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The Big Other Interview # 23: Oliver Harris on William S. Burroughs’ Queer

cover of Queer

If you meet Oliver Harris someday, tip your fedora.

The co-mastermind along with Ian McFadyen behind 2009’s Naked Lunch @50: Anniversary Essays and commemorative conference in Paris, Harris has completed a project that can never really achieve completion, but one that remains wildly impressive nonetheless: he has prepared new editions of William S. Burroughs’ first three major works.

Junky: The Definitive text of ‘Junk.’ New York: Penguin, 2003. (first published, 1953)

The Yage Letters Redux. San Francisco: City Lights, 2006. (first published, 1963)

And now,

Queer: 25th-Anniversary Edition. Penguin, 2010 (first published, 1985. Composed in part, 1952.)

I call these “works” rather than novels, for Harris’ important academic criticism —notably William S. Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination (Southern Illinois University Press, 2003)—deconstructs many of the genetic myths of composition inflect any cultural reading of Burroughs. Some of these critical bombs—and Harris indeed tosses bombs against the received and conventional wisdom in the world of Burroughs criticism—are detailed below.

(Others, such as the story of how Naked Lunch resists complete co-option into the mainstream because it is in fact not a novel, but a series of routines that emerge from Burroughs’ copious correspondence [with Allen Ginsberg, among others], remain detailed more directly elsewhere.)

Queer, for complicated reasons and due to professional failures, did not see publication after its original composition period in 1952, but had to wait until 1985. The book ultimately carried a new final piece “Mexico City Return” along with a sensational introduction that made suspect claims regarding Burroughs’ authorial position, in reference to the infamous shooting death of his wife, Joan Vollmer, in September 1951.

Queer is a claustrophobic read, something much darker than what is suggested by the appearance of its cover in Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film Clueless. This is not only the sequel to Junky but also the suggestion of Naked Lunch and everything that comes after. (Correction: Oliver reminds me it is Junky and not Queer that appears in Clueless. This is interesting, Harris notes, because the character Christian is not an addict, but gay, and so the Junky cover signifies its sequel.  No doubt this partially explains my misremembering.)

I once taught the book to an undergraduate creative writing course, and watched as a wave of insulated sadness—a heavy fog—seemed to overtake the group. Did they students recover? One assumes, but they are all ghosts long gone and forgotten.

In 2005, at a wonderful conference in Mexico City, Oliver took me to the building where the shooting occurred, to the Sears where the protagonist of Queer browses the magazine racks, and to the nearby park where this same character, William Lee, sits forlorn upon the benches.

Check out the interview below—the Big Other interview—and then dive into Harris’ editions. You’ll be taken on a unexpected ride, perhaps with an offer of adventure in the South American jungles, I can promise you this much.

Davis: You are the pioneer critic in Burroughs studies regarding the genetic and textual histories of his manuscripts. This is clearly important work that has redefined much of the contemporary understanding of Burroughs’ output, yet the specifics of the genetic histories are sometimes, shall we say, Byzantine in their turns. Would it be possible for you to offer a sense of how this new Queer differs from the 1985 publication?

Oliver: It’s entirely natural to ask how my new edition differs from the previous one, because that’s what most readers will want to know, but what I’ve tried to do with Queer, as before with Junky and The Yage Letters, is essentially two things—one textual, the other contextual. In terms of the text, I’ve been relatively conservative: I made changes, cuts, and additions, but not enough to disturb readers familiar with the old Queer.

In terms of the context, however, I wanted to change quite radically the novel’s backstory—to queer it, so to speak. That’s why I shifted Burroughs’ 1985 introduction to an appendix, so that the novel is no longer mediated by the story he tells there regarding the shooting of Joan, or his withdrawal from heroin—each of which, in my view, obscure more than they reveal about the writing of Queer in spring 1952.

