Sunday, September 16, 2007

Fifty years of careless prose

From David Ulin's piece on Kerouac in the latest issue of Bookforum:
Kerouac . . . had been trying to write On the Road for two and a half years before he started working on this version; he’d struggled through several drafts that lacked the necessary immediacy and voice. That’s one reason the book has so much power—it’s the expression of an artist wrestling with a problem, the problem of how to make language and experience explode off the page. As a cultural ideal, though, it’s a disaster, directly responsible for fifty years of careless prose. It may be true, as Kerouac wrote to Viking editor Malcolm Cowley on September 11, 1955, that “what a man most wishes to hide, revise, and un-say, is precisely what Literature is waiting and bleeding for,” but it’s also the case that this kind of “first thought, best thought” authenticity is often little more than an excuse for not putting in the necessary work.


  1. I feel about Kerouac like I do about Derrida--they do it brilliantly, but their followers...oy, their followers...

  2. From the article: "'Kerouac,' Burroughs pointed out, 'opened a million coffee bars and sold a million Levis . . . [but] Kerouac and I are not real at all. The only real thing about a writer is what he’s written, and not his life.' Or as Kerouac himself said, 'It’s our work that counts, if anything at all.'"

    What nonsense, esp. from someone like Burroughs who should know better. As for Kerouac, this is the same sort of delusion that killed Jackson Pollock (the first media-stoked American art star). The beats wrote about their lives in thinly veiled fiction; they were as much in the business of self-mythology and fashinoning themselves into real-life literary characters as they were in the book business. To think that their writing--or any art for that matter (at least since Brando)--exists in some pure realm apart from "the thing itself" is naive at best.

    Paradoxically, the myth of the pure artist sullied by media feeds into said myth and in turn "opens coffee bars," sells pants, garners large-scale retrospectives, etc. It's important not to ever lose sight of this, esp. for a contingent like the beats, whose lives were FAR more interesting than their writing. For me, and I might be in the majority, it's the compelling biographies that keep me coming back to the less-than-stellar fiction. (Can anyone imagine reading--let alone finishing-"Naked Lunch" or a total piece 'o dreck like "Desolation Angels"--an entire "novel" composed of throw-away lines--uninformed by the lives of the authors?)

    What say you?