Bruce Benderson Interview

Bruce Benderson Interview
by Alexander Laurence                             

Bruce Benderson lives in New York City. He is a writer, a translator, and a journalist. He wrote the screenplay for the film by Monica Treut called My Father Is Coming.  His books include the collection of short stories, Pretending To Say No, and the new novel, User.  His work has been praised by Dennis Cooper and Camille Paglia. During the interview, Bruce promised not to hit on me because I was circumcised.

Alexander Laurence: When did you start writing User?

Bruce Benderson: The world I wrote about in User is the world I’ve been frequenting for the last ten years. My ambition was to write about the cosmology of Times Square: its street life, its drugs, its sex industry and the lives of transvestites. It took me four years to collect information and to get into the right psychological shape, and hone my ideas. I collected an entire suitcase of notes that I wrote on the run, on the spot, whenever I had an emotional response. It’s a very personal book for me.

AL: How do you see this novel departing from the tone of your short story collection Pretending to Say No?

BB: Many of the stories in Pretending to Say No were about Times Square, but it was pretty much a comedy of manners. What happens is often presented in an ironical or satirical way. When someone goes to Times Square for drugs or pleasure, he encounters the underclass. The new book delved more deeply into underclass life, and left the middle class characters out of things. The only extensive investigation of middle class life comes with the HIV positive person who’s a dropout, who’s hanging out in Times Square. Also the third person narrator is a middle class voice. That’s the only thing that ties it to a middle class reader.

AL: How dangerous for you was the writing of User?

BB: There was danger on two levels. I’m a middle class person encountering the world of the street. The more I stay outside of that world, the more I’m a voyeur. But the more I enter it, the more I participate. What I write about becomes more and more true. But the more you enter that world, the less likely it is that you’ll be writing, because that’s the world of drugs, sex, constant change and criminal activity. I had to strike a very dangerous balance between maintaining outsider voyeur status and being a participant, enough for the writing to be very libidinal, meaningful and exciting. I constantly played that dangerous game of riding the line. I flirted with every danger there is in Times Square, not for the purpose of writing the book, but for the purpose of pleasure, insight and because I was driven to it for dark psychological reasons. I had to write the book, so I didn’t allow myself to become completely swallowed up in that world. Otherwise, I would have been in rehab for the next three years. I was always riding the line between creativity and being utterly lost.

AL: How do you feel about what others have written about Times Square and New York City? I’m talking about writers like Hubert Selby, John Rechy, Jack Kerouac and others.

BB: I consider myself a retro-active writer, and in that sense I’m very conservative. The people you mentioned wrote about NYC in the way I want to write about it. They wrote about what might be called “degenerate” NYC. In those days, bohemia had a direct connection with ghetto life. Bohemians were connected to black jazz culture, heroin culture and criminal life--and in those days homosexuals were leading a criminal life in the shadows. You had to go to illegal places to have homosexual sex. So those writers had an intimate relationship with other criminal outsiders. I feel that the most interesting thing about drug, gay and other marginal cultures is that they are “rejected” cultures. This means that these people can have amazing insights into American culture at large. I write a lot about male hustlers, prostitution and homosexuality. Despite the gain of acceptance that we won through gay lib, I would like to re-marginalize the homosexual vision, and link it once again with the vision of the outsider. In a way, these writers from the past are my heroes and my models and I want to return to them. I’m a neo-beat writer, in a sense.

AL: What do you think about gays seeking mainstream acceptance?

BB: I feel that gays have made a terrible mistake in making mainstream acceptance their major agenda. Right now there’s a terrible conflict in my politics between assimilationist gays and liberationist gays. The old way of being gay was liberationist because the only way you could express being gay was to show you were rebelling against social norms. You weren’t part of family values and the Clintonian centrism. You were a subversive and a threat to the nuclear family. It is a big mistake for those who are outside the structure of procreation to hope to gain full mainstream acceptance. They may for a generation or two. But it will be a false security like the Jews felt in Germany when they obtained bourgeois status. What gays are hiding is always going to be something that is potentially subversive to the culture at large because it’s like saying “no to procreation!” There’s going to be a point where they’re seen as the enemy. If they are kissing up to it, they are merely asking for it.

AL: In your first book I see a French influence, in the stylization and the attention to form, but the new novel is more direct and reminiscent of Selby. What direction are you taking with your narrative?

