Q: Your celebration of William S. Burroughs’ centenary is one of those literary parties that, like Burroughs himself, attracts the attention of people beyond savvy book lovers. Is the Burroughs legend (the drugs, the William Tell, etc.) by now even bigger than the literary contribution? Or does the writing underpin everything?
A: The Burroughs mythology — that which was built around the darker details of his life — the killing of Joan Vollmer, the death of his son, drug abuse, etc. — has been parsed in a number of biographies, critical writings, reviews, and by WSB himself. It is no longer mythology but part of the history of the writer. The Iconography, which took off in the 1980s through musicians, artists, actors, etc. citing him as an influence; the extensive touring in rock-n-roll venues; the endorsement of commercial products; and collaborations with those previously cited — records, appearances on Saturday Night Live, and the rest; developed organically — add to that his success in the art world as a painter, as well. Iconography fades as the Icon is no longer there to support it. Mythology becomes history and thus is taken for granted. A dead writer starts with a clean slate.
However, the work, yes that thing which he should primarily be known for, lives on. His challenges to the American Modernist movement broke new ground; his “shoaling” work as it survived obscenity trials, helped to make new laws and more room for all writers. Naked Lunch is one of Grove Press’s top backlist sellers. It continues to be one of the most important post WWII books published anywhere in the world. The body of work, while showing stylistic differences over time, is translated into countless languages; it continues to be taught, analyzed, and at the center of the conversation around post-modernism. Books don’t stay alive if it isn’t about the work. Burroughs was one of the most adventurous stylists, most disturbing voices, most articulate satirists of the 20th century. I think we have a keeper. The work, obviously speaks for it self. Viva WSB.
— Ira Silverberg has worked in the literary world for nearly thirty years. Among the positions he’s held are Literature Director of the National Endowment for the Arts, Editor-in-Chief of Grove Press, and Publisher and founding co-editor of High Risk Books/Serpent’s Tail.