The key differences are therefore not actually in the text but in how it’s read. Above all, I’ve wanted to establish the complex contingency of Burroughs’ early writing—which is indeed Byzantine—and which in turn makes visible both the contradictions within these seemingly straightforward narratives and their concealed alternative forms. Not everyone will want to do this, but if you read my three editions together and follow the genetic histories they reveal, you can reconstruct in detail what happened to Burroughs’ manuscripts between the writing of them and their publication. What this adds up to is an entirely different narrative to the received version of how he wrote these works. That rewriting of literary history is most obvious in the case of The Yage Letters, where I was able to show that the true history inverts the official one, and that far from being based on Burroughs’ actual letters to Ginsberg, “In Search of Yage” was only put into epistolary form afterwards.

There are some significant differences in the new Queer: I preserved more of the roughness in Burroughs’ original manuscript, restored a number of lost passages, and created one new chapter, but my approach was to go back to the manuscripts (mainly held in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library) while still respecting the 1985 edition. I rejected various more radical editing possibilities because James Grauerholz had already done such an expert job twenty-five years ago and because the familiar text “works”—by which I mean, is true to the title. Queer is queer. I didn’t want to straighten it out.

Davis: Queer, which I’ve read many times, as opposed to Junky, which I admit has not held my interest over the years, remains in many ways a claustrophobic book; its tone is ominous, isolated, and I wonder if you felt any of this in the editing process? Did the mood of the book overtake you at all? Were their editorial decisions to be made based upon this somewhat intangible quality?

Oliver: A good deal of editing a manuscript looks like mechanical work, as if anyone with time on their hands and a magnifying glass could do it. But at a certain point, you need a strong interpretive conviction and, as you say, an “intangible” relationship to what you are doing. I can’t speak for other textual editors—maybe it’s a Burroughsian thing—but there has always been an excess, an excessive dimension, to my work—I am always looking for some clue, some easily missed sign that might just be the missing piece in the puzzle—which is probably why these editions have taken a relatively long time for me to do.

To give a concrete example…I like to focus on the varieties of paper, the different sizes and watermarks, evidence perhaps of what was typed when and sometimes where and by whom. The mystery that obsessed me most (in editing Queer) concerned a series of smears of red ink from a new typewriter ribbon that jumped and leaked and left marks on the tops and bottoms of certain manuscript pages, like stains of fresh blood. Nine of these pages are held in the Burroughs Collection at the New York Public Library; five carbons are held in the Ginsberg Papers at Stanford. Six of them appear on paper watermarked “Fleetway Onion Skin.” What did it mean? Well, I never did figure this one out—and for my money, going down dead ends goes with the territory—but it wasn’t time wasted.

On the contrary, I recognised my red-stained paper as the most material literalisation of how I was interpreting Burroughs’ writing—or rather how he himself interpreted it—which is to say as an extension of his own body. It’s no coincidence that he wrote the first draft of “The Finger”—which tells the story of his self-mutilation—just as he was hitting his stride with Queer. I talk more about this equation of writer’s body and textual body in a paper I gave at Columbia last September (“Confusion’s Masterpiece”). I don’t try to feel what Burroughs felt—how could I? How could anyone?—but there’s something absolutely literal in my approach, which stems from my desire to do justice to his work.

Davis: While the routine form clearly emerges from Burroughs’s letters, I think of Queer as its first real manuscript birth, and thus, Queer seems much closer to Naked Lunch than Junky; put another way, Naked Lunch is composed of routines, with much of the narrative scaffolding stripped away. Care to agree or quibble?

Oliver: I think this is exactly right, which is also the reason why Queer is such a significant work for Burroughs. You can literally see the method by which he wrote Junky start to disintegrate before your eyes in Queer. On the other hand, the genesis of Naked Lunch can’t be reduced to what happened in the spring and summer of 1952. Queer is where it starts. Where it ended up, Burroughs himself could not possibly have known.

Davis: You’ve now re-edited the first three Burroughs books: Junky, Queer, and The Yage Letters (along with Everything Lost: The Latin American Journal); further, the revised Naked Lunch is already on the shelves. You also worked some years ago on abandoned new editions of the Cut-Up/Nova Trilogy. What’s next for your editorial work on Burroughs? Surely, you also have more purely scholarly projects on Burroughs?

