This entry is not just an excuse to enjoy how right Burroughs was, is, and will always be. (And for reasons that will become clear below, if you actually liked In Cold Blood--for a reason other than it kicking off the 'investigative novel' genre--I'm eager to hear about it.) There are two ideas here I need today.
In 1970, William S Burroughs wrote this. Nobody knows whether he ever sent it.
My Dear Mr. Truman Capote,
This is not a fan letter in the usual sense—unless you refer to ceiling fans in Panama. Rather, call this a letter from “the reader”—vital statistics are not in capital letters—a selection from marginal notes on material submitted, as all “writing” is submitted to this department. 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 Sunflower State. Your recent appearance before a senatorial committee on which occasion you spoke in favor of continuing the present police practice of extracting confessions by denying the accused the right of consulting consul prior to making a statement also came to my attention.
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 That talent is now officially withdrawn. 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. Over and out. Are you tracking me? Know who I am? You know me, Truman. You have known me for a long time. This is my last visit.
The first idea is just hinted at here: good art has something to do with actually being good.
(Whether Burroughs was, himself, a good person, is highly debatable, but his work had integrity: if he ever published a word that wasn't purely William S Burroughs it's news to me.)
Anyway: The idea that making or appreciating something (writing, art, movies, things) makes us better somehow. It's a dangerous idea...
We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day's work at Auschwitz in the morning.
...but it's also a popular, attractive, persistent idea. It has a truth and a lie in it and there's a line and I am thinking about the line.
People, anecdotally, often describe the moment they are able to connect with another person--to see they were on some level more than just an obstacle or irritant--when they see how much that person earnestly loved some song, some movie.
You can see an inkling of this same idea in attempts to make whole groups of people good by introducing them to 'the arts' in one way or another.
You can go on youtube right now and probably watch 12 different documentaries about any number of obsessive collectors of some cultural things and go "Look at her, she just loves Barbie stuff, wholly, generously, she's likable".
We see open embrace of things like this as fundamentally honest--to love something openly is to admit that if it were taken away you'd be hurt and, therefore, to show people a way to hurt you and, therefore, to risk getting hurt for the sake of telling the truth to other people. This is why dogs (who, being nonstealth predators, move directly, nose-first, and earnestly drooling toward your chinese take-out) seem to us so much more honest than cats. People like cats, but for different reasons.
This is not wholly an illusion: to be a fan, to enthusiastically like something someone made--a book, a movie, a record, a game--means you are appreciating something that isn't you. It isn't even your family. It isn't anything that will contribute directly to the success of your genetic material on the planet.
Per se, a person who is wholeheartedly aesthetically appreciating a phenomenon of the outside world is getting out of their own everyday concerns (essential to being able to imagine the suffering of other people) and appreciating that a human unlike them did something worth doing (ditto essential).
Yet, as we know, neither artists nor fans are necessarily good. And, worse, often their particular badness seems to flow directly from their love of the thing.
That's where the second thing I notice about Burroughs' letter to Truman Capote comes in: the idea that Truman's talent does not belong to Truman. It is not intrinsic to him. It was given. It can be taken.
Whether or not this is in some way literally true is not the point. The point is it's a healthy idea.
Artist or fan, when you make the thing about you then you lose one of the benefits of art.
(Now there are a lot of benefits to thinking about art or books or games or food or whatever, but I'm just talking about this one: the benefit of exercising the sympathetic imagination.)
In artists, the path to jackass often goes like this:
The art is good.
The art needs to get made.
I make the art.
Therefore: I am essential. Taking care of me is essential.
Therefore: I can be a jackass since what I need is more important than what everyone else needs.
It's gross but it's simple and you can read about Picasso and learn how it works in 5 seconds.
In any fan, it can go:
The art is good.
I appreciate the art.
I appreciate the art because it is like me, it is the product of people like me, for people like me.
The art is therefore good because it is like me.
And I am good because I like it.
The art is good because it appeals to me or is related to me.
Therefore: if you are good, you will like this. If you are bad, you won't.
Therefore: if it is not aimed at me, it is not good.
