Wednesday, February 21, 2024
News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students

Art Imitates Addiction

I feel a dangerous movement afoot. Art imitates life. Life imitates art. Tom Wolfe is a best selling American author…

I feel a dangerous movement afoot.

Art imitates life.

Life imitates art.

Tom Wolfe is a best selling American author and journalist who has penned at least a dozen books including The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The last two fall into the category of New Journalism which is stylistically written accounts of true events.

Wolfe and Truman Capote were two of the pioneers of the genre. Capote gave the movement substance with the 1965 release of In Cold Blood about the murder of a Texas family. He said, prophetically, that journalism was the “least explored of literary mediums.”

The New Journalism genre not only flourished, it was the launching pad for yet another literary genre: New New Journalism.

In New New Journalism the author is no longer a mere observer. The author is a participant in the story being told. This has also been labelled immersion journalism, personal journalism, hanging out journalism and drowning journalism. For example, Ted Conover became a prison guard for a year and then wrote the novel, Newjack.

The New New Journalism is the memoir run amuck.

Some authors, such as James Frey, test the limits of both genres. He got caught red handed, not only exaggerating, but lying about his six months in rehab in A Million Little Pieces, which nonetheless was a gripping read.

Which brings me to my original point. Frey did not orchestrate his drug addiction and rehab experience in order to write a best seller. However, could this type of motivation develop?

There have been a splurge of memoirs about drunks and addicts, and their shocking journeys through death-defying debauchery and recovery.

Augusten Burroughs catapulted to literary stardom with Running With Scissors, about his horrifying childhood. More recently he wrote the darkly comic Dry, about his struggles with alcoholism.

Heather King’s Parched is an eloquent documentation of King’s alcoholic prison and subsequent liberation. As a critic says, "her journey towards redemption is both appalling and hilarious."

Smashed by Koren Zailckas, yet another best seller, details the author’s battle with the bottle. Zailckas explores the phenomenon which is teenage binge drinking.

In my last blog I reviewed Tweak by Nic Sheff, which chronicles his drug addiction that started in his early teens.

Herein lies my concern. Are there dangerous precedents here?

It is an accepted literary journalism form to put oneself in a situation and write about it.

It is also an accepted literary form to write a memoir.

Could people, especially young people, be fooled into thinking it is sane to pursue a perilous life of drinking and drugging in order to conduct research for a blockbuster best seller? A career launching thesis!

Do we need to take a sober look at this trend? We are lauding the literary skills and lives of people who have cheated death without addressing the brutal truth: not everybody is fortunate enough to have only flirted with death on the destructive detour through alcoholism and drug addiction. People, lots of people, die on that road.

As I said, I feel a dangerous movement afoot.

Art imitates life.

Life imitates art.