Gary Indiana on Burroughs and Naked Lunch

An extract from Everything Is Permitted: The Making of “Naked Lunch”
William S. Burroughs on the set of David Cronenberg's adaptation of Naked Lunch
From Criterion has posted an essay by novelist, playwright, and culture critic Gary Indiana, which originally appeared in Everything Is Permitted: The Making of “Naked Lunch” (1992):
Burroughs’s work tends to affect people like a Rorschach test. It separates cultural conservatives from avant-gardists, social reactionaries from libertarians. Or, to use one of Burroughs’s favorite distinctions, members of the Johnson Family from the Shits. Johnsons have a live-and-let-live, mind-their-own-business mentality. Shits have an uncontrollable need to pass judgment on and be right about everything. In today’s censorious climate, police work dominates the pages of the book reviews: this writer has the wrong attitude and must be done away with.

Burroughs has always elicited a testy response from the cultural establishment. While early support for Naked Lunch from such mandarins as Mary McCarthy and John Ciardi has been matched over the years by encomiums from many of our best writers and by a substantial body of excellent academic criticism, the overall literary world’s recognition of Burroughs has been grudging more often than not. Perhaps Burroughs’s achievement represents a threat to the well-mannered, conventionally crafted, middle-class novel. It could be as simple as that. Burroughs expanded the content of fiction, giving artistic form to extremes of contemporary abjection. Naked Lunch opened a path into the world of the addict, the homosexual, the social outlaw. From this despised and largely unmentionable territory, Burroughs extracted a presiding metaphor of control. Naked Lunch deals with the control of consciousness and behavior through addiction—to sex, power, money, drugs, even to control itself. When themes of this nature, which ultimately have to do with politics, lie at the heart of a writer’s work, appreciation is often checked by the timidity of those who prefer not to think about such issues. [Read More]

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