Didion on Burroughs


1966 is calling.

At a site called The Beat Patrol, I found a good review by Joan Didion, an author I really like, on William S. Burroughs, another author I really like. Originally published in 1966 in Bookweek, NOT the modern Book Week for children’s books), it begins:

There sometimes seems a peculiar irrelevance about what is claimed for William S. Burroughs, both by those who admire him and those who do not; the insistent amorphousness of his books encourages the reader to take from them pretty much exactly what he brought to them. Burroughs has been read as a pamphleteer for narcotics reform. He has been read as a parabolist of the highest order. He has been read as a pornographer and he has been read as a prophet of the apocalypse. The Naked Lunch I read first on a beach in the Caribbean and the Naked Lunch I reread a few weeks ago in a hospital in Santa Monica, the book I read once when I was unhappy and again when I was not, did not seem in any sense the same book; to anyone who finds Burroughs readable at all, he is remarkably rereadable, if only because he is remarkably unmemorable. There are no “stories” to wear thin, no “characters” of whom one might tire. We are presented only with the fragmented record of certain fantasies, and our response to that record depends a good deal upon our own fantasies at the moment; in itself, a book by William Burroughs has about as much intrinsic “meaning” as the actual inkblot in a Rorschach test.

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William S. Burroughs and Norman Mailer

I enjoyed this Reality Studio article by Jed Birmingham on Burroughs and Mailer, which begins:

Norman Mailer’s assessment lingers around Burroughs like a stale fart. You just cannot get away from it. From the back cover of the Grove Naked Lunch to obituary accounts, from the Wikipedia page to academic articles, Mailer’s territorial pissing has marked Burroughs’ place in literary history.

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Philip K. Dick Again

I just finished Lawrence Sutin’s Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (1989, Harmony Books).  Enjoyed every page. Instead of reviewing the entire book, I want to share two good parts.

Page 265 features a classic PKD parable mixing scientific knowledge with divine wisdom. Phil wrote this in 1979:

A new ambulance is filled with gasoline and parked. The next day it is examined. The finding is that its fuel is virtually gone and its moving parts are slightly worn. This appears to be an instance of entropy, of loss of energy and form. However, if one understands that the ambulance was used to take a dying person to a hospital where his life was saved (thus consuming fuel and somewhat wearing the moving parts of the ambulance) then one can see that through hierarchical outranking there was not only no loss but in fact a net gain. The net gain, however, can only be measured outside the closed system of the new ambulance. Each victory by God as intelligence and will is obtained by this escalation of levels of subsumation, and in no other way.

I like it. We live in a closed system. Also, back on page 246, Sutin tells of a writer named K. W. Jeter, who

called attention to the similarities between Phil’s novels and those of William S. Burroughs – such as an invading alien virus occluding human faculties (for Burroughs, the virus was language). Jeter and Phil even performed their own Burroughs-influenced “cut-up” writing experiment, scrambling texts from Roderick Thorp’s The Detective, Melville’s Moby Dick, and the New Testament Book of Acts.

Fine Lines

I suppose my recent cut-up experiment is more about marketing than writing. It’s certainly easier to write a cut-up than it is to get someone to read it, but I don’t want to trick anyone into reading something that isn’t any good. Quality should always come first. One should believe they have a product of top-notch quality before promoting and marketing it. One produces a good cut-up the same way one creates good poetry or prose – study, practice, persistence, and patience.

I used to think maybe I was “cheating” when I added, deleted, or otherwise manipulated the raw composite of two different texts joined together in the middle. Finally, a quote from William Burroughs himself, which I found at Reality Studio, put my mind at ease. In a statement to the 1962 International Writers’ Conference, Burroughs said, “In using the fold in method I edit, delete, and rearrange as in any other method of composition.”

Note: A fold-in is simply a variation of the cut-up. As Burroughs explains in the same Statement to the 1962 International Writer’s Conference:

“Brion Gysin, an American painter living in Paris, has used what he calls ‘the cut up method’ to place at the disposal of writers the collage used in painting for fifty years — Pages of text are cut and rearranged to form new combinations of word and image — In writing my last two novels, Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded, i have used an extension of the cut up method I call ‘the fold in method’ — A page of text — my own or some one else’s — is folded down the middle and placed on another page — The composite text is then read across half one text and half the other — The fold in method extends to writing the flash back used in films, enabling the writer to move backwards and forwards on his time track — For example I take page one and fold it into page one hundred — I insert the resulting composite as page ten — When the reader reads page ten he is flashing forwards in time to page one hundred and back in time to page one — The deja vue phenomena can so be produced to order — (This method is of course used in music where we are continually moved backwards and forward on the time track by repetition and rearrangements of musical themes.”

