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Punk Literature 101: Recommended Readings

Stimulated by, then stimulating, certain writings, punk has been a change agent of literature, injecting energy and disruption into multiple genres.

Reading and writing are not the first activities one thinks of when punk practices are considered. The idea of sitting stationary contemplating the nuances of the written word runs counter to our perceptions of punk as an explosive expression of body and mind. Yet, punk has proven to be a major influence on developments in writing, effecting and directing fiction, poetry, journalism, and myriad other written forms in macro and micro ways.

Indeed, punk aesthetics lie at the heart of literature that existed long before that term even entered our common lexicon. Those writings, then called transgressive or avant-garde, were instrumental in the formation and character of punk (rock) from 1976 on. Stimulated by, then stimulating, certain writings, punk has been a change agent of literature, injecting energy and disruption into multiple genres.

So, as colleges and universities prepare to return for the Fall semester, I would suggest that instructors interested in teaching literature on youth rebellion dispense with the usual infatuations with the beat generation or the hippy counter-culture and consider the cultural phenomenon of punk instead. The following recommended reading list perceives punk literature as writing that draws from the very traits that have characterized its music and subculture over the past half century: a style and production that signal DIY and anyone-can-do-it procedures and practices; attitudes and socio-political orientations that are anti-establishment in nature; affiliation or identification with society’s outsiders; and a display of and engagement with shocking sensory symbols. As with punk music, not all of these traits are always present all of the time. Like the music, the genre cannot be reduced to time parameters but must be contextualized concerning its aesthetic roots and fruits—its pre, proto, and post-punk manifestations. 

Pre-Punk Literary Influencers

Just as punk rock was less a big bang than the coming together of a series of eruptions from predecessors, so too punk literature emanates from prior writings and writers too numerous and diffused to account for fully. The history of literature is littered with rebel writers whose personality or prose have prompted investigative scavengers to anoint them as “original” punks. Among these are William Shakespeare, Marquis de Sade, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Verlaine. Some punk rockers recognized these forerunners, too, the Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley, Crass’ Penny Rimbaud, and Television’s Tom Verlaine even adopting key names in homage. Rimbaud has proven particularly hip; Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Shane McGowan, Kurt Cobain, Richey Edwards, and Pete Doherty – all drawn to Rimbaud’s call for writers to “derange” their senses to make great art.

Proto-Punk Literary Developments in the UK

Although long before its “official” arrival, the punk aesthetic came into a clearer view after World War Two. Certain literary movements—along with their key figures—were at the forefront, their emergence, as with punk rock, coming about as reactive forces to genre predecessors. Disillusioned or bored with the status quo, the contemporary era was propelled by those willing to experiment with conventions of form, style, or content. Writers within fields of speculative fiction—science fiction, horror, fantasy, altered history—were among the chief innovators, but why?

Here, one might consider how fantasy writers, like punk rockers, harbor a prejudicial opposition to rail against. Often dismissed as too shallow, too populist, or too plot-driven, these writers so seethe at being considered the runts of the literary litter that they sometimes bite back in anger. Freed up from their alienation from high art circles, they feel unencumbered by the rules and expectations others cow-tow to. Such was the case with the aptly named “new wave of science fiction” that arose during the 1960s.

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962)

Fantasy and futurism are sci-fi staples, but these were secondary to writers like Anthony Burgess and J.G. Ballard. They, like punks, were more interested in examining the near future by exaggerating the disturbing trends of the present. As a result, fantasy writing became more realistic, even if more experimental in style.

Burgess, in A Clockwork Orange, paints a picture of anomie and violence in the context of the rise of rebellious subcultures in the UK. Published two years before the mods and rockers exchanged un-pleasantries on the beaches of Margate and Brighton and 14 before the punks, skinheads, and teddy boys butted heads on London’s Kings Road, Burgess prophesized such youth unrest, seeing it in its infancy in the teddy boy delinquency and Notting Hill race riots of the late 1950s. Observing the present, Burgess saw an imminent dystopian future where disastrous urban planning led to dangerous subways, Brutalist high-rise living, and cold, lawless cities. This was the environment many urban punks inhabited in 1976 when they offered their parody imprint by re-envisioning in real time—in music, style, subculture, and attitude—Burgess’ vision.

By the time Stanley Kubrick released a film version of Burgess’ book in 1972, many soon-to-be punks were in their adolescent years, open to influence and inspiration. Whether from the film or book, they learned the homology of the droog subculture, with its bricolage of styles that juxtaposed startling make-up with “bovver” boots and traditional bowler hat. Subsequent punks learned the language of shock from A Clockwork Orange. Direct tributes are evident across punk’s many eras, in the dramatic eye make-up sported by David Bowie, Siouxsie Sioux, and Gerard Way, or in songs like Scars’ “Horrorshow” (1979), Cock Sparrer’s “Droogs Don’t Run” (1982), and New Order’s “Ultra-Violence” (1983), or in both, The Adicts’ entire forty five year career spent duplicating various facets of Burgess’s vision.

