Dead Fingers Talk and Burroughs Proofs

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

A couple weeks ago the Wizard behind the curtain at RealityStudio sent me an email alerting me to a proof copy of Dead Fingers Talk offered by Ken Lopez. As Lopez’s catalog description makes clear, this is a highly desirable book. Try finding a proof copy of a Burroughs title before the 1970s. It is hard to do for reasons I will get into later. Dead Fingers Talk is one of my favorite Burroughs titles and one of the prides of my book collection. It would seem to be a no-brainer that this unusual item would get my blood racing. Nope. A complete flat line. I would say I hate proofs and all their relations but that would give them too much credit. Instead proofs do something worse than inspire my ire. They bore me.

DFT proofAs a book-collecting term, the word proof is thrown around quite loosely so I am going to define my terms for those who do not know what uncorrected proofs, galleys, advanced reading copies and review copies are. Quite simply a proof is a trial impression. A test run before the larger final run is printed. There are many levels to this term but here are the main ones courtesy of the book collectors’ glossary at Alibris. If you are interested you should go to the Alibris website and spend some quality time with the glossary. Many of the terms have images along with them that are very instructive.

So here goes:

Proofs: Traditionally, a printed trial-run of the work, bound or unbound, which is used for proofreading and to determine if changes need to be made in the text. The typical publishing process is proof, advanced reading copy, and publication. However, bound proofs are also used for pre-publication publicity and are often sent out in place of advance reading copies to booksellers and reviewers. Also known as galley, galley proof, page proof, and uncorrected proof.

Galley: The earliest printing of a work used by the proofreader and author to check for errors. Galleys are often printed on long continuous strips of paper. Sometimes the term is used interchangeably, although incorrectly, with the term advanced reading copy. Also known as galley proof.

Advanced Reading Copy or ARC: A preview or early review copy of a book that is usually sent to book buyers, reviewers, booksellers, book clubs, and/or publisher sales representatives before the book is published. It could be in a different format, uncorrected, not bound, and/or have a different cover design than the publication issue. The typical publishing process is proof, advance reading copy, and publication.

Review Copy: A copy of a book sent out for review by the publisher to the press, booksellers, and others in order to attract attention to the publication. Frequently review copies will have slips of paper inserted into the book, or have it written on the cover, announcing it as a review copy. Textbook review copies are also known as “desk copies” or “instructor copies” and are given to instructors to review for consideration for adoption of the regular edition.

Blood of the Poet BoxThere is a robust book-collecting market for all this stuff. The basic reason for this is that collectors are obsessed with getting as close to the author as possible. Collectors prize the original. They are in constant search for a book’s beginnings, its source — whatever that is. The proof allows a collector to go along the chain of composition that ultimately leads back to the manuscript. Or even further. The joke goes that what collectors really want is a writer’s DNA. In the mid-1960s, book artist Eleanor Antin touched on this with her book: Blood of a Poet Box. This work gathered the blood of 100 poets on slides and packaged them in a specimen box. At the same time, Ed Sanders captured the madness of book collecting in typical Fuck You fashion by gathering pubic hair from poets like Allen Ginsberg and offering them for sale in a Peace Eye catalog.

Collectors also covet rarity. The one of a kind. The unique. Proofs are generally limited in number and thus in the book-collecting market more valuable. Ken Lopez wrote an essay on proofs that lays out the argument for why you should collect proofs in much more detail. It is interesting reading.

I have read this essay more than once as well as talked with collectors who champion proofs. I just cannot get on board with this mentality. Let me be the first to say that my prejudice against proofs might be very narrow-minded if not downright stupid. Case in point is an uncorrected proof copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Years ago I found a copy of this proof in a $1 bin outside an independent bookstore. This was around the time the book came out, and the bookstore may have gotten the proof as part of a promotion. Little Brown, the book’s publisher, printed about 500 uncorrected proofs of what proved to be Wallace’s defining novel. It just so happened that as part of promoting Infinite Jest Wallace signed many of the proofs, if not all of them. I bought the book with the idea of flipping it for a few bucks. I eventually sold it for $100. A hefty profit. Given Wallace’s suicide, the book is now about $1000.