Go to Reality Studio to read more of Burroughs’ statement as published in the Transatlantic Review

Now, back to my statement that quality should always come first. I’m enjoying a novel by Jeff VanderMeer called Finch (the third and possibly last in the Ambergris cycle). This reminded me that Jeff and I had briefly discussed an article by Jessa Crispin about Jeff’s other new book, Booklife. It went like this:

19 October 2009 at 6:21 PM

Bill Ectric says:

Jeff, I would like to say a word about the one negative review of Booklife that I’ve read. I’m a fan of Jessa Crispin and many of the books she recommends are right up my alley, but when she says Booklife “made her uneasy” and has questionable priorites, it occurs to me that virtually every book Crispin likes has already been through the “networking” and “ego-feeding” processes that she apparently finds distasteful. The difference is, in many cases, those authors have people in the trenches to do the legwork and nurturing for them. Jeff, I believe you wrote Booklife for authors who must “switch hats” from artist to publicist to merchant without loosing foucus. Anyone who has read your fiction knows that creativity and skill are first and foremost. I’m finding Booklife to be quite solid and helpful.

19 October 2009 at 6:27 PM

JeffVanderMeer says:

Bill: I was bothered by it because it seemed to insinuate that I was being dishonest in the book. But I’ve since asked Jessa if I can interview her for this site, and she accepted. That’ll run sometime in November or December, but it’ll go into more detail about her views on writing, creativity, and careers. I do plan in the second edition to reference that “non review” as she called it, in the context of double and triple making sure that readers understand why I’m offering up the information in the Public Booklife section.

I really look forward to further dialogue between Jeff and Jessa, two of my favorite bloggers, and I hope it happens!

Cut-up Experiment Results, with Commentary

Fresh from the research field!

I’m the first to admit this experiment was not as scientifically controlled as it could have been. It was more of a warm-up exercise; nevertheless, I did learn something that I found quite interesting.

First, a brief summary of the experiment:

I created a piece of cut-up writing from two newspaper articles and asked twenty people to read it. Each person was asked to write a brief summary, at least one sentence, as to what the piece was about. There were no wrong answers, as this particular cut-up piece was by no means self-contained and coherent. I did in fact have a story line in mind when I created the piece, but the point of the experiment was not really what the readers thought the piece was about, but whether or not they even gave it a chance.   

The readers were divided evenly into two groups. When I say “groups” I don’t mean they were gathered together in one room at the same time. I interacted with each person individually.

Group One received no explanation at all as to the technique I used to write the cut-up, nor were they advised of the sources material (newspaper articles A and B), or given any other information. 

I gave Group Two an explanation of the cut-up method and briefly described my source material. In a departure from my original plan, I gave in to temptation and added more “clues” after the first two subjects in Group Two expressed complete bafflement upon reading the cut-up. Beginning with the third person in Group Two, I asked them think of the piece as Science Fiction. By the fifth person, I found myself explaining that some cut-ups are impressionistic, evoking images or feelings that are not literally stated. As I said earlier, this was not a strictly controlled experiment.

 The interesting discovery I mentioned at the beginning of this article is this: The more I spoke to each subject about the cut-up, the more they found to say about it after they read it. This is not to say they necessarily understood what they were reading, if that were even possible, but even if they didn’t understand it, they were more willing to talk about it and less shy about venturing “guesses” about the meaning of the piece.  

 This result seems to confirm my hypothesis, which is that the work of William S. Burroughs would be much less accessible without the helpful blurbs and reviews that serve essentially as tutorials to potential readers, as exemplified in the Amazon.com Product Description for The Soft Machine:

“An adventure that will take us even further into the dark recesses of his imagination, a region where nothing is sacred, nothing taboo. Continuing his ferocious verbal assault on hatred, hype, poverty, war, bureaucracy, and addiction in all its forms, Burroughs gives us a surreal space odyssey through the wounded galaxies in a book only he could create.”

 I am not suggesting that Burroughs is anything less than a genius, or that he owes his reputation only to hype and marketing. Far from it; he is one of my favorite writers and my favorite person to hear reading from his own books in audio recordings. I do, however, believe that the promotional blurbs and reviews bring in more readers who would otherwise deem his work unreadable. While this is somewhat true for almost any book (think of an American Literature teacher saying, “While reading Gatsby, look for examples of excess and decadence…”), it is especially true for the cut-up works of Burroughs and other writers.

