Every aspiring writer has their heroes, that’s obvious enough. A certain amount of imitation is necessary to get going. But an apprentice can choose a master that is, for all intents and purposes, shitty — one who, especially where the amateur is concerned, teaches the wrong lessons.
Charles Bukowski proves to be, almost without exception, a bad influence on writers. I’ll reserve my judgment as to whether he ruins otherwise respectable talents or simply draws irredeemable idiots to him like ants to a picnic, but this much is clear: there are a lot of young, shitty, predominantly male writers who idolize the guy.
I have some theories why this might be the case. First, his anti-intellectualism (embodied in both the form and the content of his writing). It’s understandable why this would appeal to fools. Second, his lifestyle. The message here is, “I can drink all I want and live like a pig and still be a great writer.” The all-too-common fallacy here is in confusing alcoholism and misery with artistic gravity. Third, his narcissistic sentimentality. Bukowski’s writing is centred around his own very narrow perspective and contains no real engagement with history, the world of ideas, or anyone all that different from himself. When his overblown and often misdirected cynicism is stripped away, all that’s left are the gooiest, tritest forms of self-pity and yearning. This is easy to emulate — teenage poetry is full of it — and it serves as another excuse for the young Bukowski-loving writer not to have to think.
It’s wonderfully convenient to believe that the confession of despair has inherent artistic value, or that you’re the only one with the balls to “Tell it like it is,” a rare authentic voice in a sea of phonies, fakers, middle-class stooges and ivory tower eggheads — and all the more so when you can maintain, by the same means, the pseudo-ironic machismo that absolves you of responsibility for the symptoms (misogyny, racism, general boorishness) of your own sense of inferiority. This way you can dodge all the existential urgency of striving to make yourself into a better human being and criticize everyone else while remaining the passive product of whatever forces or experiences you want to blame. What makes a writer like this so awful is his ethical failure — he is a blatant hypocrite, a satirist from a moral low-ground trying to bring others to his level, writing in the mode of resentment.
It’s nearly impossible to separate Bukowski’s style from this bullshit hard-luck attitude precisely because it’s so monotone — he describes everything through this same lens in the same voice and register. Consistency makes a style, but repetitiveness makes it a poor one; nor is vulgarity for its own sake rebellious anymore. Maybe it was exhilarating in the 70s to read about beer-shits at the horse-race, but nowadays it gets old pretty fast. Bukowski leads many a budding writer to think that exposing The Ugly Truth, and particularly one’s Personal Ugly Truth, is literature’s main or even exclusive function. A twenty-something Bukowski enthusiast (white, upper-middle class, university-educated as often as not) “telling it straight” or “serving it raw” is farcical–they simply have no credibility in a voice that stakes its worth on lived experience.
Young writers would do better to expand their limits than to mimic a deeply-limited writer. To learn more, go deeper, refuse to take things at face-value, experiment and actively shape their convictions — not to privilege a sham sincerity, not to conform themselves to certainties they do not possess.