A lot of people really hate this writer. He’s gay as Hell and his books are just drenched with the grossest scenes of gay male sex. It’s a bit hard to take. With regard to the latter stuff, I used to just sort of skim over them though. They didn’t really bother me. It wasn’t so much gross as I simply felt nothing at all. It was like I was reading something boring about water.
I’ve always felt this way about gay stuff. I saw naked boys in the shower room every day in high school for years. Of course I used to look at them sometimes, more out of curiosity than anything else. I was wondering if guys turned me on. I already knew that females turned me on like crazy. They were on my mind 24-7 back then, and it’s barely let up since. But sometimes you wonder if you want to double your chances of getting a date on Saturday night, you know?
Mostly I was sort of phobic around those male bodies, and I think the other guys might have been too. You would be showering and changing around all these guys, and you pretended you didn’t see them. It was like they weren’t there. I don’t think a gay boy could do that. I looked at boy’s bodies in the showers. I felt nothing at all. Looked at them changing next to me. Felt nothing at all. It’s always been like that.
I wonder how other straight guys feel about being around naked men. Most of us don’t really like it, and it tends to make us uncomfortable, though it probably shouldn’t. Do other men feel disgusted looking at guys’ bodies, or do they feel uncomfortable, yucky, and phobic? Or do they just feel zero, nothing, zip, nada, nope, nothing there at all.
Nevertheless, I always loved Burroughs’ prose. He was one of great writers of the later half of the 20th Century, and he was conceivably a genius. There is something about the style and themes of his writing. He was a master. I remember in The Western Lands where there’s this part when they are on some centipede expedition in the jungle of South America. This goes on for 20-30 pages. All of Burroughs’ genius and style vanishes, and now he is writing the way any ordinary guy with ordinary writing skills writes: good enough but not particularly well. And he keeps this up for 20-30 pages, never missing a beat, all in this lower, less competent register. It was simply amazing.
Burroughs is widely read by straight guys. He’s one of the few gay writers who has an audience outside the gay ghetto other than Gide, Proust, Wilde, Mann, Forster and the other old guys. But they didn’t write about homosexuality much, so they were easier to take.
He was also a king of the beats, so everyone who was into the beat movement read him.
I’m not sure about the hippie movement, but it wasn’t unusual to find a stoned-out long-haired young man in his 20’s backpacking across Europe with a copy of Nova Express in his pack in the 1970’s. It was almost a cliche, you know?
Burroughs was always hip.
And when punk rock came around, all of the punks loved him, and he quickly became king of the punks for whatever reason. His novels were rechristened as punk novels.
I don’t think he’s much read anymore, and the gay sex along with the horrible violence and depictions of death and other disgusting things makes his books a very hard read. The books are also drenched with drugs and crime. A lot of his characters are drug users, often junkies, and criminals of various types from thieves all the way up to the big guys. The books are full of street slang and criminal cant.
I’d say Burroughs is still read, by those who can bear him, let’s put it that way. There’s been an attempt by the gays to “gay ghetto” him like they do to all of their kind, but it didn’t work. Homosexuality is not a very important part of those books anyway. It’s certainly not why I read them.
He received much praise. Norman Mailer said he was
The only American author who could be conceived of having genius.
Samuel Beckett didn’t talk about other writers once, but he was once asked about Burroughs. The day was long and the light was going out of the room. As it got darker, Beckett didn’t turn on any lights or do anything to let more light in. The room just got dimmer and gloomier while he seemed to relish in this change. Of course that’s just like his books.
William Burroughs? William Burroughs is…a writer.
Like a real writer. The real deal. The real McCoy. To be good enough to be called a real writer by Beckett was an accomplishment.
He had great taste in literature, and he read all the time. I recall one interview when they asked him what he was reading:
“Well, Conrad (Joseph Conrad) of course. And Proust (Marcel Proust). I always read Proust. And Chesterton (G.K. Chesterton).
I would say you can see the influence of Conrad for sure in his prose. I can’t say much about the other two because I’ve never read Proust, and I’ve only dipped into a bit of Chesterton, a short nonfiction book he wrote very early in his career in 1903 about 19th Century poet Robert Browning, noted for his difficulty. The book is called Robert Browning.
What’s interesting is that all of those men wrote from 1890-1930, probably 50-80 years before the interviewer asked Burroughs that question. Of course those are three of the greats of the 20th Century, but when you ask someone what they’ve been reading, how often do they list any of those three? How often would they have listed those three when that question was asked of Burroughs, probably in the 1980’s? Same answer. No one reads any of those writers, not anymore, anyway.
On the down side, Burroughs also hated women. He was not afraid to say so, either. This is not unusual in gay men, especially in the more masculine ones like Burroughs. They simply don’t like women. This type of gay man is a lot more common than you think.
Here’s a bit of his prose:
They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in yellow pongee suits. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle.
– William S. Burroughs, from an essay written in 1985.
Isn’t that just perfect, glorious, and beautiful? I love the way those sentences slide across the page. I like the way the scenes jolt around from one faraway place to another within a single sentence. It’s like we took a world tour in two sentences.