Oliver: I have really been fortunate, incredibly privileged, to have done so much editorial work, and I would love to do more. But just as my editions have tried to balance the familiar with the new, the commercial with the scholarly, so too I have to admit that I don’t want to do editing for the sake of it, and some possible projects would be of uncertain value to me. There is far more to Burroughs than his oeuvre as a writer of novels, but nevertheless I believed with a passion in the need to re-edit his early trilogy. Do I feel the same way about all his works? No. Would I want to try again with the cut-up trilogy? I don’t know.

Of course, for me Naked Lunch was the big one, but I still believe I was right to pass on that. James Grauerholz and Barry Miles did an important job with their 2003 “Restored” edition because they knew what they wanted to do, and what they could do. At the time, I simply didn’t know. I hadn’t even edited Junky back then. So I did the right thing to pass. Instead, what I most want to do now is complete “The Making of Naked Lunch,” on which I have been working, on and off, these past 25 years. It started out as a typically insane idea to map every part of the published text in terms of its manuscript provenance and history, and to establish the cultural meaning of the book, part and whole. Now it is a more oblique project, a shifting assemblage of densely rigorous documentation and more tangential approaches, and in no way completist.

Davis: How did you get involved in Burroughs to begin with? Share a story about your many years in this inarresting business?

Oliver: I tell this anecdote with tongue in cheek at the start of my book William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination, but my academic involvement with Burroughs was entirely due to my tutor at Oxford, Peter Conrad. I was discussing with him the idea of staying on to do graduate work and when I tossed the name of Burroughs into the conversation—well, he let it fall loudly onto the floor, and proceeded to cross himself as if warding off an evil spirit. Since I was very ambivalent about an academic career in any case, that decided it for me.

As for how I first encountered Burroughs, that was due to someone who has actually become an academic, but when I knew him as a teenager in the 1970s…C.P. Lee was the front man of a radical comedy band from Manchester called Alberto y lost Trios Paranoias. He gave me a cassette tape of Burroughs reading from Naked Lunch, Nova Express, and so on. I’m sure I hadn’t a clue what I was hearing, but I knew it was fascinating and I knew Burroughs was the name to drop amongst the coolest people. In other words, I was suckered in by the myth of the man as much as by his work. I suppose you could say that, since then, I’ve tried to reverse this, to let the work do the seducing. . .

Oliver & William in 1984
Lawrence, Kansas, 1984, on Oliver Harris’ first meeting William S. Burroughs, around the time that the New York Times broke the publishing contract story regarding Queer.

Oliver Harris is Professor of American Literature at Keele University, and the editor of The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 19451959 (1993), Junky: The Definitive Text of “Junk” (2003), The Yage Letters Redux (2006), Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs (2008), and Queer: Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition (2010). In addition to the book William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination (2003) and the collection Naked Lunch@50: Anniversary Essays (2009), co-edited with Ian MacFadyen, he has published numerous articles on Burroughs, film noir, Hemingway, the epistolary, the exquisite corpse game, and the Beat Generation.

4 thoughts on “The Big Other Interview # 23: Oliver Harris on William S. Burroughs’ Queer

  1. Two posts featuring a fedora!

    Davis, seriously, my compliments. Burroughs these days runs all the risks of overexposure, the dire threat of becoming kitsch, & it’s great that we’ve got someone like you to sort out what matters from the blurry copies of copies of copies of legend.

  2. Thanks, gents.

    Tim–the changes are probably not noticeable on the sentence level to any great degree. As Harris note, the shift has much to do with the contextualization of the books.

    I admit a fondness for many of the “original” Burroughs publications over the edits, in general, but this has to do with a misplaced sense of nostalgia on my part that i don’t really express in my other non-Burroughs aesthetic tastes.

    Put another way, each edition is merely snapshot of the text at a particular moment: no more authentic than the others. The restored Naked Lunch, for instance, offers much material that Burroughs has in pre-publication versions of the ms, but there were real economic and publishing reasons that the NL most of us know, from 1959, appeared as it did. For me, the editions are completely different books.

    Put another another way: read them both, in any order!

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