the page, and after a long day of writing, I feel drained in a fashion I’ve never once felt watching innocent people escorted from a courtroom in handcuffs.. Perhaps this is just how my gin-addled brain works, but I feel the best fiction writers know how crushing a story can be once we release our emotions. Perhaps Adam Gopnik has not encountered this feeling in his nonfiction writing. Admittedly, I don’t know enough nonfiction writers to ask if they get the same high, and the same crash, from giving fictional characters everything we have in the emotional tank. But to me, and the other fiction writers I know well, this feeling exists. It is one of the reasons we drink, all of us. We aren’t trying to seem cool, or feel like we are balancing ourselves from our writing. We drink because we need the numbness of alcohol to bring us down from the emotional tightrope. Eventually, I feel this will lead to good fiction.
Still, there’s a general sense that the drugs of choice for writers now are more often little blue pills than big brown bottles…
Name an influence. The minimalism of Hemingway, the adverbs of Fitzgerald, the intricate plots of Franzen, it doesn’t matter. Any writer who has read fiction knows one important rule: details matter. You avoid clichés with details, draw in the reader with details, make a story or book vivid with details. Mr. Gopnik, perhaps in an effort to pull in readers with a quirky sentence, fails to provide details. A little blue pill? I don’t know what that means, and unfortunately, I know a fair amount about pills. To me, “little blue pill” means Xanax. I have a bottle in my medicine cabinet. My second guess? Viagra. If I had a third guess, I would think that this references some anti-depressant popular among the Upper West Side crowd. Frankly, I don’t know. I honestly feel like, to make his point, Mr. Gopnik should name the pill. Does he think all writers are just popping benzos instead of liquor? (If yes, than he and I can agree on the first part of that sentence.) I don’t know the context of this “fact” without evidence, and I will not deny that the authors of our current age have access to more drugs, dangerous or not, than Hemingway or Carver – but without specificity, it’s impossible to form an opinion on this. Also, most of us fiction writers in my generation still revere the big brown bottles, but I digress.
“(You can take the pill, and then send the kids to school.)”
For the love of everything that we hold dear in this world, I hope Viagra is not the pill in discussion. Mr. Gopnik is right. You can pop a Xanax and take your kids to school. And obviously, such a maneuver is unacceptable with alcohol.
Adam Gopnik and I are both fathers. His children, I presume, are older than mine, but we have the same notion of taking children to school. I have two young, school-aged children and I see them with some frequency. Sometimes I take them to school. I stay in my son’s preschool class and help him until the teacher kicks me out. That has nothing to do with me as a writer, or a drinker. I don’t get drunk on school nights and I never allow my children to see my drink. True, I can pop a Xanax at 7:15 and be a perfect father while I make breakfast, pack lunch, and drop each at their school. That is independent of me as a writer, and as a drinker. I know my boundaries, which is something that I feel Mr. Gopnik takes for granted. I may be in the small minority about this, but to proclaim that I can’t drink and take care of my kids, but can take Xanax and be a good dad is a broad statement that doesn’t gel with us fathers on the front line of life. I do not wish to belittle Mr. Gopnik’s point in the slightest, because I firmly believe he and I are of two separate cultures (perhaps connected by Xanax? Please don’t be Viagra).. I don’t blame or envy any life that Adam Mr. Gopnik’s children have led, but while I work my way toward some sort of sustainable career, my children can’t have private school, can barely have home-packed lunches, and yet they still are, by all accounts, brilliant. This has nothing to do with alcohol. I can be a father, and a writer, and sometimes simultaneously, but I also know the boundaries of each.
I previously outlined James Salter’s martini recipe, but made a few omissions. As he continues in Life is Meals:
“There is a final, unconventional secret. Shake a Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce bottle, then quickly remove the cap and with it, dash a faint smudge of the contents—far less than a drop—into the bottom of the shaker before beginning. It adds the faint, unidentifiable touch of greatness.”
That’s it. The key to a Salter martini is the Worcestershire sauce. It sounds absurd—and it if doesn’t, try explaining it to your friends. But the Worcestershire provides the slightest of kicks that makes the martini delectable. I screw this up often. I’m bad at using the Worcestershire. It’s always my first ingredient so I can pour it out if I mess up and dump in nine drops. Try it. Try everything James Salter did. That, perhaps, is one of the keys to life. Excuse me while I shake a fourth.
“Writers cope with the drain of writing now with yoga and meditation and marital discord (and, of course, with weed and Oregon Pinot, too) but the heyday of the writer with the whiskey bottle always on his desk seems past.”
Yes. Yes. Not for me. Not really. And not often. Mr. Gopnik and I agree on important tenets of an artistic lifestyle. While I may imbibe after, and sometimes during the times that I write, I still strongly believe in yoga and meditation. I don’t have the money for fancy clubs, or even regular clubs, so my practice is solo, yet perfected through years of practice. If Mr. Gopnik and I could stand arm-in-arm and proclaim to the writing world what needs to be fixed, yoga and mediation would be the only items on our agenda. And while we may approach them from different angles, I applaud Mr. Gopnik for realizing the role that these activities play in the everyday lives of young writers. I also do acupuncture, try it some time. The point of healing therapy for writers is to distress and relax. Find what works, and do it. This point feels universal.
