For over thirty years William E. Jones has created films, videos, and photographs which have been exhibited at top international museums and he is represented by three galleries around the world, including a personal favorite of mine, David Kordansky in LA. He is also the author of a dozen books, and unsurprisingly it is his books in which I am most interested, especially those which mine the historical fringes (the seedier and riskier the better) of homosexuality to shine a light on activities and work which for decades have made most everyone in society very uncomfortable.
A timeline of my interaction with William's books: In 2010 I discovered his Killed: Rejected Images of the Farm Security Administration (2010) because I wanted to see (and still do) every book PPP Editions produced. I immediately bought it because of the title and William's concept with the images. Last year I read True Homosexual Experiences: Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell (2016) and Boyd immediately entered my pantheon of exalted publishing people. This is what John Waters said about him: "Move over Maxwell Perkins—here’s another literary editor who deserves to be more famous than you. His Straight To Hell chapbooks join Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto as the most radical (and hilarious) filth classics in modern literature." For some reason I've yet to read Halsted Plays Himself (2011) and am kicking myself that I didn't buy it earlier as now it goes for hundreds of dollars. I'll get it from the library and I know I'll like it. I also haven't read William's first novel, I'm Open to Anything (2019), but after I read the description of it I don't see any reason why I wouldn't enjoy it as well. It features what I think is William's best cover and is from a publisher with a delightful name called We Heard You Like Books (same as the McDonald book). William is presently near to finishing his second novel.
I deliberately excluded descriptions of William's books as I'm a big proponent of online digging once a great reader meets another one. I also only included the first and third sentences of the John Waters blurb as I want you to go to Amazon immediately after you read this interview to see the full appropriately-colorful quote, and most importantly, to buy there or elsewhere the Boyd McDonald biography and others where William's name appears on the cover. - Wes Del Val
WDV: What’s a subject you’ve been steadily reading about since you were in college and which are the most satisfying books about it?
WEJ: I’ve consistently read a lot of biographies. I was an undergraduate during the apogee of Deconstruction’s career in America, when all serious literary theory concerned the text. The author virtually disappeared as an object of study, and biographical criticism was dismissed as a relic of Victorian times. Biographies had no intellectual standing at all; consequently, I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life rebelling by writing them.
The Quest for Corvo by A. J. A. Symons and Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey were enormously important formative books for me. In more recent years, I’ve enjoyed the Penguin Lives series, especially Edna O’Brien on James Joyce and Elizabeth Hardwick on Herman Melville. Even when they’re awful (and they often are), biographies have something to offer.
Which creative people have made you want to read all you can about them?
Many years ago, I devoured John Ashbery’s essay about Raymond Roussel, “In Darkest Language,” which, in an earlier iteration, introduced the author to American readers. This led me to How I Wrote Certain of My Books, Roussel’s posthumous volume that purports to reveal his technique for writing, but which ends up being more than a little mystifying. The discovery in 1989 of manuscripts of previously unknown (and enormously long) poems by Roussel initiated a whole new line of inquiry. In contrast to the position I took when answering the previous question, I think Roussel’s biographical legend is the least interesting thing about him. The way Roussel used language—specifically, the plethora of French homonyms—to generate poems and prose exerts a powerful appeal for me to this day.
I’d also like to use this context to make a plea for more translations of Yayoi Kusama. After her days as an artist and provocateur in 1960s New York, she took up writing fiction. In the late 1990s, she reemerged for Western audiences as the “dot lady” celebrated for her paintings and installations, generally to the exclusion of other aspects of her practice. At Kusama’s first big American retrospective, I bought a copy of Hustlers Grotto, a collection of three novellas, now long out of print. Her fiction is difficult to describe; to me it seems like some distant cousin of the nouveau roman. I find it scandalous that most of the writing by such a major cultural figure is simply unavailable to Americans. Even her novel with an English language title (Manhattan Suicide Addict) has only been translated into French. I suppose the galleries that represent her see little profit in the publication of books without pictures. Shame on them.
Very interesting that you pair Roussel and Kusama here and then mention nouveau roman, which ties it back to Roussel. I have to admit that while I knew she was multidisciplinary I did not know about Hustlers Grotto. And you’re right, people don’t line up for over an hour to see words in a book and take countless Instagram shots like they do for one of her installations so the chances are likely quite slim that we’ll see a proper reprint anytime soon.