I can say with certainty that I never would have gotten rid of a first edition Infinite Jest, signed or unsigned, and I would never, even in today’s more active Wallace market, sell a first edition of that book. But the copy I had was a proof, and I just have no interest in proofs. That lack of passion made the book expendable to me despite that fact that even in 1996 I was interested in Wallace and valued his work.

A diligent book collector can find ARCs and review copies of books lying in bargain bins all the time. The Strand in New York City has thousands of them. As Lopez makes clear, the dynamic of the proof market changed around 1978. Proofs became much more common after that date and an important part of corporate book promotion. Let me tell you it is a real drag digging through all this publishing slag. In my opinion most uncorrected proofs are basically the waste material of the mainstream publishers. But sometimes you get lucky and find something interesting and maybe even valuable.

What is the reason for this aversion to proofs? Why does a proof of Dead Fingers Talk fail to get my heart racing? Lopez touches on one reason in his essay. Proofs are ugly. Ugly isn’t quite the right word. Boring. Proofs are boring. On a visual level. Let’s look at Dead Fingers Talk, because it is a perfect example of why I like first editions and disrespect proofs. Compare the plain green wrapper of the proof with the dust jacket of the first edition. In my opinion the dust jacket for Dead Fingers Talk is one of the best in the entire Burroughs bibliography. I absolutely love it. The photo of Burroughs on the back cover is one of my favorites. I like the dust jacket on a design and layout level but I like even better its referentiality and sense of history. Dead Finger Talk collects selections of all the Olympia Press Burroughs titles into one text (by cutting out the sex). The jacket reflects this with the images of the Olympia dust jackets on the cover. Ian Sommerville created that image by manipulating individual photographs of the covers into smaller denser reproductions. This photo experiment ties in with the cut-up and tape recording experiments that obsessed Burroughs throughout the 1960s. The cover also has a sense of biography. The hand refers to Burroughs’ own dead finger that he cut off in a Van Gogh kick over Jack Anderson.

It could be argued that the plain green wrapper of the Dead Fingers Talk proof conjures up images of the plain brown wrapper used for shipping pornography or the infamous green wrappers of Olympia Press. In addition there might be a tenuous link between the Dead Fingers Talk proof and Ad Reinhardt’s Black Paintings or Yves Klein’s monochromes. Interestingly in 1963, Burroughs’ cut-ups were appearing in an art world context that included Klein’s work. Unfortunately I don’t think proofs work in this way. Proofs may be earlier than first editions but they do not match a first edition’s historicity and referentiality. So proofs do not look good and on top of that what visuals they do have, have nothing to say. If you are ugly you better be able to strike up a conversation.

Admittedly there is a certain less-is-more appeal to proofs. In the case of classic mimeo like Floating Bear, the early Intrepid, or TISH, I feel the pull of this minimalism strongly. I do not with proofs. The reason for this is that I get a sense of the handmade, do-it-yourself spirit from mimeo that I do not get from proofs. I equate proofs with the mechanisms of the mainstream publishing industry. You almost never see proofs, review copies, galleys and the like from the small presses of the Mimeo Revolution.

DFT back coverThis type of stuff does exist on some level in the small press world. The Joseph Zinnato Burroughs collection contained an archive related to the publication of Time. Stephen Gertz writes, “And so here was the original issue of Time magazine Burroughs used with all the spaces where text had been cut-out; a 26-page signed, typed manuscript with corrections in his hand; another draft, a 14-page typed manuscript with autograph corrections; an 11-page typed manuscript / collage with title page; a 12-page photo-negative of the prior item with extra drawings and highlighting by Joe Brainard; a 32-page small mock-up of the book in ink by Brainard; the cover as prepared by Burroughs with art by Gysin; the publisher’s ledger/account book with production costs, orders to whom and how many; and over 100 pieces of mail concerning ordering and publication, including the copyright certificate, and the complete list of where copies of the 1-10 edition and 1-100 edition were sold, providing a remarkable insight into the marketing of the book.” This type of stuff is incredible to me and is valuable in financial and scholarly terms. The ultimate would be an archive like this surrounding the publication of the Olympia Naked Lunch. I would love to see galleys and proofs from that period since such information would help solidify the history of the book’s publication, which has been shrouded in mystery for decades.

