by Dave Teeuwen
The first book of criticism of any sort that I came into contact with was Jennie Skerl’s William S. Burroughs, part of Twayne’s author series, designed to introduce different American authors of consequence to a wider public. It sat on the shelf at the library next to other books that weren’t Naked Lunch, which was what I was actually looking for. The movie version by David Cronenberg had recently been released. My friends and I were entranced by the idea of this whole other world of books that had strange, transgressive ideas that we’d never heard of before. Queer sci-fi full of monsters and non-linear text? Fictional space drugs? Black meat?
We were enthralled. But, also, I was not flush with cash and I was never going to be able to cough up the $15 or $20 that was required to get the Grove Press edition that was easily accessible at the time. I was 15 or 16, and a recession was happening in Canada, so I didn’t have a job. The library was my best bet. But Naked Lunch was always checked out. The movie had made it wildly popular again so the library’s two copies were on permanent loan to much savvier patrons than myself. The waiting list for it was astronomic.
Eventually, after reading Interzone, Exterminator, and being scared off by Cities of the Red Night, I began thumbing my way through Skerl’s book. I was amazed that someone would write a book about a writer, but also mostly write about their work. Not a biography, per se. Writing about writing became an idea which suddenly made me realize that books were something more than just passive entertainments for bored teenagers and people on the beach or subway.
I realized that you could read a book and then take it seriously. You could take it so seriously that you’d spend an entire book comparing your views on it to the views of others. Obviously, for someone as ignorant of the world of literature as I was, the book was too complicated for me. I could see that. But I could also see that one day I’d be able to understand what she was talking about if I read all of Burroughs’ books and then came back to it. A book like Skerl’s made it possible for teenagers like myself to find an entry-point to the world of criticism and commentary. For someone who would go on to study literature in school, this was the opening of an entire other world.
Jennie Skerl was one of the very first critics examining William Burroughs’ work seriously when she began writing about him in the 1970s. Only Eric Mottram had written another book before her. Both Skerl and the critic Robin Lydenberg began writing about Burroughs and demonstrating why his work was important and valuable. In the late 1970s, most critics didn’t take Burroughs seriously. If anything, only Naked Lunch garnered enough interest for a scholarly article. He was seen as a product of a long dead Beat tradition that was slowly disappearing as the years passed. Port of Saints, for instance, was published by Blue Wind Press, which was a significant risk on Burroughs’ part after having much larger publishers showcase his work in the 1960s and early ’70s. Skerl’s work made the point that the post-Naked Lunch books were work that needed to be taken seriously. This helped to solidify Burroughs’ importance as a writer in the beginning of the 1980s.
This interview took place over the spring of 2022.
When your book William S. Burroughs was published in 1985, the only other major book concerned with Burroughs’ work up to that point was Eric Mottram’s Algebra of Need. What was the general consensus on Burroughs as an object for serious critical consideration in academia? What was the response to the book?
First, I should make clear that my book is more a product of the 1970s than the 1980s. I first became interested in Burroughs as an experimental writer and creator of cut-ups when I was in graduate school in the early 1970s. The book was written mainly in the late 1970s and completed in 1982. The publisher at that time was going through an internal re-organization, so publication was delayed until 1985. When I was working on the book, there was no critical consensus on Burroughs because he was not a sustained subject of study or conversation. Most of the criticism was devoted to Naked Lunch, while Burroughs’ theory and practice of cut-ups — now recognized as his most important work — had not yet been addressed with any depth or consistency. Most academic criticism discussed Burroughs as illustrative of a particular theory about contemporary fiction, but his work was not itself a primary object of study. Thus, critical discussion was diverse and fragmented with no unified body of criticism developing from the many different readings. This was still true in 1984 when my introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of Naked Lunch was published and I commented on the critical reception. It wasn’t until the second half of the 1980s that a critical consensus began to emerge: Burroughs as a postmodernist writer.