An elegant proof of a mathematical theorem is internally consistent. A well thought out brand is, too. Human beings, fortunately, are inconsistent. Kusama’s literary works are not obviously of a piece with her installations and paintings. Her books don’t obey the logic of the art market, so in a society where mercantile values hold sway, they hardly exist. In this respect, they are truly subversive, and truly human, too.
When’s the last time you were envious of the quality of writing you read?
I read Muriel Spark with great jealousy. I admire her concision, and above all, her ear for the variations of human speech. Perhaps that’s a peculiarly Scottish obsession. While writing, Spark would “do voices” to try out her dialogue and see if it struck a false note, or so her longtime companion reported. I haven’t ever gone that far, but I do read long portions of my works in progress out loud. All I can say is that I’m trying, Muriel.
Do you have any authors and/or books you prefer to read after midnight?
I wish I could stay up that late!
Then do you have a preferred time for reading or can you do it anytime, anywhere… provided it’s not too late?
If I have a free afternoon, I prefer to spend it reading. My mental acuity is best when I first wake up, so I tend to write then.
Can you share memorable reading experiences from the past five years which greatly opened your eyes to another culture or scene?
I’ve actually had an eye-opening experience in the last five days: Radio by Tõnu Õnnepalu. He’s an Estonian author who has spent a considerable amount of time in France, or perhaps I should say, in the French language. The plot of the book could be fully elaborated in a short novella, but Radio’s narrator digresses for over 500 pages about Old Livonia, communism, and our present capitalist monoculture. Õnnepalu was born when Estonia was a republic of the USSR; as an adult, he saw his country’s independence and the end of its socialist system. He grew up immersed in a non-Indo European language spoken by a little over a million people, with considerable regional variations for such a small area. Becoming a polyglot wasn’t a choice for him, it was a necessity. Likewise, he can’t count on anyone outside his native country having any knowledge of it, so he must inform his readers. I grew up in the US during the Cold War, and for me, the communist East was an immense blank spot. One would hear official speeches and see propaganda, but there was little information about how people actually lived. Radio satisfied a longstanding curiosity, and I found it thoroughly engrossing.
Just your description of it is engrossing. Do you think you’ll next keep exploring the history of the communist East since you have had such a lengthy curiosity about it or move on to another topic? And if for so long, I’m curious why now just getting to it?
Actually existing socialism in Europe collapsed in slow motion, beginning more or less in the early 1980s. This was the last epochal political change on the world scene, and quite possibly the only one I’ll see played out in my lifetime. We are still dealing with its consequences. I’m not done with the topic by any means. It’s part of my second novel, I Should Have Known Better, which I’m finishing these days. The book’s epigraph is taken from a Fat White Family song: “Hell hath no fury like a failed artist or a successful communist.” For many readers the line will likely summon images of Hilter and Pol Pot, but I derive other associations from it. Why do I rehash a history that to many people is long dead? Our present moment seems so dystopian that I’m curious about a time when someone, somewhere believed in utopia, however imperfectly it was realized.
What are the most subversive things you’ve ever read?
I’d have to say Straight to Hell. I admit it’s a predictable response from me as the biographer of Boyd McDonald, the publication’s founding editor. The bluntness of STH’s language and the crudeness of its illustrations are still shocking many years later. The anonymity of the whole enterprise has the effect of an obscene phone call. When looking at early issues of STH, I find myself asking, “What the hell is this?” That question is one indication of a truly unprecedented work. Visual art, which is supposed to be “subversive,” rarely is because so many artists are aspiring to brand themselves and become household names. Boyd’s great virtue is that he simply didn’t give a damn. That attitude has only become more powerful after his death.
I loved your book about Boyd and he immediately became a literary hero for me. I hope people read it and do for years to come! “What the hell is this?” is beyond essential in arts and letters. Always, but perhaps now more than ever. But I shudder to think of the financial realities faced by nearly all creators throughout history whose work ever prompted that response.
Boyd used to say that he got a government grant to print smut, because he lived on welfare and produced Straight to Hell with that money. He’s a wonderful example of someone who worked within an extreme economy of means, yet created something that had an impact far beyond his very limited world. The price of doing such work is high, and most people aren’t willing to sacrifice virtually all material comforts to follow an obsession. When I wrote about Boyd, I hoped that a few readers would take inspiration from him and start their own endeavors, however modest, with unforeseen and delightful consequences. He’s someone whose work gives people permission to ignore received ideas about what constitutes “real” writing. Alas, this kind of activity doesn’t put food on the table. Not everyone can live on instant coffee and cookies, as Boyd did.
