Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Literary Dram-Drinking

The title alone of this short article draws attention. I had to search a bit to find out what “dram-drinking” means–the only online dictionary that seems to list a definition is the OED. It turns out that “dram-drinking” is habitual drinking, and from the text of the article it seems to imply a degree of alcoholism or obsession. The article compares this drinking to reading “over-stimulating” novels, perhaps taking the comparison too far. But, nevertheless, I think that there might be something to it.

While much of the criticism in this article is directed at “novel-reading,” it is also clear that it is not just reading novels that is the problem, but the type of novels read. The generalization to all novel reading is perhaps as much about the novels easily available at the time and the evolving attitude toward those novels than it is about reading novels itself.

This article was reprinted in The Contributor from the conservative British weekly, The Spectator, which carried it on August 18, 1888.


Literary Dram-Drinking

THE mischief of voracious novel-reading is really much more like the mischief of dram-drinking than appears at first sight. It tends to make all other literary nourishment intolerable, just as dram-drinking tends to make all true food intolerable, and to supersede food by drink. The voracious novel-reader of to-day rejects Scott, because Scott’s novels contain so much good food that is not mere story-telling. The genuine novel-reader detests what he calls tame stories, stories in which the interest is not exaggerated and piled up ten times as high as the interests of ordinary life. He wants always to be feeling a thrill of excitement running through his nerves, always to be living in imagination through the concentrated essence of the perils of a hundred adventurous lives, instead of toiling calmly through the ordinary hopes and fears of one. No state of mind can be more unwholesome, because none is more calculated to divert the energies from the sort of quiet tasks to which they should be habitually applied, and to keep them stretched on the tenter-hooks of expectation, waiting for a sort of strain which is never likely to occur, and if it did occur, would certainly not find a man’s energies any the better prepared for it, for having been worn out previously with a long series of imaginary excitements. The habit of dram-drinking, it is said, leads to fatty degeneration of the heart-i.e., excessive fattening round the heart, and weak action of the heart in consequence. So, too, the habit of exciting novel-reading leads to fatty degeneration of the literary mind-i.e., to an unhealthy and spasmodic action of the imagination, and a general weakening of the power of entering thoroughly into the solid interests of real life. So far as we know, the only effective cure for this habit of literary dram-drinking-a cure not always forthcoming-is a moral shock of some kind which exposes the hollowness of all these unreal interests, and makes them appear as artificial and melo-dramatic as they actually are. That, however, is a cure which is an extremely painful one-almost cruel in its disillusionising power. There are, we believe, some happier mortals who can cure themselves, as the grocers’ shop-boys are said to be cured of their taste for sugar and raisins and such dainties, by an early surfeit of them; but that is a kind of cure which it takes a very healthy mind to operate upon. As a rule, even where the surfeit destroys the zest of novel-reading, it also leaves the mind too languid to take eagerly to plainer and more wholesome food, and so at once destroys the pleasure taken in the poison, and leaves the mischief produced by it.

What over-stimulating novels do for the voracious reader of them is to establish false ideas of the sort of emergency which best calls out and exercises the character, false impressions of the discipline which a strong character needs, and of the mode by which that discipline is best attained. In point of fact, that which is most useful to the character bears about the same proportion to that which is most exciting in life, as the drill of a well-disciplined army bears to the perilous crises of great battles. The voracious novel-reader learns about as much that is useful for the great crises of his life, by his novel-reading, as the raw recruit who should begin with a series of the most perilous battles in a great campaign, would learn by that most inappropriate of disciplines-a discipline which might teach him only to run away.

The best way to prevent the disease of novel-reading from catching hold of the young, is to instil in them, if possible, an early craving for more solid food, and to instil it so thoroughly as to make them dislike the merely stimulating diet of unadulterated fiction. This is just as possible as it is to make the young dislike, as usually they will, highly stimulating drinks. There is a healthy love of reality in the young, if it can only be judiciously fostered, a healthy distaste for too high-spiced a literary nourishment. The best security against it is the natural urgency of their healthy appetite for the power of dealing effectually with the realities of life, if this be only judiciously and wisely stimulated. Such an appetite implies a sort of disgust for all that is utterly unreal, for all that is exaggerated in its tone and effeminate in its sensationalism; and a hearty liking for habitual, strenuous and patient effort.

The Contributor, v10 n1, November 1888


It seems to me that an element of this still exists. Readers do exist who have an unhealthy obsession with their preferred genre, and it is true that the emphasis on the thrill in some novels distracts from the mundane in every day life. However, it seems that our culture has come to view these as merely entertainment, rather than something pernicious. What the author of the above article saw as a problem with the quality of what is being read has become seen merely a problem of the quantity read, if it is a problem at all.

Still, I’m torn between the view that many novels are simply harmless entertainment and the view that the novel should somehow present important ideas or provide insight into reality. In the line of thought of this article, I suppose this idea can be described as a question about reality: how much does our fiction need to represent or reflect reality, and how much can it be unreal?

But even this is perhaps a false assumption. Since authors are humans rooted in the realities they face, I’m not sure that it is even possible to write fiction that doesn’t somehow, to at least a small degree, represent or reflect reality. And if we put effort into even the works written simply for cheap thrills or simple entertainment, can’t we still find things that will raise questions or lead to ideas, even though such questions and ideas weren’t intended by the author?

