Why ‘Quit Lit’ is enough to drive you to drink
Question of the day – does anyone remember the rise of the ‘misery memoir’? Paperbacks stacked up on the shelves in WH Smiths and newsagents’ book sections in the late 90s, spearheaded by Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It, published in 1995. This book became a global phenomenon, spawning a series of books chronicling Peltzer’s transition to adulthood, and his own self-help book. It also attracted controversy, with several journalists, notably David Plotz and Pat Jordan, who questioned the recollections and the fact that as Pelzer’s parents were long dead, it was hard to verify the claims. But this did not matter – a slew of books appeared on shelves chronicling the early lives of people who had suffered child abuse, yet gone on to become successful. Rather than watch the horrific events that befall characters on soap operas, you could instead read about somebody’s actual misery. Ker-ching!
The ‘misery memoir’ as a genre appears to have faded from consciousness as we head into the 2020s. But it seems to have merely been replaced with a new, rather more insidious form of non-fiction – ‘Quit Lit’. These are sort-of misery memoirs, repackaged and promoted for our times. To put it simply, these books focus on women who, whether they drank to the point of alcoholism or not, gave up drinking. It’s not surprising that discussions about alcohol drinking are at the forefront. It’s estimated that people’s average alcohol consumption went up during the pandemic – hardly unexpected, considering it was a bewildering time of great uncertainty and fear in which normal, stable routines were ripped up and people were forced into a new way of living. But when you have magazines like Stylist giving lists of “Quit Lit books for anyone who wants to cut back on the booze”, you have to wonder what is going on. Have we turned into a nation of slovenly drunks? Or is it that this is a new form of social shaming? Are these people a gang of repentant Cersei Lannisters, walking naked through a jeering throng, whilst a stern-faced nun shrieks “SHAME!” for everyone to hear? Indeed they are. Except, Cersei Lannister never really agreed to her naked walk of shame. The people writing these books are volunteering for it. And they seem to be all women. The puritanical post-war 1950s looms like a shadow, where women were frowned upon for drinking, going out, and having fun. Joyous times. If anything, the message of Quit Lit seems to be that if you’re a woman who has it all, you’re totally miserable and you’ll suffer. I can hear Susan Faludi weeping in the wings.
So who are the authors of Quit Lit? Women who are youngish (20s to early 40s). Women who work in jobs such as advertising, media, PR. Women who have hectic and busy lives, trying to juggle long days in an office with busy social schedules, boyfriends, and (sometimes) children. And the only thing that helps them cope with all this? A few buckets of Pinot Grigio every night. Until they start waking up in the same clothes, same make up, and in bed with people they don’t want to be next to. So then starts the realisation they need to stop drinking, accompanied by terms such as feeling “shame.” Or, “like a piece of inconsequential shit.” And that is dark. That sentence is the type where the speaker would benefit more from spending a few hours sitting in a therapist’s office than trying to package it as a book that straddles an uneasy divide between ‘entertainment’ (these writers know these books are for an audience) and ‘self-help.’
But how much help is a ‘self-help memoir’ for a serious drinker? If you drink to the point where you are being told you have a problem, where you are told to go and see a doctor or an AA counsellor before you lose your job, your relationship, your friends, or your house, then that is tragic. It’s the sign of someone who has an illness and needs help and encouragement. But do you really need to tell everyone absolutely everything? These books are perfect for the age of social media, where we are all told that “everyone is a closet mess up”, and then it becomes a competition to display how messed up you are. In one book, Bryony Gordon’s Glorious Rock Bottom, she goes into extensive detail about the AA meetings she attended. If Gordon wants to invade her own privacy – which she has done in several books detailing mental health conditions – fair enough. But writing about those she was in rehab with is invading their privacy, and that’s not fair. Then there is the blaming of society – in how it’s not a surprise that the writers of these books drink too much, as society is awash with booze. Is there any point in pointing out that you can exercise self-control and you don’t have to run with the crowd? If you knew nothing of Western culture, you could read these books and be forgiven for thinking that pretty much all women are out there pouring booze down their necks morning, noon and night.
And that brings us to what I find really insidious about these books. Underneath the accounts of wild nights out, working days spent longing for alcohol, pounding hangovers when trying to do the school run, and nearly getting fired, is the stentorian message that you should quit drinking for your health. In the same way that the toxic diet culture of the Seventies and Eighties morphed into the exercise fanaticism of the Nineties and beyond, one clear message of Quit Lit is that you’re damaging your health, and should stop. Claire Pooley’s The Sober Diaries goes into extensive detail about her breast cancer diagnosis, drawing a tenuous link between her drinking and this. Other books insist that if you drink at all, you are probably a wee bit reliant on alcohol, and need to re-set the relationship. This is less re-claiming your life, more “do as we tell you. It worked for me, it will work for YOU.” It is, as Megan Garber of The Atlantic noted, the latest form of ‘humblebrag’ – that yes, it was terrible I used to down two bottles of wine a night and wake up in the same underwear, and could have given myself seven types of cancer, but I don’t do it anymore, and feel proud? Yep, humblebrags – perfect for the social media savvy, but not quite so good for those who might have an actual serious problem. As Garber also pointed out, there is a strong sense of naïve optimism with these books – if you’re going to give something up, especially something that may have exerted a powerful pull over your life or identity, you need to do so hoping that what comes will be better. And if what follows is not, you’re then trapped in a cycle of pretending to your newly eager Instagram audience that it’s fine, really. Perhaps a better ‘sober hero’ to emulate is Rob Halford, frontman of Heavy Metal legends Judas Priest, who states in his autobiography Confess “I am sober today. Hopefully, I’ll be sober tomorrow.” And that’s it. No need to go into well-meaning advice on hot yoga or meditation. Just a stalwart ‘get on with it’ attitude. But it’s the Quit litters party, and they can cry if they want to.
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