Brian Alessandro on the Defiant Queerness of William S. Burroughs
In Fever Spores: The Queer Reclamation of William S. Burroughs, literary critic and Interview contributor Brian Alessandro brings together a roster of emerging creative voices and countercultural superstars including Fran Lebowitz, Debbie Harry, and Samuel R. Delany, to recontextualize the work of the infamous writer as defiantly queer. “Almost all of the Beats were bisexual and one another’s lovers,” writes Edmund White in Fever Spores. So why has one of the most lionized members of the movement been snubbed by the gay literati? William S. Burroughs had a wife whose life he took, allegedly by accident, but he also waxed poetic about the gay erotic experience. “Calling all boys of the earth…We will show you the sex magic that turns flesh to light. We will free you forever from the womb,” he wrote in 1973. To celebrate Burroughs’s coming out of the literary closet, Alessandro rang Interview for a convo about Beat writers, cruising, and the pragmatics of orgies.
INTERVIEW: I’m excited to hear about the book. Can you start by telling the reader why you decided to focus on restoring Burroughs’s legacy?
BRIAN ALESSANDRO: I run a literary journal that I co-founded called The New Engagement. In the summer of 2020, I published an essay by a writer named Tom Cardamone who wrote about William S. Burroughs, his radical queerness, and how it helped him through a rough patch when he was facing homophobia as a young man living in Florida. Tom and I stayed in touch, and in the fall of 2020, we started talking about possibly turning it into a book. I said, “Well, what would that look like?” And he said, “Why don’t we try to get essays and interviews with emerging and established writers, filmmakers, musicians, and artists who can integrate themselves into the essays?” So, it became personal memoirs through the lens of Burroughs and his work. He jokingly said, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could get David Cronenberg to talk about adapting Naked Lunch?” And I take everything literally, so of course I went after Cronenberg. He said yes, and that opened the door to Debbie Harry and Chris Stein talking to me about being friends with Burroughs and hanging out in Kansas and shooting guns with him. And then Tony Kushner followed, and Fran Lebowitz, Samuel R. Delany, Legs McNeil, and Chris Kelso.
INTERVIEW: Why do you think they were all so willing to participate?
ALESSANDRO: Well, many of them knew him personally. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein were very close with him. Fran wasn’t, she’d only met him a few times, but she’s such a perceptive cultural critic so she was able to hone in on why he’s endured. She thinks it’s because he appeals to young people. Whatever young generation, as they emerge and find their way, they invariably happen upon Burroughs because he had punk rock, revolutionary ideas. So many musicians knew him. Everything from Steely Dan to the term “heavy metal” was coined by him and his books. Tony Kushner never met him, but he was able to give us a really thorough critical analysis. Burroughs gave him permission, as he put it, to write frankly about things he would have been too shy to write about otherwise.
INTERVIEW: This is not the first book that has explored this, but the participation of these cultural icons, these towering names, is remarkable. Why do you think they were drawn to this project specifically?
ALESSANDRO: I think they liked that we were coming at from multiple points of view. I think they were also intent on reclaiming him into the gay canon because for the past 40 or 50 years he was co-opted by punk literature, by drug addiction literature, by science fiction fan boys and girls literature, by psychedelic and surreal literature. I’m very good friends with Edmund White, the living emperor of gay literature, who has an essay in the book as well. He and I were talking about how Burroughs often isn’t included in the canon and how that might be due to the fact that the language he used when talking about himself and his community wouldn’t be considered politically correct today. We were talking, Fran Lebowitz and I, about how he would fare in this climate, with social media and cancel culture. Would he have a shot?
INTERVIEW: Why do you think his work was co-opted?
ALESSANDRO: It was probably more palatable to sell him as someone who had a punk rock sensibility or someone who had—I don’t want to say that he fetishized or sexualized drug addiction, but certainly he infused some romance in it. The institutions who curated his life’s work, I think they realized there was a larger market of buyers for those kinds of books.
INTERVIEW: Interesting. So much Beat writing is by definition unpalatable. It’s meant to horrify and repulse.
ALESSANDRO: I’m glad you brought that up because that was something Tom and I discussed. Another reason why maybe contemporary gay culture has been a little bit squeamish about embracing him is because of that. Edmund White once said that he would like to see more bad gay guys in literature. That gay characters only get to be victims or saints in a lot of contemporary media and literature, and it’s kind of boring. We want to be viewed as complex multi-dimensional people. We want to have permission to do bad things and be punished like anybody else.
