Via Dangerous Minds (I know – again) Thom Robinson has an amusing essay on the tense relationship between William Burroughs and Truman Capote. The author of Naked Lunch was disdainful of his more refined contemporary, and – in all sincerity, it seems – sent him an open letter cursing his authorial career…
Burroughs’ “letter” begins with an explanation to Capote that his “is not a fan letter in the usual sense.” Acting as spokesman for a “department” with apparent responsibility for determining writers’ fates, Burroughs announces that he has followed Capote’s “literary development from its inception” and, in the line of duty, has conducted exhaustive inquiries comparable to those undertaken by Capote in his research for In Cold Blood. An engagingly surreal touch finds Burroughs reporting that these inquiries have included interviewing all of Capote’s fictional characters “beginning with Miriam” (the title character of Capote’s breakthrough story of 1945)…Avowing that Capote’s early short stories were “in some respects promising,” Burroughs suggests Capote could have made positive use of his talents, presumably by applying them to the expansion of human consciousness (“You were granted an area for psychic development”). Instead, Burroughs finds that Capote has sold out a talent “that is not yours to sell.” In retribution for having misused “the talent that was granted you by this department”, Burroughs starkly warns “That talent is now officially withdrawn,” signing off with the sinister admonition, “You will never have anything else.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.”
Nowadays our authorial feuds aren’t half as entertaining. Remember the classic Richard Ford v. Colson Whitehead bust-up? No? Nor did I. In fact, I’m not sure who the poor sods are. But the old feuds weren’t more valuable in the sense of being insightful – they contained the same blunt insults and were motivated by similar jealousies and spite. The combatants were simply far more entertaining people, with wittier rhetoric.
I sometimes wish people would write like the Beats n’ co. but the ostentatious lifestylism was a fleeting pleasure. Ultimately, outside of a few great books, it’s largely spawned gossip with pretensions. We should remember that the most interesting people will be boring bastards at time. It’s unavoidable. The strain of boring bastardism is too deeply lodged within mankind.