William S. Burroughs’ Boring, Prophetic Hate Mail to Truman Capote

Authors, like teenage girls, hate each other, and while this is mostly banal, expressions of it can occasionally be entertaining in a mindless-drivel kind of way, rather like The Expendables or the upcoming political conventions. I would like to report that the titular letter (via Word and Film), a 1970 bit of flamebait from Burroughs to Capote, is as entertaining as the coronation of Obama/Romney is going to be. Alas, I cannot, for it amounts to the typical blathering nonsense that one expects from Burroughs, full of paranoid denunciations and bereft of wit. Herewith, the narratio

I have followed your literary development from its inception, conducting on behalf of the department I represent a series of inquiries as exhaustive as your own recent investigations in the sun flower state. I have interviewed all your characters beginning with Miriam — in her case withholding sugar over a period of several days proved sufficient inducement to render her quite communicative — I prefer to have all the facts at my disposal before taking action.

If you know what in the name of Sweet Jesus he’s talking about, you’re doing better than me. I presume that Burrough is attempting some manner of humor by assigning to himself the Royal We of “This Department.” If so, he’s exactly as funny as my mom  signing emails “The Management.” Everything else bears that particularly Burroughsian inscrutability which the mal-educated regard as insight.

After some perfunctory wailing about Capote’s insufficiently progressive views on evidence and capitol punishment, the Accusation of Hackery, version 2.3 (AKA, the “Fall From Grace” flame) unwinds itself with the relentlessness of a spastic colon:

I have in line of duty read all your published work. The early work was in some respects promising — I refer particularly to the short stories. You were granted an area for psychic development. It seemed for a while as if you would make good use of this grant. You choose instead to sell out a talent that is not yours to sell. You have written a dull unreadable book which could have been written by any staff writer on the New Yorker — (an undercover reactionary periodical dedicated to the interests of vested American wealth). You have placed your services at the disposal of interests who are turning America into a police state by the simple device of deliberately fostering the conditions that give rise to criminality and then demanding increased police powers and the retention of capital punishment to deal with the situation they have created. You have betrayed and sold out the talent that was granted you by this department. That talent is now officially withdrawn.

Surrounding the plodding anaphora (“You have written an unreadable book! You have sold out! You have never paid for drugs,   not once”) is a return to the well of the Royal We, wherein Burroughs presumes to speak for, one supposes, all writers everywhere, who first made the grant of Capote’s talent, such as it was.

All that said, prophetic Truth pops out at the end:

Enjoy your dirty money. You will never have anything else. You will never write another sentence above the level of In Cold Blood. As a writer you are finished.

Even admitting that predicting an author’s decline hardly requires Second Sight, one has to admit that nail’s head rather crushingly hit. It seems even a blind junkie can find the occasional nuts.


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