Wednesday, December 11, 2013

William Burroughs and the place of the author in his own work

I’ve debated a fair bit of late about the role of the writer once he or she has completed their work. I’m of the opinion that the writer thereafter becomes an irrelevance, as does what that writer initially intended in their writing. What matters is the compact between reader and text.

William Burrough’s second novel, chronologically, was Queer, written (though unfinished) in 1952, almost simultaneously with his first novel, Junky. However, it wasn’t published until 1985, some 33 years later. As part of the introduction to that version, Burroughs wrote:

When I started to write [a] companion text to Queer, I was paralyzed with a heavy reluctance, a writer’s block like a straitjacket ... The reason for this reluctance becomes clearer as I force myself to look: the book is motivated and formed by an event which is never mentioned, in fact is carefully avoided: the accidental shooting death of my wife, Joan, in September 1951.
The accident happened when, in a drunken state, Burroughs shot his wife through the head while trying to shoot a whiskey glass from it. In making this statement, then, Burroughs appears to be deliberately placing him and his history into the narrative. He continues: “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death”.

Does all of this, then, negate my argument? Burroughs makes the clear, unambiguous connection between himself, his intent and the final text. And so the question arises: does that incident truly inform the narrative? In terms of the readers, and their experience of the text, does that make any difference? Would that reading experience be substantively different depending on whether or not the reader knew the background to the story?

In my opinion it makes no difference what Burroughs thinks. Indeed, what Burroughs thinks may be open to interpretation anyway. He declares that the accident is the unspoken hook for the novel, but is that truly the case? In his introduction to the revised text for the fiftieth anniversary publication of Queer, Oliver Harris casts some doubt on this. While, he argues, Burroughs’ introduction “framed the text with such a sensational context that it all but obscured both the fiction itself and any other reality behind it”, he nonetheless feels it is both “possible and necessary” to separate the truth from the fiction.

He suggests that there is a sense that Burroughs “muddles up the written with the circumstances of writing”. What is in the text is not necessarily what happened, or at least how it happened, or when it happened. He quotes Burroughs’ own explanation for the difference in tone between Queer and Junky, written only shortly before and featuring the same characters: “Part one [Junky] is on the junk, part two [Queer] is off.” But this is not strictly true, says Harris: Burroughs was, in fact, on the junk when he wrote Queer. Thus, author and character are not interchangeable in the way that Burroughs would like to suggest. As for the shooting of Joan being intrinsic to the writing of the text, Harris casts doubt on this, too. But for Burroughs’ own contention that this was the case, few if any would have made such a connection. Moreover, the linking of Joan’s death to the real life events portrayed in the novel does not work: Joan died in late summer of 1951, while the events recreated in the novel did not occur until 1952.

Thus, although the author seeks to present a real-life frame for the work, it does not, in truth, bear close scrutiny. Whatever Burroughs' motivations for writing Queer, they make no difference to the reader. The text stands on its own.

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