Michael Moorcock on William S. BurroughsTags: Interview, Michael Moorcock, William Burroughs
“To Write For the Space Age”
Interview with Michael Moorcock by Mark P. Williams
Michael Moorcock (1939-) has always been a politically and culturally engaged writer who has been generous in his support of authors from several generations, from diverse backgrounds and with quite different interests including close associations with J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd and Andrea Dworkin. Moorcock is a highly prolific novelist, with over a hundred novels and edited collections to his name; as his friend and fellow Londoner Angela Carter puts it, Moorcock “can gleefully give you all the formulae for every kind of story there ever was, because he’s tried and tested all of them” (introduction to Michael Moorcock: Death Is No Obstacle, Colin Greenland, 1991).
In the mid-sixties it was, in the words of Colin Greenland, “Michael Moorcock and the writers he gathered about him [who] were [most] conscious, even self-conscious about science fiction, its symbolism, its immediacy, its responsibilities, and above all its possibilities” (The Entropy Exhibition, 1983). Between 1964 and 1971 Moorcock edited New Worlds SF Magazine and continued to be involved in the later New Worlds quarterly format and anthology collections. In addition to genre fiction he has produced a number of state-of-the-nation novels, most notably Mother London (1988) and King of the City (2000), as well as an historical epic sequence set between the first and second world wars dealing with conflict, social upheaval and the Holocaust: Byzantium Endures (1981), The Laughter of Carthage (1984), Jerusalem Commands (1992) and The Vengeance of Rome (2006). He has also written reviews and political commentary for a variety of publications including The Guardian newspaper, The Spectator magazine and The Index on Censorship. While, as an example of Moorcock’s political and cultural thought in the Thatcher-Reagan years, his polemical essay The Retreat From Liberty (1983, Zomba Books) gives an impression of the era from a firmly egalitarian perspective which still offers useful insights for charting the political path of left and right in British politics for those considering our current political climate.
For Moorcock creative boundaries have always existed primarily to be negotiated, breached and redefined fluidly, and more than other writers of his generation Moorcock has crossed and re-crossed the constructed boundaries of published fiction. One of the key voices by which Moorcock defined his intention to bring new meaning to literature through both generic and avant-garde modes of writing was the distinctively ironic one of William S. Burroughs. The following interview, conducted by email, gives some indication of the breadth of his cultural interactions and shows why he is such an instrumental figure for a number of contemporary British writers. In it he responds in some depth regarding the interactions of his own ideas with those of William Burroughs and the quite different impressions and impacts that promoting Burroughs work in the UK had from his observations of others and that of himself and his friends such as Barrington J. Bayley and J.G. Ballard.
Mark P. Williams: What was the first Burroughs text you read? What was happening around you at the time? What was your immediate response to the writing in terms of its styles and themes?
Michael Moorcock: To be honest, I don’t remember too clearly. I assume I was in Paris because it was the Olympia Press edition of The Naked Lunch, almost certainly. I know I was very frustrated with modern fiction and genre fiction and was looking for a kind of fiction which somehow related to my own life and experience. Certainly, the Beats didn’t do that for me any more than Waugh. I read two books while hitchhiking from Sweden to France and was starving by the time I got to Paris — On the Road by Kerouac and Brideshead Revisited by Waugh. I thought On the Road a bit of a wank and the Waugh a bit frozen in a time which meant almost nothing to me.
I suspect that when I got to Paris I was more than ready for a dose of Burroughs. No doubt that’s where I picked up NL, shortly after it was published. Breath of fresh air. It was joyous absurdism which somehow spoke directly to me. A tremendous high. I couldn’t have been happier to have found it, even though I was pretty out of it by then and wound up being picked up by the cops in the Tuilleries and taken to the British Consulate, who put me, for some reason, in the bridal suite of the Madeleine (still not having given me anything to eat — I got my first meal, a hot dog, bought for me by someone I met on the boat home — and promptly threw it up, I’d not eaten for so long!). I must have picked up the book at George Whitman’s shop, which in those days was called Le Mistral and which is now called Shakespeare and Co, after George bought some of Beach’s lending library. As I recall George took a few books off me — no doubt those I’d read on, as it were, the road — in exchange. I came back to London full of enthusiasm. It was an inspiration. I didn’t hope to write like Burroughs, but his writing somehow confirmed what I’d been trying to do.