I don’t know. But I do think that these questions are based on the basic assumptions we make about the value of literature. Whether or not we think that the presence or absence of some intended reflection on life or ideas communicated through a novel is important says a lot about how we see literature.

16 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Literary Dram-Drinking”

  1. .

    This sounds a lot like the rhetoric now used to describe playing video games. Which I think are in a similar state of artistic development.

  2. This is almost the literary/commercial discussion. It makes me examine, too, principles I’ve held as truth, as writer: you need a hook. Then you need to keep your plot threads tight… too much description or character development will “slow” the story so the reader loses interest.

    … maybe an effect of being so saliently entertained. Our attention spans have shrunk, therefore a “good” book is defined as one that will keep the reader’s interest. Think of stories like Anne of Green Gables… how quickly do those stories move? Or Ivanhoe, a book discussed recently.

    It’s interesting to me, thinking of these things. I’m not, by nature, a commercial fiction writer. But in order to sell my stories I’ve had to learn how to keep things moving fast. This is something I’ve forced upon myself, thinking it is what “makes” a good story. And yet… perhaps not. Certainly it wasn’t always the case (as this article proves.)

  3. The genuine novel-reader detests what he calls tame stories, stories in which the interest is not exaggerated and piled up ten times as high as the interests of ordinary life. He wants always to be feeling a thrill of excitement running through his nerves, always to be living in imagination through the concentrated essence of the perils of a hundred adventurous lives, instead of toiling calmly through the ordinary hopes and fears of one.

    I already live my life (not so) calmly toiling through (far too) ordinary hopes and fears. Don’t wanna read about it, too.

  4. Most of the defenders of genre fiction (and perhaps even literary fiction) would suggest that although the stakes may be heightened, the point of such storytelling is to entertain, but to also reveal character through the unfolding of the plot (the adventure).

  5. I find Th.’s analogy to video games very interesting.

    I think literary dram-drinking has more to do with the reader than the writer. But maybe that’s just my addictive personality speaking.

  6. I’m troubled by the idea that reading (genre, whatever) is a) an addictive behavior and b) therefore BAD.

    Everybody needs a hobby. People with hobbies are addicts? Quilt makers? Carpenters? Cooks? I know the argument can be made that those are productive and reading “isn’t,” and I know this piece is from a different time/place and, let’s face it, our culture does not value the time spent on art (either creation or consumption) if it doesn’t contribute to the pantry or bank account. I’m going to assume it was even more true back in the day.

    But the way it’s framed and our acceptance of the definition is what’s troubling to me.

  7. I fully admit to being a reading addict. When I am having a difficult day (or three) I will check fluffy books out of the library and consume them like a person who drinks alcohol likely slowly dulls himself with six-packs. Lighter fiction and things that don’t take a lot of mental work to process are always what I turn to when I’m sick, too. And if i read too much of it, I do find it hard to go back to more literary stuff. I think I over-consumed that type of literature as an adolescent and a teen, too, and it was difficult for me (though I consider myself an intelligent person) to have the attention span to read classics. As an adult, it is easier for me… and I have had some of those giant overindulging episodes described in the above post where I just get sick of Princess Diaries and want something more clarifying and cleansing, like Barbara Kingsolver, or even some things that are genre fiction that I’d actually consider to be more complex and therefore “wholesome,” Asimov, or Wells, or something.

  8. I’ll be honest: I don’t understand how people who don’t read spend their time. What do they do? Okay, television, sure. But what else? It baffles me.

  9. I watch football. That’s just a few hours on the weekend. I guess it isn’t if you watch all of the college and pro games, but then we’re getting in to true dram-drinking territory.

  10. I don’t understand how people who don’t read spend their time.

    cross stitching
    rehabbing rooms
    fixing up old furniture
    rearranging and reorganizing crap
    thrift-storing (aka dropping crap off and hunting for treasures)
    miscellaneous crafts
    haunting Hobby Lobby
    planting flowers
    random manual labor

    Sarah, why is it bad to do something that clears your mind? You can’t constantly be hitting the brainwork hard. I will tell you how I know. For ~18 hours a day, from the moment I get up until I go to bed, I’m thinking about my business and trying to solve problems I have. Because I’m a one-chick shop, it ALL falls to me. My bookkeeping is about 2 years behind. Seriously. I cannot stop thinking about what I have to do next. Even when I’m sick. Sometimes I DREAM about working and I wake up hung over from working all night long in my sleep. I’ve had more than one doctor admonish me that I needed to learn how to relax.

    The rare times I can sit down and devour a romance novel is…I don’t know…sleep time?…for my brain. Definitely restful.

    My husband watches TV. I don’t find TV watching to be relaxing.

  11. … I absolutely agree with you, Moriah. Absolutely. Just… I sometimes do get a little addicted, in moments of emotional paucity. As a mother, I cannot ingest Chickfluff after Chickfluff while babies run around diaperless, forming savage little tribes. Speaking of, I had a very difficult time paying attention to Lord of the Flies when we were assigned to read it in high school, I think because at the time I was devouring Piers Anthony novels.

    But yeah… I allow myself a ridiculous cozy mystery or hilarious 1960’s era harlequin from time to time. Along with a box of chocolates.

  12. As a mother, I cannot ingest Chickfluff after Chickfluff while babies run around diaperless, forming savage little tribes.

    You say that like it’s a bad thing.

  13. YOu’re right… I really ought not have such a black and white view of the matter. After all, if my kids choose to be either Republican or Democrat, they’ll be in tribes of savages anyway.

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