Thursday, March 3, 2011

Schmoozing and Boozing

Every career has its distinct sinful predilections: politicians have hookers; bankers have embezzling; musicians and moviemakers have imitations and outright theft of ideas. (What else can explain two movies this spring season about "friends with benefits"?) But for the publishing world--for writers and editors alike--it's always been the cocktail hour, the three-martini lunch, and the long whiskey hours of creation. Yes, booze has always had a central place in the world of literature, and not just for the writer pouring over manuscript pages late into the night.

In his Townies column today for The New York Times, writer and former editor at Harper's Magazine Theodore Ross delves into the rituals of the office cocktail, and how alcohol acts like a lubricant when it comes to talking shop, and making books. "The past few weeks the better part of my social life has revolved around drinks," he says, as he looks back on his last days in the office. "Publishing tends to liberally grease the runners of those it transports out the door." He's not wrong: whenever someone departs our offices, we often salute them with Dixie cups full of champagne, and then follow them out of the office with a happy hour nearby. But the tradition applies beyond farewells: Fridays at Five, chats with agents and authors outside the office, schmoozing at book parties and literary events. After a while, you start to feel like an extra on "Mad Men," even if you don't have a bar cart of mixers in your office.

Of course, this trend in the literary world is also famously destructive. Dozens of history's most brilliant writers, editors, and agents have been documented as alcoholics and party people. When you look back at their names--John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and so on--it's impossible to separate their reputations as artists from their reputations as drinkers. Some say it's the process of creation that makes them hit the bottle--after writing his masterpiece In Cold Blood, many said Truman Capote was so devastated by what he'd experienced in his bond with the executed murderer Perry Smith that it drove him to drink, and he was never the same after that. One has to wonder if it was the mood of the time to drink and socialize--the cocktail parties of the Paris Review back in the day were infamously debaucherous--or if it was the condition of creation. Is it an indispensable part of the life of the written word, to soak oneself with a bottle of gin?

But I don't mean to get too down on your social lubricant of choice--because alcohol does have one very good impact on the writerly experience: for those that can hold it and not fall asleep too quickly, it has a great reputation for making writers bolder, speaking their minds. (This was parodied to hilarious effect on a recent episode of Glee, in which the club's main diva readied herself with a glass of rose as she prepared to call someone to ask them out--the idea being, if she experienced more heartbreak, she'd have something worth writing songs about.) I'd heard multitudes of writing student friends talk about throwing back a martini before sitting down to write, to quiet the editorial voices in their head. Yes, this is psychosomatic drinking, but it can have real-world benefits every now and then. At the literary event I attended last night, the booze made sense: it was a Q&A at Powerhouse Books with Gabrielle Hamilton, the brilliant chef from Prune who has just written her memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter. I devoured a rough copy of the manuscript several weeks ago, and haven't been able to stop raving about it since. As I sat in this Q&A, listening to this funny, humble, beautifully unpretentious woman talk about her career in cooking, I sipped a complimentary cup of wine and felt emboldened to contribute to the discussion. The wine did much more than taste good, it may me brave enough to talk to a writer who had inspired and moved me through her work. If there's something to blame on the alcohol, I'm glad it was the chance to participate in a conversation about how we make books that make us better. And then we go home and throw back a few in anticipation of the work ahead...

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