MPW: Both your writing and Burroughs at this time would fall under what Jeff Nuttall described as “Bomb culture” (Nuttall, Bomb Culture, 1968), a peculiar reaction to the uncertainties and contradictions revealed in the post-1945 era, which he identifies particularly with the atom bomb.
How much do you feel that the specific cultural circumstances of the mid-to-late-1960s, particularly in the Ladbroke Grove area, are reflected in the appeal of what Mary McCarthy calls Burroughs’ novel of “statelessness?”
Moorcock: Jeff was a bit older than me. I didn’t react much to the bomb. I wasn’t scared of it, maybe saw it as a useful symbol (see my editorial in the New Worlds which carried Behold the Man) and though I sort of went along with friends in the Ban the Bomb movement, I knew it wouldn’t be banned and rather relished the idea of it. I did see it as a way of keeping the peace. I shared this view with Ballard and Barry [Barrington] Bayley, the two writer friends I saw regularly and with whom I had most in common. Ballard had been liberated by the Bomb, as had [Brian W.] Aldiss, another friend. Ballard from the Japanese civilian camp and Aldiss from having to begin the invasion of Japan. I think I was born a little too late to worry. I had enjoyed the excitement of the V-bombs, the majority of which fell in SW London, where I lived, and had always felt slightly let down by peacetime. Few of my close friends gave much of a crap about the bomb. We understood sensibilities had changed and that we needed a new kind of fiction to deal with it, but we didn’t lose much sleep except, maybe, during the Cuban crisis. But even there our attitude was sort of elevated. I was more focussed on discovering a new kind of urban fiction.
I like the notion of the “stateless” novel and indeed you could argue I was looking for a form like that. Cornelius certainly reflects that. A novel which looked for a new form of identity? McCarthy was arguing from a more academic, conventional point of view. I was more practical, I think, in that I was trying to reclaim the “literary” novel for a general public, through sf. Burroughs, Bayley and Ballard all had an interest in taking certain ideas from sf for their own uses, as I did. So we were trying to marry popular and, if you like, elitist art, in much the way Michael Chabon and his Bay Area friends are trying to do today. I did assume Burroughs to be a writer with an audience amongst sf readers, for instance. It turned out that the sf audience, like the audiences for any genre fiction (including the middle-brow “modern” or even “modernist” novel) is deeply conservative and pretty much addicted to generic conventions. Repetition is what it needs, not innovation.
I was generally disappointed by what was offered as literary experiment (by the likes of B.S. Johnson for instance) which just seemed like the mixture as before presented in modified forms. Few were working on finding new forms for the novel. Apart from what we were doing in New Worlds (that is, Ballard’s “condensed novels,” Bayley’s weird notions) I didn’t see much which tried to match Burroughs. We looked back a bit to [Boris] Vian, [Alfred] Jarry, [Ronald] Firbank and a few other absurdists, but found little other than Burroughs in fiction to inspire us. The counter-culture frequently seemed a bit of a wank — a lot of middle class boys being allowed to say fuck a lot. Little sense of attacking the infrastructure and re-inventing it. Although we shared printing facilities, sometimes even editorial staff, with the likes of Oz and IT, we found most of the stuff a bit naive and even irritating.
Contrary to the general impression, few of us used drugs for inspiration and while I had a lot in common as far as music and lifestyle were concerned, most of the others didn’t. I was of my time. I had grown up playing blues, being in early R&B bands, getting into what are now called “prog-rock” bands, reading a bit of sf, so I had that in common, too, but most of what I did was pragmatic “experiment.” There wasn’t a lot of theory discussed. Ballard was a little warier of attacking the literary establishment, though privately he had nothing but contempt for the work it was producing. He was more willing to hang out with the likes of Kingsley Amis and Co and more of their age and class, while I was happy to plunge into the counter-culture lifestyle, work for the magazines, take part in the odd demo and so on, but the rhetoric often got up my nose, I have to say. Burroughs had much the same attitude to mine and in some ways we had more in common, though he really enjoyed meeting Arthur C. Clarke when I introduced them!