One might say, “And you needed an experiment to prove that?” Still, until something is proven, it is only an assumption, no matter how obvious it seems.

A more in depth study would include a higher number of subjects, divided into more groups based on their reading habits as determined by a questionnaire. I simply asked each potential subject if they preferred fiction or nonfiction, whether or not they ever shop on Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble, and approximately how many books they read in the past year. There were an equal number of men and women in each group.

What follows is the cut-up piece that I used in the experiment, followed by a record of the responses from the twenty subjects, reproduced as closely as possible to their actual written responses.

(My comments are in parentheses and italics).

 The Cut-up:

A friend from Cairo and that man, Reynolds, if he would, in the midst of a telescope someone starts to cry. Florida feels helpless and sure.

“Reynolds, they don’t know how to have you.”

“Got that, suddenly,” said Reynolds. “We’ll ship them rather than facts. Woman friend, an official worry, justifiable in most technologies.”

“Edibility and competent. How many have they asked again, or too emotional to succeed?

“We’ll get them out environmentally. Next few weeks. The crying is, how many are conned voluntarily responding? It’s old, an association that can muster tears and science actors.”

“College at Jacksonville on the Westside, about 12,000.  Expect the eye. Humans.”

Reynolds gulped and replied, “Among all the creatures, the five tractors have facial nerves and use Northeast Florida as respiratory and facial, which is closely related, so distributing them free, they sometimes merge, and other organized laughter.”

“And a 1986 Florida teacher, other former executives in communication centers in Oakland, evidenced when infants donate members. Attention strong, because the company may trigger that line.”

“Anymore, anger a society member such as joy, and since it types range, it may be related.”

 Group One Responses (no information given) 

  1. I don’t know
  2. I have no clue
  3. Confusing. A hurricane headed for Jacksonville?
  4. I don’t get it.
  5. NASA space shuttle
  6. He talks about humans, so they must not be human (Good deductive reasoning, I thought. This person might enjoy cut-up writing)
  7. No interpretation can be made. Sentence fragments yield no clear story or idea.
  8. I don’t know. I see words with no meaning.
  9. It’s about college students trying to save the environment
  10. Women in the field of technology  

 Group 2 – Given Extra Information

  1. Sounded like a combination of 3 articles. One is about a shipping company, one a flyer for FCCJ (Florida Community College of Jacksonville – Bill). The other is a laboratory.
  2. The telescopes are coming to life or being born. What are they going to do next? They might try to take over the world like Transformers.
  3. It sounds horrible. Crying, worry, facial nerves
  4. The dichotomy of cybernetics. Technology taking over humanity
  5. You had too much coffee. (Even this somewhat flippant remark demonstrates more willingness to contribute original thought than simply stating, “I don’t know” or “I have no clue.”  On a personal note, I would rather be accused of drinking too much coffee than of writing something so bland it only merits an “I don’t know”. – Bill)
  6. Alien conversation about abducting humans for use on another planet. The aliens are trying to speak English but they don’t know the language well. (This was my favorite response and closest to the story I formed in my own mind as I manipulated the text. – Bill)
  7. Two people talking about the environment and how it angers society but it needs to be talked about
  8. It’s a nightmare, one where you want to wake up
  9. Cloning and stem cells. They are growing eyes and other body parts
  10. Is this about Mike Reynolds at Florida State College? (Mike Reynolds is a Professor of Astronomy at Florida State College at Jacksonville, FL, and yes, the telescope article does mention him. – Bill) 

Bill’s Place is always open for the Crawfish of Love

No one knew what to think when we first saw a band called “Crawfish of Love.” The stage was strewn with surreal artwork, a manikin head, some TV sets all turned on to different channels, guitar amplifiers, drums, and five musicians that looked like they were conspiring mischief among themselves.

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They were top-notch musicians, at various times collaborating with such Haight Ashbury luminaries as Gary Duncan of Quicksilver Messenger Service, David LaFlamme of It’s A Beautiful Day, and Sam Andrew of Big Brother and the Holding Company. But they also did weird stuff – how can I describe it? Between covers of Minor Swing by Django Reinhardt or I’ll Sleep When I”m Dead by Warren Zevon, the the Crawfish sprang songs on us about a living inside of a green bell pepper, or the Creature From the Black Lagoon looming toward you on Little Talbot Island, or “singing through bread” with actual slices of bread onstage to sing through.

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 Click HERE for Bill’s Interview with Crawfish leader David Roberts