Canonically Sanctioned Rebellion

By Tania Carver

I see that the film version of ON THE ROAD will soon be upon us.  I know there’s been good word of mouth about it but I’m afraid I can’t get too excited about it. Yes, I know the brilliant Sam Riley is in it and the great Viggo Mortensen and Kristen Stewart plays a stroppy teenager again and Walter Salles has directed it but . . . here’s the admission. I’ve never liked Jack Kerouac.

Now I know saying this in public is the kind of thing that can get you drummed out of the Writers To Be Taken Seriously Gang but it’s true. I read ON THE ROAD and thought . . . meh. Is that what all the fuss was about? It was self-indulgent and lazy. And above all, fake. I didn’t believe a word of it. Here was a writer who was supposedly breaking with the traditions of literature and creating something entirely new, supposedly the literary equivalent of what Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were doing in painting at the time. But I didn’t get that. I love Pollock and Rothko but Kerouac did nothing for me. Left me cold. Rather than a new literature it read like an extended ‘What I did on my holidays’ school essay. And just as interesting.

Now I don’t say all this lightly. I was hugely disappointed when I read it, mainly because I was expecting to enjoy it so much. People I knew and admired loved it. My best mate from college was a complete Kerouac nut. He kept trying to recreate the novel’s experiences by hanging around in awful jazz clubs (which he used to drag me to) and hitchhiking to Bournemouth. It wasn’t the same somehow. But, bless him, he kept trying. So I thought I’d love it. For all the reasons everyone else did. It was new, hip, free. It was rebellious. And that was the word that got me, the one I had the problem with.  Rebellious. My first response on hearing that is always the same: If everyone is telling you something is rebellious, it’s not. I should have known. My mate from college was the son of a bank manager from Aylesbury.

Maybe one reason I didn’t like it was because I was a few years older than most people when they read it. I went to college a bit later than my peers, having taken what we now call ‘a gap year’ but what was then called ‘work’. I think it’s one of those things that you need to read when your self-defining memories are at their highest. That period from your mid-teens to early twenties where everything you read, hear, see and do is the best thing that’s happened to anyone EVER. If you miss out and read it later when you’ve been around the block a few times then it just doesn’t have the same impact on you. (For the record, my self-defining years were spent reading crime novels, comics and pulp fiction, listening to punk, post punk and indie, and of course seeing and doing the best things that have happened to anyone EVER.)

So with this in mind and thinking it was just me I decided to read some more beat literature. The next one I tried was William Burroughs’ THE NAKED LUNCH. Jesus Christ. Now, I’d seen Cronenberg’s film of the same name and loved it. But then I am something of a Cronenberg nut. So I was expecting something similar. I didn’t get it. As my wife often says, there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone else recount their dreams. (Especially mine, she always adds.) And I believe there’s nothing more boring than listening to a junkie ramble on. Put those two together and you have a junkie rambling on boringly about his dreams. Or THE NAKED LUNCH, as it became known. Burroughs once said that the chapters of the novel were only published in the order they were in was pure chance. Some critics hailed this remark as evidence of his brilliance. Not me.

Thinking that it was just prose I had a problem with I turned to poetry. Ginsberg’s HOWL, to be exact. Fine. I quite liked that.  Good work. So I read some more of his stuff. And I soon realised why HOWL is the only one people mention.

So that was me done with the Beats. But I didn’t stop thinking about them. Why were they so enduring? Why did people still read them? Because they liked them, I suppose. Not everyone has the same tastes as me. (Which is a shame because I’d sell more books that way.) And that’s fine. But I think it’s something else. I think they’re still read for more than just the writing. I believe the beats give the impression to a lot of people that that’s what writing is like, or what it should be like. What a writer’s life is like. Going on a quest, experiencing everything the world has to offer, good and bad, then processing that and putting it down. They venerated the craft of writing itself. It’s the act of sitting at a typewriter wearing cool glasses and a plaid shirt drinking bourbon and coffee with an ashtray of overflowing French cigarette butts beside you and some moody cool jazz playing in the background. And then going out getting drunk and stoned with massively attractive and interesting people. That’s what writing’s all about. That’s what life’s all about. And that, judging from the trailer, is what the movie version of ON THE ROAD is about.

Well, it’s not. Sorry and all that, but it’s not. (Well, maybe the bit about getting drunk and stoned with massively attractive and interesting people. As anyone who’s been in the bar at Bouchercon or Harrogate will testify.  No?  Oh well . . .) It may be what sells, the illusion of the writing life, but it’s not the reality of it. Nowhere near. If it was presented as that, that wouldn’t sell at all.

