‘the medium is the message’: Re-reading William Burroughs, from Junky to Nova Express

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When William Burroughs first emerged on the literary scene in the early 1960s, his writing was subject to numerous subjective and emotional responses which focussed too strongly on the content of his novels and not strongly enough on their compositional style. As a result, many readers have since approached his work with misleading expectations, finding themselves at best confused or disappointed, and at worst disgusted and nauseated. This paper proposes a reassessment of the way we read Burroughs’ novels of the 1950s and 1960s. Arguing that our approach to his work must be informed by an understanding of his compositional techniques and setbacks, it specifically shows how and why he came to use the collage (or cut-up) technique in his writing. My paper will chart the development of Burroughs’ writing, from the linear narrative of his first novel to the transformation of his writing into the calculated collage style which makes up the majority of his later works.

Burroughs’ novels are arguably what David Trotter would call ‘bad messes’, figuring ‘the world’s opacity in and through the disgust they provoke [...] [They] do not irritate us, or frighten us; they make us sick’. I propose that we reassess the squeamishness they provoke: our nauseated response to them may be a kind of kinetosis, or motion sickness, caused not by textual obscenity but by textual mess, which obstructs and problematizes the traditional processes of reading and interpretation. If readers are to focus on Burroughs’ medium, which was chiefly collage, they will find it possible to think of his writing less as a sequence of words which must signify meaning, and re-imagine it as a collection of images, over which one’s eyes may roam.
Original languageEnglish
JournalHARTS & Minds
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 3 Apr 2013


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