Despite the lip service cultural gatekeepers pay to supposedly radical political ideas, I believe we have entered a period of extreme conservatism. People have good reasons to be scared, but their fear has caused them to embrace a sentimental, infantilized culture. This logic became clear to me when I received an email from a book distributor, who is concerned not so much with abstract notions like virtue or good intentions, but with the concrete details of what consumers are buying at bookstores. He said, “One of the most consistent messages we are hearing is now more than ever stores are looking for ‘sure things’ whenever possible: something they can sell without much effort, something that customers automatically ‘get’ when they see it…. Sadly, this is the year where debut authors and discovered titles struggle even more than normal.” The publishing industry as it was known for decades is perishing. We must build something else on its ruins.
“Subversive” is one of my favorite topics, so can you please humor me and give me just a few more writers or specific works?
In our present era of relentless neo-Victorian pieties, I think there’s great subversive potential in being “problematic.”
After reading I’m Open to Anything’s passage about Osvaldo Lamborghini, a fan told me that this author was at the bottom of his reading list. He had heard that Lamborghini once went to the home of Néstor Perlongher, a gay Argentine writer, tied him down, and beat him senseless for being a “faggot.” My first impression was that this must have been part of an elaborate sex scene, but I could be wrong. As far as I can determine, the story is hearsay. Lamborghini’s prose is pretty much untranslatable, so dense and strange and full of allusions that I have no trouble believing it was the product of a tremendously twisted human being. But I have to say, the story makes me more rather than less curious about both writers.
As far as I’m concerned, Tony Duvert is the ultimate subversive with regard to the standards of propriety that currently hold sway. There seems to be no limit to the discomfort his writing causes. Diary of an Innocent, published in France in 1976, wasn’t translated into English until 2010. I read Diary of an Innocent in 2011, after I had published my biography of Fred Halsted, and I immediately understood that it was a great book. What I didn’t realize at the time was that it had given me permission to write fiction. The narrator of Diary of an Innocent is completely remorseless. He loves having sex with Moroccan boys, and he describes precisely how their postcolonial lives are shit. Without any maudlin hand-wringing, he makes the boys into indelible characters. There’s no guilt or self-justification clouding his vision. The narrator knows he’s a pariah, and rather than trying desperately to conform to respectable society—striving for academic tenure or hoping for the next book contract or posturing in a way that would make him appear virtuous—he abandons all caution and indulges his desires in an orgy of what people in rich countries call sex tourism. At the same time, he mounts an absolutely scathing critique of Western capitalist society and the ways it restricts human sexual behavior, to everyone’s immense misery. Duvert himself was unable to live for long (or at all) in the utopia he imagined. Briefly a literary celebrity in the 1970s, he found fewer opportunities to publish in the more conservative 80s. He eventually got evicted from his apartment that had no telephone and no heat, and was forced to move in with his mother. In 2008, he died in her house and his body was not found for days. Everyone had forgotten about him. But then his books experienced a posthumous revival, a phenomenon in which I’ve played a small part, or so I like to think.
The hybrid of pornography and the essay is a form at which the French excel; it’s part of their inheritance of the Enlightenment. The first novel Denis Diderot published was the pornographic Indiscreet Jewels. Anglo-Saxon puritanism has prevented Americans from following Diderot’s example. I seek to continue the tradition of the philosophical porn novel (or the pornographic philosophical novel), quite perversely, in the English language.
If you had to trade libraries with anyone for a year and for that time could only read the books in their collection, who would it be?
I’d like to trade with my dear friend Bernard Yenelouis, who died this year of ALS. He lived in Brooklyn most of the time I knew him, and he was an old school book collector, which is to say he often spent on books the money he should have spent on necessities like food. He was an autodidact, someone Gramsci would have called an organic intellectual, as opposed to a member of an upwardly mobile intelligentsia. He had no interest whatsoever in status or reputation. He looked very closely and carefully at photographs and told us what he saw. He taught to make a living, and when it came to the history of photography, he was the most knowledgeable person I ever met, with the possible exception of Allan Sekula. Bernie also owned a substantial number of fiction books, some of them quite rare. He was never able to organize his possessions (or his thoughts) to his satisfaction, and he sometimes referred to his apartment as the Collyer Brothers’ Collection. I never had a chance to see his trove in its entirety, so in a perfect world, I’d be able to go through this material now. It would be a chance to learn more about a person I knew well, but who still remained rather mysterious to me. I’m sure the project would take at least a year. I’m not a believer in life after death, so I have no shipping address for Bernie to receive my library, which may be almost as disorganized as his was. Putting things in order is a hopeless task, and I’m sometimes tempted to spout a variation on Henny Youngman’s famous line: “Take my library, please.”