Forget about the concepts of primacy or rarity, the true value of proofs and their brethren lies for me on a purely academic and scholarly level. A few years ago, Skyline Books had a review copy of On the Road as well as a proof copy. The proof would have some interest to me in that it would help establish the publishing history of Kerouac’s masterpiece, which like Naked Lunch has been the subject of much conjecture. Unfortunately proof material of this level of importance is out of the range of the common collector. The On the Road proof clocked in at $55,000. Most proofs with authorial edits are, like manuscripts, already in institutions and are out of the reach of any collector no matter their bank account. Those that do trickle down to rare booksellers are prohibitively expensive and are also on par monetarily with manuscript material. For example, Royal Books has the galley proofs for Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse with authorial edits for $80,000.

Lopez’s copy of Dead Fingers Talk could fall into the scholarly category. Like Naked Lunch, not much is known about how Dead Fingers Talk was edited and put together. The book is largely forgotten and remains to be studied. It is an assemblage and, as such, a proof captures the spirit of the book’s construction. In addition this proof might actually contain material that was excised from the final published version. Lopez’s copy provides a great opportunity to see what passed the censor at various stages of the book’s editing. As Ken Lopez makes clear in his essay, these additions and deletions make proofs extremely desirable. Completists must have them as they represent another version of the novel. By and large the majority of proofs you see on the rare book market are promotional in nature and do not vary greatly (besides grammatical changes) from the final novel. There are exceptions to this, possibly such as this copy of Dead Fingers Talk, that make proofs an exciting and rewarding proposition.

Nova Express proofAlthough I have very few of them, a review copy can grab my attention. The reason has nothing to do with rarity or an obsession with getting in touch with the author. The interest of review copies lies solely with the ephemera that sometimes accompany them. These press releases comprised of blurbs, release dates, and background information are sometimes fascinating and revealing about how a book was marketed or prepared for popular or critical reception. In the case of Burroughs, topics of this type are extremely important. I have written about the ephemera surrounding the Olympia Press and Grove Press Burroughs titles elsewhere. Give me a catalog or promotional booklet over an advanced reading copy any day.

For the most part the ARC, review copy, or proof that is obtainable by the average collector has no scholarly importance. Instead they are by-products of the corporate publishing world and are, in my mind, artificial rarities. They are merely the promotional tools of the large publishers. The literary equivalent of cosmetic samples. A Burroughs proof highlights for me his move into the mainstream corporate publishing world. Exterminator! and the late trilogy (or any book that was part of that 6-book deal) would all have review copies or proofs. These items capture not so much Burroughs’ move away from experimental writing but his move from the active experimental community exemplified by small presses and little magazines.

You just do not see review copies, ARCs or proofs in my area of interest: the publishers of the Mimeo Revolution. These books and magazines were rarely reviewed and if they were, it was by writers or artists associated with the magazine. At the opposite end of the corporate publishers’ distribution of review copies is the mailing list distribution of a mimeo. Anybody getting a copy of Semina or Floating Bear was already in the circle. There was no need or desire for promotion. In addition, small presses do not have the resources to run off 500 uncorrected proofs to give away to distributors or reviewers. If a mimeo or small press ran a proof it was probably one copy done to actually test the quality of a probably broken down press. This proof was then put in a publisher’s archive to be marketed to a library or institution or more likely it was destroyed. So Ken Lopez is right to trumpet the rarity of a Dead Fingers Talk proof. They are very rare before, let’s say, Exterminator! Even review copies of the Grove titles of the 1960s are extremely unusual. Olympia Press sent review copies of Naked Lunch out to interested parties but almost all of those books were seized at customs and never made it into the United States. The Dead Fingers Talk proof, despite coming from Calder / Olympia Press, is tainted with unsavory associations. The uncorrected proof or the ARC is symbolic of the bloated bureaucracy and commercial, mass consumer nature of corporate publishing.

Book collecting is a very personal affair. Building a book collection is as much about what you exclude as what you include. Looking at what is and is not on a collector’s shelf can reveal a lot about his prides (the first edition of Dead Fingers Talk) and his prejudices (the proof of Dead Fingers Talk).

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 15 December 2008. The image of the Nova Express proof comes from the copy currently for sale at Between the Covers.

One thought on “Dead Fingers Talk and Burroughs Proofs

  1. … someone really went to the trouble of collecting poets’ pubic hair? Wow…

    That being said, very jealous that you had a Proof-Copy of “Infinite Jest”, but it’s not something to go crazy over… I guess collecting books isn’t everything.

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