Another factor affecting the early reception of Burroughs’ work was his association with the Beat Generation which American academe has never accepted as worthy of serious critical attention. That attitude, to this day, discourages graduate students and untenured professors from pursuing work on the Beats. Because Burroughs and other Beat writers were neglected by academe, early reception was formed by the popular press which also denigrated the Beats. (There were exceptions, such as Mary McCarthy’s article in the first issue of the New York Review of Books.) Initially, I was not interested in Burroughs as a Beat and saw his work as very different from that group of writers who were mostly poets. The Twayne series required a biographical chapter, so that led to my later interest in the Beat Generation per se.
Was it a career risk for you to publish about Burroughs, given that he was not an established subject for criticism as yet?
I thought Burroughs was important and should be the subject of serious criticism. I didn’t think I was risking my career because I thought doing something new and original would be respected. Also, I came of age in the sixties (which extended into the early 1970s as a cultural formation), so focusing on a transgressive artist seemed in tune with the times. I do remember it was difficult to publish articles on Burroughs, but I received a book contract from a well-established series on American authors, which was encouraging. Papers on Burroughs at conferences were accepted. Before our books were published, Robin Lydenberg and I learned about each other, leading to the book we did together (William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception 1959-1989). Having a colleague and friend who was also a Burroughs scholar was very supportive. When my book was published in 1985, it received several good reviews in academic journals.
Also, Burroughs was not the sole focus of my scholarship. I published on Samuel Beckett and was a member of the Beckett society in the 1970s. In the 1980s, I researched expatriate writers in Tangier and wrote about Jane Bowles and Paul Bowles. That work led to a book about Jane Bowles (A Tawdry Place of Salvation: The Art of Jane Bowles). Since the 1980s, I have published books on the Beat Generation as a movement (including Reconstructing the Beats and The Transnational Beat Generation) and most recently on Ed Sanders.
From the criticism of the 1970s, what was the critical image of Burroughs being developed in those various, disparate papers about Naked Lunch?
The image of Burroughs in criticism at the beginning of the 1970s was a continuation of the controversies of the 1960s: was Burroughs an immoral or amoral representative of a sick society or its most incisive critic? Was he promoting drug addiction or warning against it? Were the cut-ups a brilliant challenge to conventional socio-linguistic structures or incomprehensible and boring? However, the 1970s saw the beginning of more serious academic criticism. There was greater acceptance of cut-ups and the beginning of an analysis of Burroughs’ radical challenge to identity, language, and psychosexual systems of control. There was less emphasis on morality and more attention to Burroughs’ theoretical constructs and experimental techniques.
How important do you feel Burroughs’ biography was in getting people interested in his work beyond just Naked Lunch? I feel like his biography loomed large in the early days of criticism of his work.
Burroughs’ “biography” has certainly attracted interest in his work, but I put biography in quotation marks because what has attracted people is legend or mythology. The Burroughs legend began in the work of Kerouac and Ginsberg before Burroughs became a well-known writer. Kerouac’s fictionalized portrait of Burroughs as Old Bull Lee in On the Road described him as a mysterious oracle and teacher. Ginsberg, in his dedication to “Howl,” said that Naked Lunch (not yet published) was “an endless novel which will drive everybody mad,” and few lines in the poem allude to Burroughs as one of the “best minds.” From the beginning, he has been cast in the role of poète maudit, the outlaw artist, perennial outsider, and visionary. Shooting his wife in a drunken game of William Tell was a horrifying event that fed into the legend, and for many years Burroughs avoided talking about it, creating mystery. The fact that he was an expatriate for twenty years living in Tangier (an exotic location that attracted many writers and artists after WW II), Paris (an avant-garde location since the 19th century), and London (metropole of the English-speaking world and a center of sixties youth culture) made him a distant, glamorous figure to readers in the U.S. who could fantasize about his life. After Burroughs returned to the U.S. in the 1970s, Burroughs’ cult image evolved in response to continued experimentation in his work, readings he gave to youthful audiences, summer teaching at Naropa University, and interaction with the punk and performance art scene in New York City. Burroughs himself contributed to the legend through autobiographical allusions in his fiction, his interest in magic and the paranormal, and his evolving presentation of self in interviews. A prominent example of his own myth-making was in his introduction to Queer in 1985, when he said that he would never have become a writer if he hadn’t shot his wife. That statement, attached to the long-unpublished book that everyone had wondered about for years, led to more scandal and speculation.