Circles and Waves
MPW: How well did you know Jeff Nuttall? Did you encounter his My Own Mag â€“which he describes as being designed to “counteract the optimistic refusal of unpleasantness” through “nausea and flagrant scatology as a violent means of presentation” (p. 151, Bomb Culture)?
Nuttall was on the mailing list of Alexander Trocchi’s Project Sigma documents; did you encounter these avant-gardist texts yourself? Was it just a question of your being around the same loosely affiliated groups of people such as the bookstores Better Books or Indica or Unicorn?
Moorcock: Knew them all, but thought most were bullshit artists. That’s the truth of it, though I liked Jeff. Got My Own Mag regularly. Supported some of the “alternative” stuff but I was using girly mags like Golden Nugget to promote Burroughs and others in the “real” world, as I saw it. Rather irritated by the likes of MOM.
Too much theory, not enough practice for us. We tended to produce fiction and sometimes poetry or even non-fiction and see how it ran. Theory followed, if at all. We were nearly all working writers — Ballard, myself, [Langdon] Jones, [Barrington] Bayley and so on — and weren’t too easy around grants and academies. Just how it was. I did get all that stuff but passed it on to others mostly. Lot more beer involved with Jeff than suited me.
We were puritanical snobs for the most part. Trocchi, like Heathcote Williams, was tiresome personally. They tended to cultivate us I suspect because we represented a wider public they wanted to reach.
I avoided them for the most part, just as I refused offers to teach and so on. I felt there was only one way to teach — by example or through publication. It was important to us that New Worlds had regular newsstand distribution. Apart from Ballard getting involved with Ambit, after his failure to edit Science Fantasy (!), we didn’t have that much to do with the lit mags. [Thomas] Disch was more eager to appear in Transatlantic or Paris Review, but I was never attracted in that direction. Did stuff for Ambit only because Jimmy [Ballard] asked me to.
Going to Meet the Man
MPW: Where did your views of 1960s culture and counterculture gel most with and/or differ from those of Burroughs on a personal level?
Moorcock: I don’t think we had much in the way of differences. He, like us, was interested in taking conventions and ideas of sf and making them work in modern fiction. We saw sf as a way of making contemporary fiction better able to confront contemporary issues. We were happy to interact with the counter culture, but were not wholly of it, if that makes sense. Burroughs, Ballard, Bayley and self all had our own agendas as writers. We didn’t see ourselves as part of a movement. We were trying to make our own stuff work. Absurdism was part of that, of course. We were generally a bit older than most of the guys doing IT, FRENDZ and so on. These people were mostly enthusiasts, publicists, journalists. We were almost equally inspired by Borges, in looking for ways of addressing literary problems. Magic realism became another method or group of methods, of course. But my Cornelius books had only certain fundamentals in common with Ballard’s “condensed novels” or Burroughs’s cut-ups.
MPW: Burroughs must’ve had something of a complex image already built up in your mind when you met him. How did you find him? And what are the circumstances of your introducing Burroughs to Arthur C. Clarke? It certainly sounds like a potentially formidable meeting.
Moorcock: I met Burroughs through John Calder, I think. Bill was a bit formal. I was a little disappointed, to be honest, because Bill was more laid back than I was at the time, being very engaged with confronting the world, whereas he was more detached and amused by it. I already knew Arthur since I was a kid. We’d always got on well. (See my memoir of Arthur in The Guardian).
How I introduced them was simple. I was persuaded to hold a party at which Judy Merril could meet some of the people she was enthusiastic about. So I did. Arthur and Bill came to the party — there were, of course, a lot of other writers and artists etc. there — and I introduced them.
Making Waves: Into New Worlds
MPW: You have mentioned practice as the most important impulse behind the innovations of the 1960s — yours and those of your contemporaries â€“ was this how you promoted Burroughs at the time, as an experimental practitioner?
Moorcock: As someone showing the way, yes.
