Literary Fashionables: The Junky and The New Journalist

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Today’s two Literary Fashionables traveled in distinct social settings at the time of their rise to literary fame. One moved with exiles, hustlers and runaways in Paris, Mexico and Tangier and wrote experimental fiction. The other moved to Vogue out of college, got married and would soon join a group of rising journalists, including Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, who became known for giving journalism a new face. But while these two writers lived vastly different lifestyles, they’re both beloved for their sense for knowing how to make the most out of, well, lemony situations. And all the while in great literary style.

THE JUNKY

Murder is…fashionable?  It wasn’t until the age of thirty-one that William S. Burroughs toyed with the idea of writing.  And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks was Burroughs’ first book written alongside fellow beat Jack Kerouac, after their friend Lucien Carr came bloodied to their door, confessing to the murder of David Kammerer.  Eight years passed, years full of jail time, morphine and heroin, and Burroughs was married in Mexico to Joan Vollmer, proclaimed queen of the beats.  One debaucherous evening Burroughs enticed Vollmer into a game of William Tell. He accidentally missed the glass on her head and shot her in her face. She was instantly dead.  Never charged for murder, Burroughs stated in the introduction of his first novel Queer, which wasn’t actually published until the 80s due to its homosexual content, “I’m forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death.  The death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out.”

Burroughs, or Old Bull Lee for you Kerouac fans, was also a Francophile, a trending topic amongst our literary fashionables.  In Paris he befriended painter Brion Gysin who Burroughs claimed influenced his cut-up technique.  In texts such as Junky, which he first published under the name William Lee in an attempt to not upset his parents, Burroughs cut and reassembled random texts into a hybrid narrative.

For the scatterbrained novel Naked Lunch, we can thank Allen Ginsberg. It was Ginsberg who found the scrambled text throughout Burroughs room during a visit to Tangier where Burroughs was staying in a male brothel. This text consisted of twenty-one satirical vignettes, which post-publication is said to have influenced numerous writers, musicians and filmmakers.

Old Bull Lee reached the impressive age of eighty-three before he died at home of a heart attack, a truly remarkable age to reach considering the massive amounts of ‘junk’ he put into his system consistently throughout his fashionable lifetime.

THE NEW JOURNALIST

The New York Review of Books has proclaimed Joan Didion’s Slouching towards Bethlehem “a study in the new journalism of the 1960’s, remaining the single best period piece.” Other writers grouped under the genre ‘new journalism’ were Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Hunter S. Thompson. Within this male-dominated territory, Didion held her own.  New journalism was a form of reportage told in one’s own voice, using literary techniques and narrative storytelling, an unconventional idea during the 1960s and 1970s that gave the author more creative freedom to blend fact with fiction and opinion. In a field dominated by male writers, Joan Didion was strong and brilliant, not a bad role-model for young aspiring female writers.

Didion’s writing career began and was essentially launched at Vogue, where she landed a job right out of college, in 1956, as a prize for winning an essay competition.  At Vogue, she met her husband to be, John Gregory Dunne a writer for Time magazine. Didion published her first novel within the two years she was at Vogue and then moved back to California with her husband, in what can only be described as a stroke of fashionable timing–during the height of the 60s counterculture movement. Her experiences were recounted in the collection of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In this collection, Didion gave readers an acute look at American life in the mid 60s touching on subjects from the not-so-glamorous center of counterculture Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco to a portrait of John Wayne intertwined with brief reflections on her youth. Bethlehem, which was her first work of non-fiction, stabilized Didion’s status as a rising literary luminary.

The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s highly acclaimed work, which won the National Book Award in 2005, is an account of the year following the death of her husband. Touching millions Magical Thinking allowed audiences who understood grief to indulge in the pain and refuse denial.  Vanessa Redgrave starred as Didion in a 2007 staging of Magical Thinking, which Didion adapted from the book. “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends,” Didion stated in one line of the memoir.  A few weeks after the publication of The Year of Magical Thinking Didion’s daughter Quintana, a central character in her memoir, died from pancreatitis. The play was not about death, Didion stated in an interview, but about the question of whether or not you can survive.

Related Posts:

Literary Fashionables #1: The Absurdist and The Word-Portraitist

Literary Fashionables #2: The Cultural Theorist and The Sportsman

Literary Fashionables #4: The Showman and The Muse


Caitlin Colford is a New York City based actress and writer. She blogs short stories over at caitypoops.wordpress.com and is currently hard at work on her first novel "The Obituary Hunter." More from this author →