Supplementary Text:

J.G. Ballard, High-Rise (1975)

J.G. Ballard’s post-apocalyptic takes on modernity resonated particularly with the more experimental fringes of punk, post-punk, industrial, and techno-punk, such that one can trace High-Rise through the urban imaginings of Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, Ultravox, and others.

Proto-Punk Literary Developments in the US

In the US after World War Two, a literary movement gathered around a group of fresh young writers that informed and were informed by the burgeoning youth counter-culture. Although they were more influential on the subsequent beat and hippy subcultures than the later punk ones, there were a few exceptions, most notably William S. Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, and Charles Bukowski.

Charles Bukowski, Dangling in the Tournefortia (1981)

Charles Bukowski’s style and content were notably punk-before-punk. Residing outside the art establishment capitals of New York and San Francisco, Bukowski camped amidst the suburban sprawl of Los Angeles, in the regions where hardcore fostered its dogged back-to-basics punk fundamentalism during punk’s second wave. As for hardcore punks, L.A. served as a foil for Bukowski, its sun, sea, film stars, and promise of the American dream serving as antithetical counterpoints to the underclass world he inhabited and captured. In his L.A., there is little beyond the drinking, vomiting, betting, and pissing that provide the topics of his poems.

One of the more ostentatious and ubiquitous features of punk writing, whether in songs or literature, is the rejection of rules of syntax and form. In poetry, particularly, we are accustomed to a precision of meter and eloquence of language. For Bukowski, though, poetry is a for(u)m of directness and simplicity of expression and idea. His poems may lack structure, metrical pattern, punctuation, or even capital letters. These absences speak volumes, serving the verse by both literally and symbolically fending off rigidity while liberating and distinguishing voice and style.  

Supplementary Text:

William S. Burroughs, Junkie (1953)

Like Burgess, William S. Burroughs’ forays into fantasy fiction have often seen him credited as a forefather of cyber-punk, but his influence on the punk movement has been much broader. Hunkered down in the Bowery, just a stone’s throw from CBGBs, Burroughs mixed regularly with the key players of proto and primary punk for whom his writing was beloved.

Primary Punk Literature

Jim Carroll, Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, and Richard Hell were four budding young New York poets that would also become foundational pillars of the city’s CBGB-based punk rock scene. All were regulars at the Poetry Project nights hosted by Ann Waldman at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. Arguably the birthplace of the more arty side of punk rock, at St. Mark’s young writers were given the time and space to develop new ideas in form, style, and performance.

Jim Carroll, The Basketball Diaries (1978)

Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries portray the artist as a young punk. Set in the mid-‘60s New York City when Carroll was a young teen, the book was ready for publication by 1970; however, the author felt that the content and tone were out of step with the existing hippy vibe of that time. So he shelved the manuscript until the late ‘70s, when he noticed that Ramones songs like “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” and “53rd and 3rd” captured the same essence—and topics—of decadent youth he had earlier documented.

Capitalizing on the moment catching up to him, the writer swiftly formed the new wave-sounding Jim Carroll Band and enjoyed a minor hit with “People Who Died” (1980), the verses of which consisted of anecdotes condensed from his by-then published The Basketball Diaries.

The Basketball Diaries represented a new era of punk literature: that written by punks while they were punks and for other punks. Though not devoid of craft, this type of writing entailed un-self-conscious and candid portrayals of reality-based youth experiences written with demonstrably youthful emotions and urgency. The term “punk” had yet to be commonly applied to kids like Carroll when he wrote them, but his diaries show all the aesthetic hallmarks.

Entries include personalized portraits of young and old alienated outsiders struggling in a city where privilege is only a block away and where the have-nots can easily slide into the unofficial enclaves of crime, drug abuse, and prostitution. Young Jim falls into the clutches of all three, his heroin addiction foreshadowing the junk plague that consumed much of the CBGBs scene before being exported to London by the Heartbreakers and Nancy Spungen in 1977.

Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries captures punk’s ubiquitous generation gap theme in that all adults are portrayed in a negative light, cops, preachers, teachers, coaches, and parents all revealed to be either predators or phonies. One is reminded of how the Sex Pistols similarly evoked youth victimization in “God Save the Queen”, Rotten singing, “We’re the flowers in your dustbin / We’re the poison in your human machine / We’re the future, your future”.