“People can’t believe how few writers actually know other writers; the bars solved that for the old guys, at least.”
Damn. We bonded for a minute. Once again, I profess my lack of knowledge of the New York writing scene, but in what crazy, unlivable world do writers not meet at bars? I am, at this time, a writer without much merit. Yet, I’ve spent a great deal of time socializing with other writers, some of whom have won insanely prestigious awards for their work, and I’ve met them all in bars. That’s how at it works. Writers publish. A reading is curated. People attend the reading. Afterward, we drink. There are no soirees or potlucks. We drink. I’ve meet more writers in bars than I could ever meet at yoga class. I assume this is how it worked in 1925, and I can guarantee that this is how it works in 2014. Writers drink, writers go to bars, writers meet other writers. This is how I have met my peers in San Francisco. The San Francisco/Oakland scene is a new breed of literature, willing to break from the stuffy limits of Manhattan. Perhaps the drinking culture of authors is dead in a tiny place in the world, but three thousand miles away, we are at a bar, meeting new writers, and waving to Adam Gopnik, mouthing, “Here we are.”
“Alcohol ages. Fitzgerald died just past forty, but everyone was already treating him like Rip Van Winkle. This was partly because he had out-lived his time but mostly because youth died then with the young.”
Once again, with desperate chagrin, I argue that a cherry-picked example from 75 years in the past may not be the best way to prove a point about contemporary writers. Does alcohol have adverse affects on health over time? Yes. But to draw a line in the sand, to say that one generation of drunk authors is flawed simply because of their alcohol intake, and more so because the bubble in which Mr. Gopnik lives doesn’t adhere to this level of debauchery, is deeply inaccurate. Writers drink. Each of us drinks for a different reason. We drink because after a day in which we pushed ourselves to exhaustion at the keyboard, a drink feels good. Yes, Fitzgerald died young. Drinking contributed to it. But is that a reason for up and coming authors to abstain from liquor? It’s not a question worthy of an answer. We live to write, and sometimes we need an assist to back us away from the emotional cliff. We are fiction writers. We make shit up. It’s not easy.
“Now hair dye and twenty-four-hour gyms and wild salmon and celery juice or whatever have extended youth or the illusion of youth right to the edge of extreme old age. The unduly extended boyishness of this generation’s fully mature writers is still much spoken of, with annoyance, often by critics of what must seem to the boyish writers unduly extended girlishness.”
Mr. Gopnik’s closing is so deeply flawed, I need to pause for a fifth martini. This one will likely be shaken with more vigor than the previous four. It will also be my last of the evening. I know my limits. I also apologize, in advance, if my language becomes more basic from this point forward.
The cultural generalities stated by Mr. Gopnik appear lifted directly from a failed sitcom pilot. Such is the problem with generations: each feels as if its successor is doomed to fail. Mr. Gopnik’s essay closes with a loud assertion that he is not of the younger generation, and clearly knows nothing about us. I don’t doubt that the writers with whom Mr. Gopnik socializes share his point of view. But just as every previous generation has been forced to acknowledge, younger writers are hungry and coming fast. And we drink.
Recently, a close friend sold his manuscript to a publisher. We celebrated with absinthe at two in the afternoon. This is not normal; we are not two members of a generation that shirks responsibility in the face of excess. But we also socialize, celebrate, and commiserate with each other while drinking. I don’t know if this is due to a generational divide between my generation and Adam Gopnik’s. Perhaps it is geographical, and that liquor is a myth in the New York literary scene but thrives on the West Coast. Whatever the reason, the sweeping, generalized statements of Adam Gopnik in “Writers and Rum” do not reflect the front lines of people trying to publish stories and novels today.
I am a writer, and sometimes I drink. Other times, I don’t, but tonight, I drank to prove the point that Mr. Gopnik’s essay fails to accurately portray the newest generation of writers. We are not as wholesome as some may wish us to be. We drink. We write. Some of what we write is brilliant. Despite the Upper West Side values outlined in Mr. Gopnik’s piece, we will continue to live, to write, and to drink as we please, not because our idols did the same (though they absolutely did) but because writing is hard, and this is our choice to cope.
In Life is Meals, James Salter shares an anecdote from James Thurber concerning martinis: “One is all right, two is too many, and three is not enough.” Despite my assertions that drinking has not fallen from the literary scene, my heart is with Thurber in that the need for multiple martinis each night is rare. I don’t normally drink five martinis in one night because I know if I do, I will be worse for the wear the next morning. But most nights, I will have one, because I live for nights, when I can step away from the emotional intricacies of my words, slow down my brain, and relax. I will have one so that I can go out and meet other writers, people trying to do what I do, and I will meet them in bars. This is my generation of writers. You have heard from some of us already, you will hear from more in the coming years. And we drink.