INTERVIEW: There’s something interesting about figures like him busting open the doors to a certain movement, and then those who follow clutching their pearls decades later.
ALESSANDRO: There are gay writers who are inspired by figures like Burroughs, who then are able to write in a way that grants them a large audience. They seem to be very careful. I don’t know if it’s out of fear that they will lose readers or that their publishers will drop them.
INTERVIEW: Yeah. I’m not a queer man, but something that I find in a lot of the interviews I do–especially when I’m speaking to queer men of an older generation, or who spent a lot of their lives in New York–there’s nostalgia for a certain lawlessness that is no longer there. We’ve talked about the death of cruising after 9/11 because of hyper-policing and surveillance, and all these dead public spaces that were once alive with sexual spontaneity and rawness. It seems like Burroughs embodies a lot of that lawlessness. Are there any movements or spaces you see now that are bringing that back successfully?
ALESSANDRO: Can I just read you the last three sentences of my essay, which is the conclusion of the book? “As I get increasingly acclimated to a quiet adulthood, to my own bourgeois comforts—the comforts that kept me disingenuous all those years—I seek again a channel to sate a secretive, extremist hunger, to look again at the world and at myself, no matter how ugly, how unappetizing, regardless of my metabolism.”
You know, I married my husband three years ago, and I love him very much. And the reason I wrote this particular essay, and why it became the conclusion of the book, is because sometimes I feel like there’s a duality at play. I don’t want to say that I feel like a hypocrite, but there are times when I want that lawlessness. Then I remind myself that I own a house, I have a husband, and I’m living a very heteronormative life. If I came of age in the ’80s or the ’50s, it would have been a very different, probably nightmarish scenario. But a big part of me still pines for that lawlessness. I’m in the suburbs of New Jersey now, so I don’t have my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in New York or San Francisco or LA or Chicago. But I do have a lot of friends who are LGBTQI who live there. They report that, because of the pandemic, things are starting to get a bit funky again.
ALESSANDRO: During the height of it, a lot of them said that it felt like when we were kids in the late ’80s or early ’90s, particularly within queer spaces where there is a certain amount of promiscuous experimentation and celebration happening. I think it’s because all these institutions have had to slacken their grips a little bit, because we were focusing on shutting down, locking ourselves in. In the suburbs, we got to see deer and foxes in the streets. In the city, there’s a different wild animal at play.
INTERVIEW: For so long, the fight was for permission to live exactly how you’re living. Now, the conversation is around permission to live, perhaps, in a way that more closely resembles the fight of earlier days.
ALESSANDRO: It’s a delicate dance. I realize that we finally got this far, and a lot of writers who are gay, who are in the public eye, don’t want to screw anything up for anybody else in the community so they’re always on their best behavior. Especially when we have this creepy conservative wave weaving through the country again and everything suddenly feels very precarious. I mean, the fact that Roe v. Wade is going to be turned over…Is marriage equality next? We’re in a weird time where it sort of feels like we’re able to be a little bit wild and lawless again, but at the same time we don’t want to ruin the progress we’ve made.
INTERVIEW: Given the genocidal history here, there’s also a lack of institutional memory that maybe leads to fantasizing about a time that maybe there aren’t enough witnesses to.
ALESSANDRO: It’s interesting, you said a lot of the queer thinkers that you’ve spoken to are people who are in their 70s, or 80s, who yearn for that lawlessness. They’re not young people, per se.
INTERVIEW: No, I mean, we did an interview with Samuel R. Delany. He was talking about all the places he used to cruise, and how they’re all like Blue Bottle Coffee shops now. It’s a gentrification story in a different way.
INTERVIEW: I have one more question. Were there any anecdotes about Burroughs from someone who knew him that stood out to you?
ALESSANDRO: God, there were so many. I was struck by how Fran Lebowitz openly spoke about his insights into the pragmatics of orgies during a luncheon. To hear Fran talk about that was a gas. Of course, she’s effortlessly funny and witty.
INTERVIEW: But also so not the orgy type.
ALESSANDRO: So not the orgy type! I think she even said something like, “You know, it’s not a subject that appealed to me then, and it’s not a subject that appeals to me now.”
INTERVIEW: It makes sense that she’d seize on the logistics in that case.
ALESSANDRO: Exactly, the mechanics. Talk about wearing a satchel around your neck with all of your valuables so that nobody will rob you.
INTERVIEW: Important in any setting!