Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1959 publication of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch Home About Contact RSS Updates Press  

Naked Lunch @ 50: Anniversary Essays

Naked Lunch@50: Anniversary Essays, edited by Oliver Harris and Ian MacFadyen, to be published by Southern Illinois University Press in June 2009, is the first book devoted in its entirety to William Burroughs’ masterpiece.

This collection of original critical essays brings together an international array of writers, scholars, musicians, and artists, and casts new light on the writing and reception of Burroughs’ unique work, tracking its origins from Texas to Tangier, from Mexico City to New York and Paris, crossing time zones and cultures. We believe that Naked Lunch@50 breaks new ground in understanding this most influential but elusive of texts.

Hemingway said that the only book worth writing is the one you don’t know how to write, and this applies equally to a critical anthology with many contributors. We may have thought at the beginning of the project that we knew what we wanted — to create through a number of historical, professional and subjective perspectives a multiplicity of differing interpretations and analyses — but we also knew that we could not anticipate how the contributors would respond, individually and collectively, to the invitation and to the challenges involved. 

Our aim was not to be exhaustive — an impossibility given the sheer complexity of the origins, history and text of Naked Lunch and the extreme responses it has engendered — but to ask a diversity of readers for their own specialized, critical takes. We hoped to discover the different ways in which the book is read right now, at this moment in time, fifty years down the line from its first publication, and to reflect changes in the way the book is now understood, remembered and appreciated. Necessarily partial in our selection of contributors, there were many Burroughsians we would very much have liked to have included, but alas could not. 

The final line-up includes artists, writers, and musicians with a special interest in Burroughs and an evident love and feel for Beat culture alongside an international array of scholars and academics: Keith ALBARN, Eric ANDERSEN, Gail-Nina ANDERSON, Théophile ARIES, Jed BIRMINGHAM, Shaun DE WAAL, Richard DOYLE, Loren GLASS, Kurt HEMMER, Allen HIBBARD, Rob HOLTON, Andrew HUSSEY, Rob JOHNSON, Jean-Jacques LEBEL, Polina MACKAY, Jonas MEKAS, Barry MILES, RB MORRIS, Timothy S. MURPHY, Jurgen PLOOG, Davis SCHNEIDERMAN, Jennie SKERL, D.J. SPOOKY, and Philip TAAFFE.

Book Launch Poster for NL@50
Poster announcing the launch of Naked Lunch@50: Anniversary Essays

This potentially rewarding if risky mix, deliberately blurring the boundaries of textual studies and juxtaposing writers from different milieus, has been our starting point. We believed that the so-called (and often unfairly and pejoratively branded) academic writer and the creative artist could in the collective context of the book reveal not only their shared interests in Naked Lunch but the overlapping and interconnection of their approaches — the scholar as artist, the artist as critic, defying assumptions about the emotional and intellectual separation and even opposition of the creative and the analytical. 

At the same time, quite different styles of writing — the way prose uniquely expresses a writer’s personality, a particular history of influences, the distinct ways in which thought takes shape and the way it is expressed — are preserved, exemplifying difference in the best sense. Above all, we have tried to make possible a shared space for the unique grain of each voice to come through, and have preserved contradiction and disparity as the very lifeblood of that original democratic ethic now so evidently debased and abased all around us. As editors we have tried to encourage and support the work of each and every individual contributor — because these are their views, their ideas, their readings, their words, not ours.

“I can think of no other work of literary criticism that brings together such a multiplicity of artists, practitioners and critics in such a dynamic assembly of writing forms. The resulting symbiosis strikes me as a whole new critical form, utterly pertinent to Burroughs’ milieu.”