The first biographies used the legend in their titles to define their subject and attract readers: Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw (1988) and Barry Miles’ El Hombre Invisible (1993). In 1991, David Cronenberg’s film entitled Naked Lunch, created a romantic narrative about Burroughs as a tortured heterosexual genius, placing the novel within the biographical legend of bohemian artist-hero. Finally, upon his death in 1997, obituaries around the English-speaking world reified Burroughs as a man known for a scandalous life and a scandalous novel (Naked Lunch), exemplified by the New York Times headline: “William S. Burroughs, the Beat Writer Who Distilled his Raw Nightmare Life, Dies at 83.”
The legend is a fictional construct that fascinates and draws readers into the work, but needs to be recognized as a fiction rather than a key to understanding his writing. Fortunately, we now have Barry Miles’ excellent second biography, Call Me Burroughs: A Life (2013) which presents a carefully researched, detailed factual acccount. Miles has stated his goal was to establish the facts as thoroughly as possible for the next generation of scholars and readers, and this he has done. Oliver Harris also debunks various myths about Burroughs’ creative process in his invaluable scholarly editions of Burroughs’ works.
I want to add a word about Cronenberg’s film, which I like even though it is not very much like Burroughs’ novel. Although he employs the legend to create a familiar narrative that normalizes Burroughs’ radical art, making the protagonist more like himself, Cronenberg does employ a medley of Burroughsian themes and images drawn from the larger body of his work (not just Naked Lunch), at times effectively transposing Burroughs’ vision into another medium. The jazz soundtrack by Ornette Coleman captures the jazzy structure of the novel (improvisation and montage) and the 1950s cool of Burroughs’ early work and the film’s setting. So there is a reflection of Burroughs’ writing in the film.
Given that you were working, reading and writing about Burroughs as the various stages of this mythos were being played out, do you think that his work after Naked Lunch would have survived on its own merit without the bio?
Absolutely. Those with a serious interest in Burroughs’ work have not made the legend or biography the focus of criticism, but rather have examined the theory and practice of cut-ups, the postmodern narratives in the final trilogy, the parallels with post-structuralist thought, his philosophical positions, and his critique of power. Over time, critics have been less interest in Naked Lunch and more interested in the work that came afterwards. (See my essay in Naked Lunch @50.) The legend of the bohemian artist-hero does not provide much insight into Burroughs’ artistic achievement, although it does place him in an avant-garde context which can be a good starting point and is helpful in connecting him to other avant-garde artists or movements.
The legend as biography does not reinvigorate interpretations of Burroughs’ work, but rather repeats a familiar story that is not critically productive. The legend is a two-edged sword: it attracts interest in Burroughs but discourages new thinking and close attention to the work.
When you were writing your book about Burroughs, in the late 1970s, he appears to have been at a bit of a crossroads in his career; publishers were not convinced that the Beats were quite as marketable anymore. He had spent a number of years doing very interesting work that didn’t sell books in large numbers. This is also when James Grauerholz began working with him and found ways to sell Burroughs to a wider public. Do you feel like scholars beginning to take him seriously as a subject for wider study helped in the revitalizing of his career after Cities of the Red Night?