BB: I was extremely influenced by the Nouveau Roman (the new novel in France during the ‘50’s)--people like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. All those French writers had a major influence on my style of narrative. So did the Latin American writers, especially Manuel Puig, who was also a friend and mentor. My newer writing is more naturalist and less experimental, closer to writers like Selby. But one thing that persists in all my writing is the tradition of the Poete Maudit--the bad boy poet, like Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du Mal. Or Genet’s romanticism of prison life where he saw religiosity and spirituality in evil. That links me to the French. Another thing that links me to the French is that they believe there is a culture of poverty, which is a very anti-p.c. thing to say right now. The French call it la misere, which is a word for poverty and for the cultural and psychological state of poverty. P.C. people say that you’re not allowed to say that poor people have a culture, because that means they’re just like us except they’re in an unfortunate situation. They don’t have their own culture. They only live as they do because they’re being oppressed. I maintain that there is a culture of poverty, which is a very French idea and right now a very politically incorrect idea. I say that the culture of poverty is the last dynamic culture in America that has not been co-opted by mainstream, TV, and mall culture. The working class used to be the dynamic culture that criticized American life. This culture was alive with a kind of socialist thought that doesn’t exist anymore. The working class has become Roseanne on TV. It’s no longer an important class of people, because we’re in an age of communications and it’s a service economy. If we want to look for an alternative vision, we have to go in a more radical downward direction--to the underclass. 

AL: Do you think that’s like Picasso going to Africa and using those masks, or Gauguin going to Tahiti? The search for the primitive, the pagan, getting to the source?

BB: In some ways it’s a search for that. Now it’s located in the secret culture of poverty of the housing projects which you see to some extent in rap music and gang culture. That’s the last alternative culture as I see it. I know people will call me a slummer for saying that, but I know that the underclass in American cities are like urban hunters and gatherers. The last natural people who look in the flora and fauna of our cities, see what they can use of it, discard it when they don’t need it. They create their own temporary cultural constructions out of the refuse. They’re the only people who are thinking in an original manner. I know that sounds very decadent. Unfortunately it’s true.

AL: What must artists do to be taking risks?

BB: Artists today are in a very strange position. Critically the art world comes out of a critical and marginal point of view. Artists are supposed to stand outside of the mainstream, see it objectively and clearly, and create a critique. That was true up until the post-war boom with the beats. They said “OK, middle class America is becoming real strong. We stand aside from middle class America. We go on the road. We see it as outsiders.” Norman Mailer wrote The White Negro, because they identified with black people, and they felt alienated in the same way. The hippies were the inheritors of the Beat culture but they were so strongly embroiled in consumerist culture and came from such a comfortable suburban background that they weren’t able to make such a radical gesture. Right now, we’re suffering from the legacy of that loss because we don’t have an alternative vision. As middle class people, we have enough education to be articulate and possibly to write good books. We have to look towards disenfranchised people in order to get our inspiration. We have to resist the temptation to be voyeurs and slummers. We’re the only people who can write, but we’re the least qualified people to have a voice; we have nothing to say.

AL: Either a writer takes that risk or they only pursue literary formalism....

BB: I’m very bored by these formalist people, and by people who play with language, and by formalist poets. I’m also bored by bourgeois minimalists who express the poverty and emptiness of middle class life. I see both a class and ethnic perimeter to minimalist prose. I think it’s waspy! It’s very Protestant.

AL: What qualities do you think writing should include?

BB: I definitely feel that libidinal indulgences that provide some risk to your health are extremely good for a writer’s consciousness. Writing is all about breaking down your defenses. Writing is a direct attack on the survivalist mentality. Writing is about dying, loss, fear, and any activity that challenges the notion that we can live forever is good for our writing.

AL: What do you think of the politically correct movement?

BB: It has become so co-opted by puritan impulses and by consumerist, middle class concerns, that it no longer serves the people it was designed for. It’s one major missionary-like, Wasp approach to libido.

AL: We agree that the underground scene in San Francisco is not creating a critique of America. They’re not subversive at all and who is threatened by pagan drummers? It’s all fashion and voyeurism, which has a high price tag. Poor people can’t afford body piercing. What do you think about identity politics?

BB: Identity politics is a bourgeois (middle class) concern. People who are concerned about what their sexuality is, and how that defines them, and what it means to means to be gay, and what it means to women, are indulging in a luxury activity. People who are hungry or people who have problems with housing or people who are down by law in the streets do not have the time and are not interested in trying to define who they are. When they are involved in homosexual activity, they stick it in a hole for money or for pleasure. They don’t sit back and try to figure out if they’re gay and if their mother accepts them. They’re not even interested in identity concepts. One of the main preoccupations of the so-called avant garde cultures of today is identity politics. That links it up to the whole politically correct movement. It’s a total bourgeois concern. It doesn’t lead to significant political change. We now find out with Gloria Steinem attaché case feminism “Wow, women can be asshole lawyers too. What an accomplishment!” The most this profound bohemian culture of San Francisco has created is its individualist and pleasure oriented mentality, but it’s still not a political critique of the rest of America. It’s a decadent playpen.

September 1994