— Michael Hrebeniak, author of Action Writing: Jack Kerouac’s Wild Form

Our criteria was across the board: to bring together contributions from readers and writers of different generations and from different parts of the world, to as far as possible traverse the boundaries of cultural difference and history and to look, for example, at the reception of Naked Lunch in South Africa, to consider the book’s translation into French and German, to include work from those who read it at the time as well as those who discovered and were enraptured by the book relatively recently. We wanted the multiplicity of genres put to work by Burroughs in Naked Lunch to be not just represented, but examined again, in detail, and not just from our now more-knowing post- post-modernist ironic viewpoint. And then the Spirit of Place — we had to visit again those great cities transformed into the phantasmagoric human hive known as Interzone, and so Parisian and Tangerine afficianados stepped forward out of Le Quartier Latin and the Socco Chico . . . 

But so much more. What is there in a book jacket — and in the multiple jackets of a book never out of print over 50 years? What kind of history is that? And what of Burroughs as Invisible Man and icon of the 1960s, and forever after, in the wake of Naked Lunch? Philosophy, morality and ethics, the Cold War and psychedelia, linguistics and drugs and the shooting of Joan . . . Too much already, and yet not nearly enough has been understood about this mysterious yet popular, influential yet unparalleled work . . . So we sent out our requests and we waited. And as our contributors responded, and dialogues with the writers commenced, the book began to take shape, challenging our expectations and preconceptions, requiring us to think through possible juxtapositions and arrangements of consistently interesting and yet often radically different kinds of writing and thinking. Decisions had to be made, but in a certain sense, the book was there at the point of reception as each voice took its place in the convocation, though each is quite distinct and it is not a harmony or perfect concord which we have sought to “arrange” — on the contrary, we prefer the collective sound made by those discordances which turns out to be sympathetic on a previously unheard level. 

We always had an idea of how our book should look, evoking and embodying the noir, psychedelic and permutational aspects of Burroughs’ writing through visual form and colour. We hope the final book, which includes beautiful end-papers by painter Philip Taaffe, fascinating interior decorations by Keith Albarn, and a gallery of rare images, photographs and manuscripts, will create an aesthetically appropriate and memorable visual dimension to the work — we have always seen these as true contributions to the book and the entire critical project, not separate from the essays and texts.

Burroughs at typewriter
William Burroughs at his writing machine, New York, fall 1953. One of numerous, rarely seen photographs taken by Allen Ginsberg that feature in a special Gallery section of Naked Lunch@50, here Ginsberg’s Kodak Retina records a crucial moment for Burroughs, as he worked on the manuscripts of “Queer” and “Yage” before heading off towards Tangier and the writing of Naked Lunch… (Courtesy of the Allen Ginsberg Trust and Stanford University Library.)

We did not make current critical consensus or debate about Burroughs’ writing or standing central to our work on Naked Lunch@50 — we tried as far as possible to think to the side of contemporary issues. Despite many years working individually and together on the writing and criticism of William Burroughs, we suspended not our critical judgement but our sense of the necessity in this case of keeping apace with current Burroughs Studies. Supported throughout by Southern Illinois UP, we wanted the final book to be something quite different from the concerns and trajectories of ongoing scholarly discourses, to both relax control and let things happen for their own sake, and to see what kind of effects our relatively laissez-faire approach would have upon those very specialized theoretics and practices. We now believe the effect could be even more radical than we had originally anticipated.

The book includes six Dossiers by co-editor Ian MacFadyen which disrupt and challenge conventional notions of the academic critical text. Deliberately fragmentary and non-linear, without closure, juxtaposing styles and tones of writing and ranging widely and wildly in their cited sources, these sections of the book reinforce our decision to radically mix possible approaches and kinds of material employed in the book. The object of these Dossiers is to tantalise as well as to inform, to provoke as well as to illuminate, in keeping with Burroughs’ own ethics of writing as a weapon of unknowing rather than a panacea of received wisdom.

Our work on the book / the book itself (two different things, yet inseparable) are ideally open to critique, expansion, alternative views, disagreement, development, celebration and condemnation. We agree with Burroughs that the mark of a prick and a bastard is always the desire to have THE LAST WORD. And we wouldn’t take it — even if we could.    

Ian MacFadyen
Oliver Harris
October 2008