MPW: There were strongly worded debates between the writers and the modes of more experimental writing you included in New Worlds and some members of the established audience. They seem to boil down to the question of artistic value (or of the values promoted through art). You have described to Colin Greenland (ICA Guardian Conversations) how you felt at the time that a significant part of this audience had a fundamentally conservative attitude: was a writer like Burroughs a help or a hindrance in effecting a positive change in attitude? Or did it signal a change of audience?
Moorcock: Genre audiences are always conservative — including the audience for the modern literary genre exemplified by the likes of Ian McEwan and the average Booker [Prize] contender. I thought I could persuade an sf audience to look at things less conservatively and by and large I was proven wrong. I succeeded with some readers, but my policy was to run relatively conventional fiction in with unconventional fiction, in the hope of familiarising readers with newer stuff. I’d succeeded in changing attitudes on Tarzan and helped do it on Sexton Blake, so knew you could familiarise conservative readers with new stuff — but, of course, we were trying to bring them around to really different stuff and that proved harder. In the end we did have a readership, drawn largely from the counter culture, but we hadn’t brought a huge number of genre fans with us.
MPW: It seems from reading texts like Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron and Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, to name two notable examples, that the editorial policy you pursued in New Worlds was very much concerned with extending the kinds of experimental praxis that Burroughs was working with. How much was Burroughs discussed at the time in comparison with such work?
Moorcock: Quite a bit. We all knew Burroughs. Norman more from the US. Barrington Bayley was definitely inspired by him. Ballard and I were less affected by the style, I think. I tried to produce a few “bridge” stories, trying to coax readers over to Burroughs, such as The Deep Fix.
Burroughseana: Traces of Burroughs
MPW: I would like to conclude on a slightly more speculative note:
A recently published critical anthology entitled Retaking the Universe: William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization (2004) suggests that the practices of Burroughs’ writing have explored or provided groundwork for new ways of theorizing the contemporary globalized world economy. From your own practical written experiment and exploration, do you feel that it is time to re-think our views of the function of literature taking cues from Burroughs? Do you personally find that he has further practical lessons for the contemporary writer?
Moorcock: Well, given the sheer absurdism of “Reaganomics” I think Burroughs did a great job of anticipation. In fact I said as much today on the appropriate bit of my website [see Moorcock's Miscellany].
As far as Burroughs’s “practical lessons” go, I think any great visionary writer provides us with all kinds of lessons, since he’s going to be infinitely interpretable. As for me, it’s been a long time since I took much in the way of clues from Burroughs but the function of good literature for me has always been to confront received wisdom and I’d say Burroughs’s work certainly continues to do that. You’ve caught me at a time when I’m rediscovering realism, rather than absurdism, so I’m not very focussed on Burroughs at this precise moment. Burroughs is good for thinking about broad ideas but not so good for thinking through ideas concerning observed character. Of course, his instincts were good, so he’s always a good observer in many ways. But at the moment, I’m reading a lot of Balzac, for instance, and am not in much of a Burroughs mood! Another few months, and that might well have changed, of course. Generally, though, Burroughs must always have practical lessons for the contemporary writer.
MPW: In a less linear way I would like to consider Jerry Cornelius against a specifically Burroughsean backdrop.
I think he is a wonderful character, or, as M. John Harrison says, rather, a technique, with myriad applications, including cultural commentary and satire. Although, as you say, the books where he appears only have particular commonalities with those of Burroughs, Jerry himself (or himselves) seems to be the fulfilment or culmination of something that Burroughs was reaching towards with, for instance, the Nova Mob: he acts as something of a “coordinate point” for your fiction.
Moorcock: Certainly for much of it. Perhaps Mrs Cornelius is even more of a coordinate point! Like her, Jerry’s a character as well as a technique. As I said in an introduction, I think to The New Nature of the Catastrophe, at some point Jerry became a real boy. I think Burroughs appealed to me because, like me, he was inclined to create characters who personified certain qualities. Moliere and the Commedia did the same, of course. I didn’t really learn this from Burroughs but I was encouraged to develop the ideas from reading him. Jerry searches for identities, ways of coping in the shifting sands, if you like, of modern times. I’m not sure Burroughs has such a character, apart from himself. It could be that this hangover from modernism (found in Kerouac for instance) held him back from creating a character like Jerry. He tried to find a useful “self” rather than an “other.” Several of the least successful JC stories by different hands also show a similar attempt to turn Jerry into the author (in Jim Sallis’ for instance, which otherwise have considerable merit).
