William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989

By Jennie Skerl; Robin Lydenberg | Go to book overview

9
Objections to William Burroughs

David Lodge

H ave we come to handle the avant-garde too gently? From the Lyrical Ballads to Ulysses our literary history is very much a chronicle of revolutionary works hooted and reviled by the literary establishments of their times, appreciated by a small elite of initiates, and belatedly elevated to classic status by succeeding literary establishments. Since the 1920s, however, the time lag between the publication and the public recognition of such works has got shorter and shorter, until now we are, perhaps, more in danger of mistaking than neglecting masterpieces. Part of the reason is the radical change which has overtaken academic criticism in this period: the groves of academe, that were once enclaves of conservative literary taste, are now only too eager to welcome what is new. Another, and perhaps more important reason is that through the development of the mass media and what one might call the boom in the culture market, the "small élite of initiates" which in the past constituted the only audience for experimental art, good and bad, is now able to bring its influence to bear very swiftly and powerfully on the larger public.

Nothing illustrates this latter process more strikingly than the way the reputation of William Burroughs has grown since Mary McCarthy praised The Naked Lunch at the Edinburgh Writers' Conference of 1962. (Miss McCarthy has since complained that her words on that occasion were distorted and exaggerated by the press; but it could be argued that writers who participate in such events, which are peculiar to our own cultural era, must expect and accept such treatment.) What is noteworthy about Burroughs' reputation is not so much the encomiums his work has received from such confrères as Miss McCarthy, Norman Mailer ("I think that William Burroughs is the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be

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David Lodge, "Objections to William Burroughs," The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays in Fiction and Criticism ( London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1971): 161-71. [Originally published in Critically Quarterly 8 ( Autumn 1966): 203-12.] Copyright © 1971 by Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd. Reprinted by permission.

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