Now every single great piece of art ever has probably benefitted from this dangerous but emotionally undeniable reaction. Sometimes you hear a song and it is you. That guy, that girl, that surfin' bird in that song--that's me they're singing about. Oh David Lee Roth I too have run with this Devil you speak of. That's not so bad. Everyone belongs to something and it is evolutionarily useful (and therefore endorphin-worthy) to recognize it.
When this kind of fannishness curdles is when you feel that feeling of ownership more powerfully than the feeling of appreciation that a person, in a place, did something good that you could not have done and they did it by (in some essential way) not being you and you forget that the reason the work itself is even good art at all is because it manages to be in some way about something that is still in some quantity unknown and mysterious.
This happens when the art you love (or even the art you made) is, to you, more about things you are sure of than about things you are not sure of.
This happens when your analysis of the thing matters to you more than all the many things the thing is to all the many people it is that thing (or other things) to.
That Auschwitz guy ceases to be broadened by Goethe, Rilke, Bach and Schubert if he decides they're good because they're sensitive and German and he gets it because he's also sensitive and German and that's how it works.
And all this goes in reverse, as well: you can hate Harry Potter, but if you hate Harry Potter more than you are curious about people who like it and how it works on them--more than you are willing to be surprised--you're letting your antifandom make you less of a person instead of more of one. And you are being unscientific.
When that happens, fandom is just everyday tribal chauvinism. I'm Irish, it's Irish, it is about how badass it is to be Irish. Next! You are then no different than the man who hires his nephew solely because he is his nephew. The person who likes the movie because it shows people who they can identify with doing things they want to do. This person is not doing anything unnatural or unforgivable, but they are doing a thing that has no aspect of generosity in it. You're just appreciating yourself, or things that it will help you or your ego--on some level--to appreciate.
Many people suggest the opposite: that art can be objectively analyzed and proven to definitely, actively, promote this or that set of values and that the mysterious and fascinating parts are the least important. This seems to me to be the height of stinginess toward pleasure and the height of presumption about the minds of people you don't know. The height, in other words, of every emotion that leads to fascism.
The parts of art that can easily be ascribed to a mere point of view (Lovecraft's racism, for example) are the least morally important in shaping the reader. Trying to grasp the work's uncanny power (extremely difficult, requiring imagination and reflection) will get you farther in any direction you want to go as a human being than playing spot-the-metaphor (child's play).
So, what I'm saying is: there are lots of cool things about cool things. But the only ennobling thing about them (as opposed to interesting or fun or educational) is when you're able to see them as apart from you. An art thing is good because it absorbs you into the products of another mind. Fundamentally: it is an object of curiosity. Curiosity can make you good.
The part of art that's about exploring the unknown and the not-yet-understood is the part of art that makes fandom fun and beautiful and open and can make it give you that "I may not agree with your hilarious anime costume but I defend to the death the awesomeness of you wearing it" ecstasy that comes when you look out on a convention floor and see its variety and exuberance and humanness and the fact that there's this enormous human thing in the world that isn't running just on power and hate for once.
The part of art that's about knowing for certain what it's about and knowing it is or is not about you is the part that writes an article about it for Slate that gets all the facts wrong and puts it all in a little nerdbox (with or without self-loathing) to be smug about.
We can't all be good all the time. There are (very sensibly) limits to our generosity and our democratic impulses imposed on us by the need to survive and actually get shit done now and then. But it's good to at least know when you've gotten ahead of yourself.
This is not so much about when you have said something precisely correct and when you have said something precisely incorrect, but about how much effort and brainspace you devote to reiterating what you think you know versus how much effort and brainspace you devote to checking to see if it's true.
People who like x are all like y.
If you are sure of it--and not curious about testing it and about asking around about it--then you are wrong. If you don't ever ask x about y, and don't really care what the answer is, you are wrong. You have let the part of being a fan that makes you bad get ahead of the part that makes you good.
You would not be the first person to let love make you wrong; but be careful.
Now, two things that are fun:
Phillip K Dick being prophetic, again. And being generous.And our gnome, monk, ranger, rogue, occasional DM, and wizard, Satine, has got a new pin-up project, if you're interested.