Such pronoun-identified generational antagonists are at constant war in Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries, the youthful narrator bringing Rotten-like vitriol to his distaste for the broken values of the adult world. Thanks partly to Jim’s street persona and partly to the first-person perspective of the diary form, the book previews punk’s voice, slang, and attitudes with a vivid candor rare in (youth-oriented) literature. The Basketball Diaries also gives us a glimpse into the inner dynamics of the New York youth culture from which punk proper would emerge. 

Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School (1978)

In ways less blatant than Carroll, though equally bludgeoning, experimental writer Kathy Acker applies punk motifs to her aberrant characters and scenes. Indeed, few writers have captured the extremes of punk attitude and articulation more viscerally. These are reached by taking all the rules and norms of forms, themes, narration, and syntax and then putting them in a blender set to full speed. Once cut up and minced, the author reprocesses her ingredients in new, taste-altering ways.

An equal opportunity dissenter, Acker uses her fiction both against patriarchal conventions and some feminist ones, too. “Punk feminist”, “post-feminist”, and the more alliterative “punk porn post-feminist” are among the designations that have come her way as critics have struggled to codify her idiosyncratic ways. Like the Slits and the Raincoats, Acker is primarily motivated to use unfamiliar techniques to de-familiarize, disrupt, and reinvent time-honored genres and forms.

Like rock music, fiction comes with certain expectations, and female punks have been among the battlefront troops in shooting them down. We expect a plot and its resolution, narrative coherence, and sense; we expect syntax, punctuation, and language norms. In Acker’s prose, these are all subverted. Instead, readers receive bursts of non-sense, fragmentation, narrative collapse, maddening repetition, sensory babble, and plagiarism. A typical sentence might include capitalized words, italics, multiple languages, multiple narrators, and accompanying drawings, creating an assault on the senses akin to the disheveled grooves and ululating outbursts one finds in much punk feminist music.

Supplementary Texts:

John Cooper Clarke, Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt (1983)

Unlike the CBGB poets across the Atlantic, British counterparts had little pretense of becoming “poets” as such and therein lay their punk nature. Sparked by John Cooper Clarke, then followed by Seething Wells, Attila the Stockbroker, Swift Nick, Kool Knotes, Phil Jupitus, and Craig Charles, these rhyming ranters were as much stand-up comedians and performance artists as poets.

Mark Perry, Sniffin’ Glue: The Essential Punk Accessory (2000)

Besides their distinctions of slang, syntax, and hyperbolic punctuation, fanzines like Sniffin’ Glue embodied the bold and brassy nature of punk writing, their opinionated statements of intent mirroring the voices and lyrics of the bands being written about.

Gideon Sams, The Punk (1977); Richard Allen, Punk Rock (1977); Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine, The Night (1976).

These are works of fiction and poetry written amid punk’s first wave.

Post-Punk Literary Aftershocks

Much punk literature since the 1980s has used subculture and style symbols to give historical understanding to a cultural era or to innovate and animate new writing.

Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990)

Hanif Kureishi uses the punk subculture as an emblematic metaphor to understand the tumultuous years of his youth when the rise of Thatcherism supplanted Britain’s left-wing political foothold. By 1990, when this roman à clef was released, punk’s glory years were in the rear-view mirror, sufficiently ripened into a mythological movement to be harnessed for historical fiction and other suitable genres.

The Buddha of Suburbia’s plot retraces standard punk history, but Kureishi uses it to assess a (youth) culture in which rabid personal ambitions have supplanted communitarian ones. Echoing debates within punk culture and youth literature since Holden Caulfield separated the phonies from the authentic in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), readers are asked to consider intrinsic dilemmas: What happens to punk when middle-class kids coopt working-class grievances? If punk is a marginal(ized) subculture, what happens to it when popularized for the masses?

Supplementary Texts:

Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting (1993)

Devoid of a conventional plot, Trainspotting reads like a compilation album, each character narrating from his (or her) unique perspective. Those voices are united by a common rage, slang, and abusive tone, creative swearing coloring every outburst. Readers peer in at this group or subculture, recognizing in its “separate” language a unity of identity as well as a distaste and dissatisfaction with that identity. The effect on readers is not dissimilar to what Burgess achieves with his nadsat dialect or what fanzine writers encapsulate in their street-speak.

Jonathan Coe, The Rotter’s Club (2002)

Like Kureishi, Jonathan Coe revisits those years between prog, glam, and punk to shed light on social changes. Like Kureishi, the music provides the tonal backdrop to a 1970s Britain shaken by union unrest, IRA bombings, and the rise of racism.

Unlike Kureishi, Coe is not content with settling for a conventional social realist style. His literary bricolage involves multiple narrators offering disparate points of view—like Welsh—dipping in and out of various forms of expression, including letters, diaries, reviews, leaflets, journals, lyrics, and magazine articles. These many in-roads give the novel punk-like energy, as does one single assault of a sentence that clocks in at 13,955 words, apparently the longest recorded in English.