For instance, here I am writing this not on a typewriter but a computer. I have to because it’s a blog post and I have to send it down the internet. There’s no bottle of bourbon on the desk beside me, just a glass of water. That’s because if I started drinking while I was writing I would never get finished. Alcohol doesn’t fuel creativity. It saps it. It’s fine after you’ve worked but not during. Likewise there’s no overflowing ashtray. That’s because I don’t smoke, French cigarettes or otherwise. And there’s no moody jazz playing in the background. Possibly because I can’t write if there’s music playing but mainly because I can’t stand jazz. (I think all those years of being dragged round duff jazz clubs at college did that for me.) So no. None of that. I’m just sitting at my desk, writing. It’s hellishly unexciting to watch.

There’s also another couple of things that make me wary of the whole idea of veneration that the cult of Kerouac encourages. The first one is the fact that we celebrate a writer who died young. As if he had such a talent that it burnt him out to use it. No. He was an alcoholic and died of an internal haemorrhage caused by cirrhosis. Burroughs and Ginsberg didn’t die young. They stayed around to watch their excesses diminish their work. The other problem I have with him – and all the beats but not exclusively just them – is the fact that they’re still seen as rebels. Reading their work is an act of rebellion. Erm, it’s not. They’re part of the literary canon. They have mainstream Hollywood films made about them. They have civic memorials to them. They’re published as classic literature. They’re all of those things. But not rebels. They may be marketed as rebels, but but only in a canonically sanctioned way.

Having said that, if young people want to read those books and think they’re being rebellious then that’s fine. No argument with that. As long as they’re reading. And I don’t know, maybe they do feel rebellious when they read them. Maybe some sixteen year old kid picks up ON THE ROAD and sees a whole new literature before him. A new world and a new way of writing about the world. And living in the world. Maybe he doesn’t want to read what some miserable old bloke who’s the same age as Kerouac was when he died has to say about it. Maybe he thinks it’s the best thing he’s ever read. And it may be. Because he’s also listening to the best music anyone’s ever heard ever. And seeing and doing the best things that have happened to anyone EVER.

And if that’s the case, great.  Because to be honest, I’m more than just a little jealous.



3 thoughts on “Canonically Sanctioned Rebellion

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I read ON THE ROAD in college like everyone else, and everything else that Kerouac had written in a fairly continuous wave after that. It wasn't about rebellion, though. When you grow up in a family that drove across the entire US every summer of your childhood, this book just feels like home, all the places and the rhythm of the road. It's a dark book to me because of the obvious alcoholic depression going on, which gets way worse in later books, it's very hard to read. But I will always love Neal Cassady (a classic American character IMO, and also, you know, hot), and always love to hear a Neal story from people who actually knew him.

  2. David Corbett


    I'll be interested in reading Stephen's remarks on this. I too was never much enamored of the Beats. Denise Levertov will have more staying power than the other, imho. I liked Frank O'Hara here and there, though less so these days. Ferlinghetti has made himself a respectable spot in the canon. But I think the ideological renunciation of rewriting will doom many of them in the long run.

    Michael McClure, Charles Olson, LeRoi Jones, Corso and Creeley and Duncan and Orlovsky, they may endure.

    And both Ken Kesey and Robert Stone, members of the Merry Pranksters, aren't that far removed form the Beats.

    So the influence is undeniable, though I think those who took from it what they wanted and left the rest will be remembered far longer, and more justifiably.

  3. Bozo Buttons

    I shared your dismay after reading On the Road. It's a cliche, but I think in this case it's absolutely true: You had to be there. I also grew up with punk rock. In it's day, this was far more rebellious than any poor flowing narrative could be. I mean the real queen of England had to endure 'God Save the Queen!' If you found On the Road offensive, you could just put it down, but punk rock got in your face whether you wanted it to or not. Essentially, rebellion was far more abrasive and sophisticated by the time I was of the age of Kerouac reading.

    But this offers no explanation as to why kids these days fall back on the time proven rebellion of their grandparents. On one hand society, at least in America, is so permissive it's nearly impossible to rebel against anything. But there's such a strange popularity of nostalgia these days. Why do young people still worship Star Wars? Shouldn't they at least move on the Harry Potter, something that popped on their own watch? It would have been social suicide to show up at school with a Leave It to Beaver, or Wizard of Oz lunchbox in the 80's, even if you explained that you were toting it ironically.

    Perhaps it's more important these days to reject the current than what you pick up to replace it. Retro seems to be automatically cool to a lot of folks these days, the way new and novel used to be. Either way, quality is a strictly a secondary consideration. Perhaps quality has always has taken the back seat to popular, regardless of how fluid 'popular' can be.


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