James Grauerholz did more to revitalize Burroughs’ career than anyone else. He managed readings and appearances and connected Burroughs to other artists in New York, which brought Burroughs to public attention as an important American writer. It is sad but true, that American critics don’t pay as much attention to expatriate artists as they do to those who are on the scene in the U. S., especially those who live in New York City. Most important, Grauerholz encouraged Burroughs to overcome a writing block and played an editorial role in Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands. (Grauerholz also edited other later works and published a Burroughs reader.) The publication of the trilogy in the 1980s caught the attention of the literary world and increased interest in Burroughs’ work overall. The gradual development of academic criticism of Burroughs in the context of postmodernism or post-structuralist theory certainly increased his reputation in the world of letters. Grauerholz was encouraging and helpful to scholars, so he was able to link Burroughs to both popular culture and academe.
I should also mention that Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman supported Burroughs’ career as a writer by inviting him to teach at the Naropa University summer poetry school. Of course, Ginsberg was instrumental in encouraging Burruoghs to return to the U. S. to teach a course at CCNY that Ginsbeg had arranged. And he continued to promote Burroughs’ reputation as he had always done, including nominating him for the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Where do you see Burroughs in terms of the literary movements of the 20th century? Is he a Late Modernist, a Post-Modernist or somewhere in between?
Burroughs can be seen as late modern, avant-garde, emerging postmodern, postmodern, amodern, or posthuman depending on how you define the terms and what aspect of his work the critic wants to examine. As Allen Hibbard has said, Burroughs’ work has become a host to many strains of theory, so I am sure his work will attract new designations in the future. (See Hibbard’s “Shift Coordinate Points” in Retaking the Universe.) Postmodern is probably the best general label, and has been given the imprimatur of the Norton anthology of postmodern American fiction. But Burroughs’ work always resists closure, and, for me, in the end, Burroughs is Burroughs. I agree with Anne Waldman when she says, “the ‘Burroughs effect’ defies categories.” (See “The Burroughs Effect” in William S. Burroughs: Cutting Up the Century.)
Do you feel Kathy Acker’s work is a natural stylistic continuation of Burroughs’ work, though in a decidedly feminist light?
Acker was influenced by Burroughs’ cut-ups, and she fashioned a transgressive image for herself, but there are many other influences on her work, especially French writers and theorists and the punk scene. She has her own style and preoccupations.
Are there any recent books about Burroughs that you would recommend?
Some recent criticism which added to my understanding of Burroughs’ work and his achievement includes Mosaic of Juxtaposition: William S. Burroughs’ Narrative Revolution by Micheal Sean Bolton, Understanding William S. Burroughs by Gerald Alva Miller, Jr., William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Casey Rae, and The French Genealogy of the Beat Generation by Véronique Lane. Bolton’s brilliant book avoids focusing on biography and ideology in order to analyze Burroughs’ non-linear narratives that require an associative reading strategy in which author and reader collaborate to create meanings which change with each reading. His explanation of how Burroughs’ deconstructs time/history and place/culture made me see Burroughs’ fictions in a new way. Miller’s book, as part of the “Understanding” series, fulfills the same purpose that the Twayne series did, providing an introductory overview of Burroughs’ life and work within a contemporary critical framework. He does a fine job of reaching the that goal, and I think it will become the critical starting point for students in the future. Rae’s book provides a very thorough narrative and biographical history of Burroughs’ influence on rock and roll in a readable style that makes the journey an enjoyable trip. The legend necessarily plays a big role here, but balanced with historical fact. Lane’s book is not solely devoted to Burroughs, but offers fresh perspectives on his early and late work, particularly And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, the early cut-ups, and The Cat Inside, as she traces his appropriations of Rimbaud, Celine, Gide, Cocteau, and Genet. She goes back to the beginning of the Beats, reminding us of their shared exploration of modern French authors in which Burroughs’ library played an important role.
1 thought on “An Interview with Jennie Skerl”
Thanks to Reality Studio for publishing this fine interview with Jennie Skerl. Dave Teeuwen asks insightful questions that are helpful for us all, and Jennie graciously supplies detailed answers and context. They propel Burroughs criticism and understanding for a new generation of readers, students, and scholars.