Charles Bukowski and Michel Foucault share this strange trait: they both keep authoring books in their graves. Foucault, who died in June 1984 in Paris of AIDS-related complications, a syndrome which was not even properly named at the time, is the author of two books in 2015 and one announced for 2016. It seems both Bukowski and Foucault are becoming mainstream after their lifelong distaste for all things mainstream.
The rebels are good investment for the publishing industry now. HarperCollins has acquired the entire list of titles by Charles Bukowski, John Fante and Paul Bowles, from Black Sparrow Press, a small independent publisher which is credited with discovering Bukowski. Same is the case with Foucault, who is at the moment the most-cited author in the global academic machine. Publishers keep transcribing his lectures at the College de France and turning them into books, the latest forthcoming title being On the Government of the Living (2016).
Abel Debritto, the editor of the volume under review, has done something similar but also created something extremely valuable for the fans of Charles Bukowski and those who want to master the craft of writing. Charles Bukowski already has five or six volumes of letters and journal entries published. But the editor has gone through 2000 pages of Bukowski’s letters to find material related to writing and literature and brought all the extracts together in this unique collection of deeply personal material from the poet “laureate of American lowlife” (Time June 16, 1986).
It turns out that Charles Bukowski treated letter-writing as an art form and relentlessly wrote about his frustrations and epiphanies to his friends and colleagues. The volume begins with a letter sent in 1945, in which Bukowski responds to a rejection note by offering to become a manuscript reader and ends with a letter from 1993, a year before his death, when he is quite famous and happy with the results of his creative powers.
Now let’s come to the main point of the book. What can a reader learn about writing, creativity, and the literary world from this book? The answer is simple: quite a lot. The letters written at the start of Bukowski’s literary career show a stubborn disdain for the world of literary magazines and the publishing process and a desire to be accepted by them: “[the editors of literary magazines] do not think my stuff is poetry. I know what they mean. The idea is there but I can’t break thro [sic] the skin. I can’t work the dials. I don’t know what interests me. Non-dullness, I suppose. Proper poetry is dead poetry even if it looks good” (from a letter written in 1953).
Charles Bukowski’s assessment of literary giants is also quite insightful. In a letter written to David Evanier in 1972, Bukowski reveals that he kept writing because other writers were bad “including Shakespeare, all those, the stilted formalism, like chewing cardboard…Hegel, Kant…Keats, what a big of s***…Faulkner was phoney as greased wax. Hemingway got close early, then started strumming.” The only writers who inspired him were John Fante, Sherwood Anderson, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline: “Celine wrote one immortal book [Journey to the End of the Night] which made me laugh for nights and days, then he got into housewife petty bitching.”
The entire book is full of the hard-earned wisdom of a man who gave up the security of a government job in the United States Postal Service at the age of 49 to devote himself to writing even when there was a considerable risk of starving. About this decision, Bukowski’s remark is now well known: “I have one of two choices — stay in the post office and go crazy … or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.”
In this book, he also reveals that he has rejected big publishers and stubbornly supported small independent literary magazines. In one letter written to Loss Pequeño Glazier in 1983, he reveals how he can reject a grant offer at the age of 63 because he can pay his rent and food with his writings: “heard from a nice fellow who also wrote to me last year: “some of the people who have already accepted are John Updike, Czeslaw Milosz, Stephen Spender, Edmund White, Jonathan Miller, Dick Cavett, and Wendell Berry. So, you see, you’d be in good company.” I told him, no. Although the “honorarium” was plenty.”
In the letters, Charles Bukowski is also shown dealing with censorship at home and abroad. In the USA, the censorship begins before publication and in Europe after publication. In 1985, one of his books was removed from the Nijmegen Library in the Netherlands because of its discriminatory content. This is how he responds to these charges: “In my work, as a writer, I only photograph in words what I see. If I write of “sadism” it is because it exists. I didn’t invent it, and if some terrible act occurs in my work it is because such things happen in our lives, I am not on the side of evil, if such as a thing as evil abounds. In my writing, I do not always agree with what occurs…Censorship is the tool of those who have the need to hide actualities from themselves and from others. Their fear is only their inability to face what is real.”
The book can be a source of inspiration for those who feel that the mainstream does not understand them but Charles Bukowski also warns that the mere existence of rejection slips does not make a writer an unrecognised genius. For Bukowski, writers are different from pen-pushers because of their stubbornness, their ability to survive, their ability to turn their life experiences into literature and their perseverance.
This book is a pleasant antidote to hundreds of books being churned out for the creative writing courses taught at sanitised places that do not know what to do with the soul of a great writer.