In passing, I always thought Charles Forte was an influence on Burroughs and wonder how much [J. W.] Dunne of An Experiment with Time (an influence on myself, Bayley and others) meant to Burroughs! [RealityStudio: Dunne meant quite a bit to Burroughs. He referred to Dunne in several interviews, including the conversation with Simone Lazzeri Ellis, and discusses him in a number of works, most notably The Third Mind, the essay "Immortality" in The Adding Machine, and the introduction to Charles Gatewood's Sidetripping.]
MPW: Does it seem like a fair comparison to label Jerry as partly “Burroughsean”? Have others who borrowed Jerry (such as M. John Harrison or Norman Spinrad) made similar comparisons while appropriating him?
Moorcock: Not really. I don’t think Harrison was ever much of a Burroughs fan. Spinrad was, but it was Burroughs’ style and language which really fired him up. Spinrad’s ear was tuned to the street — specifically to the NY street — as mine was tuned to the London street. We were also interested in political language. Burroughs, like Hammett, for instance, taught us to listen. Burroughs pointed us to ways of using our own observations. We sometimes borrowed his rhythms and methods, but I don’t think we borrowed his specific language much. It comes back to what I said earlier about Burroughs being an inspiration more than an influence. I habitually created characters as exemplary figures from Elric on — frequently conflicted or ambiguous characters who could move easily between Law and Chaos, as it were. Seeking a personal position, a bit of firm ground which didn’t shift under us. I found it in Kropotkin, I suppose. I don’t think Burroughs really did that. Maybe his centre was his junk. Not an unfamiliar centre.
MPW: Was your own return to the Western genre (such as Kit Carsons) in your Metatemporal Detective and Corsairs of the 2nd Ether books at all coloured by Burroughs’ Red Night / Western Lands trilogy, particularly The Place of Dead Roads?
Moorcock: No. I have to admit I haven’t read that trilogy. There are very few writers I’ve read in their entirety. I was influenced only by boyhood reading, of my interest in Western mythology, which was one of my main reasons for moving to Texas. I wrote westerns and features about the west for Tarzan Adventures, long before I found Burroughs! That was all part of my revisiting (in 2nd Ether and MD) boyhood influences like Clarence E. Mulford, author of the Hopalong Cassidy books.
MPW: And finally, how would you as a writer explain the impact and import of someone like Burroughs to new readers today who might discover him for the first time?
Moorcock: I would hope Burroughs would act as inspiration to a new generation discovering him, as I did, on their own. Of course, I remain a publicist for Burroughs and he is certainly quite as relevant to modern times as he was to 45 years ago. Like all great writers, Burroughs is always relevant to changing times but I would argue that he is particularly relevant to a readership which has witnessed, in high relief, the rapacity of business and the authoritarian tendency of government. His borrowing, from Bayley, of the “star virus” metaphor must also be especially meaningful!
Burroughs’s vision of society, his absurdist take on it, is likely to win him a considerable number of new readers today who are questioning the accepted wisdom of the past thirty years, just as we were questioning the received wisdom of the years leading up to the sixties. I’m finding, I think, receptive ears amongst newer readers. Maybe we’re even on the brink of some sort of genuine spontaneous renaissance, as we were around the time Kennedy was elected? Obama might act as a similar symbol. Let’s hope he survives a lot longer than Kennedy! And we could certainly do with some fresh vitality in modern popular music!
Mark P. Williams has studied at the University of Hull and the University of Warwick and is in the process of completing a PhD at the University of East Anglia on “fantasy and the body politic in contemporary genre fiction” looking at the work of Michael Moorcock, Angela Carter, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and China Miéville.
He has contributed papers to conferences on Science Fiction, globalization and literature, millennial fictions, the literary canon, the literary response to 9/11, and co-organised a conference on Michael Moorcock at Liverpool John Moores.