Another engrossing description William!. I think no booklover reading this would disagree. He sounds like a character out of a Joseph Mitchell piece. I wish you could be his Joseph Mitchell...
In the spring, two good friends of mine died within a period of less than three weeks. The filmmaker Luther Price was well known enough that I could write an obituary for him and have it published. Doing that helped a lot with mourning, because I felt I contributed in some way to the perpetuation of his memory. Bernie was known by a circle of friends and former students but not famous. I must be more enterprising in how I write about him and circulate those texts in the world. You haven’t heard the last of Bernie. I’ve transformed him into a character in I Should Have Known Better.
That’s wonderful, we’ll look for Bernie there.
Are there writers you only want to hear from via their writing, and not on social media, in interviews, and/or elsewhere?
Among the living, all of them, except those I know personally.
Among the dead, I’d like to mention a couple of exceptions. Hubert Fichte’s long interview with Jean Genet from 1975, a time when Genet was doing little writing, is fantastic. It appeared very tardily in translation in The Declared Enemy. Stanford is probably still considering euthanizing its university press, so interested parties may want to snap that book up soon. I believe Ivy Compton-Burnett gave only one interview for publication, an inside job arranged by her partner, Margaret Jourdain. It contains my single favorite utterance from an interview: “I do not feel that I have any real or organic knowledge of life later than about 1910.” She said this in 1945. I strive to include a variation on her statement (changing the date, obviously) every time I take questions from an audience.
I have no way to express adequately my contempt for social media, which has become a necessary evil when promoting new publications. Only now are we seeing a general acknowledgement of problems that have been latent in the technology for some years, namely, that these platforms are dominated and owned by present-day Nazis. In practical terms, social media poses a question that can’t be answered without doing violence to a writer’s work: how to transform reading, which (like most worthwhile things) unfolds over time, into an image graspable in an instant on a glowing screen? And yet here I am, responding to your interview questions, with the resulting text to be read on computers and smartphones.
I agree with you regarding the mad, mad, mad race almost all publishers and so many writers run on social media in trying to stop thumbs from scrolling endlessly. Including Erik and me (and ideally you and many others as well—the whole thing is fueled by a lot of wishing). We will both pull snippets of this for sm (S/M? Pretty apt initials-relation, no?) to try and entice people to visit Book/Shop’s site to read the whole thing over whatever time they choose to give it and it will live there for hopefully many years. But at least it exists and it’s there! The world is a tiny bit better because you took the time to answer these questions. Look at the quality of your responses. Actually don’t, I and we will be the judge, and I’m quite certain everyone will find a lot of pleasure here. For instance it would be a shame if fellow readers weren’t aware of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s quote.
And I hope that quote leads people to read her books. I can also recommend Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir by Cicely Greig, the woman who typed her manuscripts. She captures the character of one of the last century’s true eccentrics. I read it thinking, “They don’t make them like her anymore,” but I nevertheless hold out hope that new generations are out there, refusing to have their personalities ground down in the mad rush to transform every human attribute into a monetized statistic.
Can you recommend quality pornography (of any stripe or era) to read?
I love the first twelve issues of the leather magazine Drummer, published before it moved to San Francisco and started taking itself and leather culture seriously, in the process eliminating anything off-brand. Few people realize that Drummer was founded in Los Angeles and originally edited by a woman, Jeanne Barney. She had the sense of humor to put a bearded drag queen (a member of the Cycle Sluts) on the cover of the magazine, to the consternation of many subscribers. She envisioned Drummer as a cross between gay pornography and the Evergreen Review, a kind of publication rarely attempted before or since.
I’m guessing very difficult to find?
Old issues of Drummer can still be found, but they’ve become very expensive. I’m partly responsible for this, because every time I write about them, the demand increases a little, while the supply is finite.
Who can’t write books or even long articles fast enough for you?
I must admit that I don’t “keep up.” Interesting writing often reaches me years late, and I usually read writers’ books out of chronological order. I’m the last person one would want to ask about what’s new.
What consistently makes you the happiest to read?
I’m in dire straits financially, so I’d have to say a check made out to me.
I’m sorry, I truly am (What the hell is this?…), but this is a great answer. I hope this all leads people to your books, especially, I want to re-iterate, True Homosexual Experiences: Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell, it’s still available! Thanks William!
William E. Jones