Exhibitions about writers are difficult to pull off, but when they do work, they tend to work very well. Barcelona recently hosted a brilliant exploration of the life and mind of J.G. Ballard, the Shanghai-born British sci-fi author—through a mixture of audio, video and photography, the exhibition’s designers managed to create an environment entirely in-keeping with dystopian spirit of Ballard’s novels and stories, which owe more than a little to the influence of William S. Burroughs. ‘Burroughs Live’ at the Royal Academy is, by all accounts, rather less successful—I don’t intend to visit and find out.
Part of the RA’s GSK Contemporary season, funded by GlaxoSmithKline (the people who brought you Dexedrine, Ventolin and NicoDerm), ‘Burroughs Live’ seems to consist largely of portraits: the press release mentions photographs by Annie Liebovitz, a painting by Hockney, a collage by Damien Hirst. For a writer whose inflated media image is by now more famous than anything he wrote, it’s an appropriate theme.
Author of Naked Lunch, perhaps the last great banned book, William S. Burroughs shifted in a matter of decades from drugged-up obscurity, through counter-cultural iconicity, to outmoded cliché—that he should become the object of an exhibition at this country’s most prestigious artistic institution, sponsored by a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical company, is only the logical extension of an assimilative process that began with his induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983. Reviewing the RA exhibition on The Guardian’s art blog, Jonathan Jones refers to Burroughs as ‘[t]he most overrated cultural icon of the late 20th century’ and is not far off the mark.
And yet, there’s a difference—a crucial one—between being an overrated cultural icon and an overrated writer. Jones disregards this, moving from a lazy comparison with Pynchon (junkie and paranoiac are far from interchangeable) to a general denunciation of Burroughs’s work, but the distinction needs to be maintained. ‘Burroughs is’, according to Jones’s sneering assessment, ‘the modern writer adored by people who don’t read enough modern writing’—an overcharged druggie stereotype, shooting smack and wives with equal abandon. A tendency to pop up in his own work certainly doesn’t help matters—as Will Self puts it, ‘there was never a writer like Bill Burroughs for self-mythologizing …’
But what Jones seems to forget is the sheer visceral texture of Burroughs’s junk-obsession. The whole point of his straight-dope grotesquerie is that it isn’t some glamourized image: ‘Since Naked Lunch treats this health problem [i.e. the problem of drug addiction], it is necessarily brutal, obscene and disgusting. Sickness is often repulsive details not for weak stomachs.’ Burroughs’s work points directly to a real critique of ‘the pyramid of junk’ which succumbs neither to government-sponsored anti-drug hysteria nor to the laminated heroin chic of the international catwalk. Years before postmodern theorists of destabilization and fragmentation appeared on the scene, Bill Burroughs was literally cutting up his manuscripts, splicing in newspaper clippings and extracts from his ‘Word Hoard’ in a deliberate blurring of text and context.
Like Hunter S. Thompson, that other great mythical figure, William S. Burroughs forgot to burn out until it was too late. But along with the trail of bad films and embarrassing portraits, he left some pretty excellent novels: just as persistent as his stupid media persona is a real and lasting influence on the American literary avant-garde. In fact, perhaps Jones’s comparison isn’t so bad after all: without Burroughs’s narcotized, class-A imagination—his junk-corroded voice and exponential proliferation of characters—we might never have had Pynchon. If that’s not reason enough to keep reading him, then I don’t know what is.