Naked Lunch: looking beyond the question of merit

After finishing Eve Babitz’ Slow Days, Fast Company a few weeks ago, I reached for this edition of Naked Lunch that was lying around. I don’t know why. Falling in took a lot of time though. Once I got into it, I started scribbling in the margins; taking notes about themes; highlighting jokes and phrases taken from other works. I also looked into some secondary literature. You can take me out of the English Department but you’ll never take the English Department out of me.

That book and me go way back. Years ago, I checked Le Festin Nu out of the library — the French translation of Naked Lunch. I wasn’t even in high school — maybe I’d just started.

You can argue that there is no cohesive Beat Generation really. But my love of Kerouac pushed me to read Ginsberg and learn a third of HOWL by heart. The same fascination pushed me to check out Naked Lunch out of the library.

There is an incredible energy and richness to these works. Yet it seems we can’t move past the debate about their literary value. It is sad that the only freely accessible content you find about Lunch was published around the fiftieth anniversary and focuses solely on literary merit. In a Guardian blog post, Rob Woodard defends it. And Stefan Beck on Salon.com says it’s awful in his impassioned and revolting piece.  Why does it matter anyway? That nonsense is a relic of decency laws. “Obscenity” was acceptable as long as the works had redeeming artistic and social qualities. The question “Is it literature?” took centre stage. Literature professors turned expert witnesses in trials.

You either respond to the work or you don’t — simple.  Interesting images, strange connections, contrasts and parallels swarm within the confines of the book. It also resonates with other texts and the larger cultural context.