WRONG’s origins are in this blog—or some earlier incarnation of it at least. About fifteen years ago, I came upon DC’s writing and, in a daze, found my way here. A distinct community had started to form, even at that early stage. I was reluctant to comment to begin with, but I lurked, read, listened. Eventually I became part of the gang—for a while.
Down in the comments we shared our ideas, our interests, our research. I was learning a lot about many new things and a little about myself. Sometimes I think I got a better education here than in any institution of higher learning—and it didn’t cost a thing. My username was schoolboyerrors.
I’m delighted to be able to launch this book where it all began. WRONG is in many ways a token and a tribute to the blog, its host, and the people who have passed through it over the years.
This is a ‘making of’ kind of thing. I’ve pulled together some sources I drew on while I was researching and writing the book. They make up just a fraction of the many I consulted, but maybe some will be new to you or maybe you haven’t seen them for a while.
I’ve listed a few of my favourite interviews with DC that are available online, some DC-related links you might not have come across before, and some background research that helped me to fill out my portrait of DC’s life and work. The book (and my approach more generally) was influenced by a few key people and works—so feel free to check those out too.
Thanks for reading, and for everything else.
Dennis Cooper Papers (ca. 1970-2002)
Fales Library and Special Collections, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, New York University
My first trip here in 2012 laid the foundations for what would ultimately become WRONG. An incredible wealth of DC-related materials: juvenalia, full-runs of Little Caesar magazine and books, works in manuscript, published, and unpublished (incl. porn scripts), reviews, interviews… Letters to/from numerous figures incl. Kathy Acker, Tom Clark, Amy Gerstler, Robert Glück, Kevin Killian, Lynne Tillman, John Waters, David Wojnarowicz… etc etc etc.
The Fales houses the Downtown Collection, which includes the archives of DC’s contemporaries like Richard Hell, Gary Indiana, Tillman, Wojnarowicz, and others— especially useful when you’re trying to trace connections between them.
Interviews and sources (online)
Fear of Poetry—rough cut
Interview with Gail Kaszynski, ca. 1983
From a long-lost documentary on the ‘punk poetry’ scene at Beyond Baroque in Los Angeles, which included people like DC, Bob Flanagan, Amy Gerstler, Jack Skelley, Ed Smith, and others.
Queer Culture TV: More Than A Mouthful
Interview with David Van Chaney, ca. 1998
From around the time Guide came out: DC’s really frank and insightful (in spite of his evident discomfort).
The Cult of JT Leroy: Outtake
Interview with Marjorie Sturm, ca. 2015
From the only film about JT Leroy that deflates the myth, in this outtake DC gets into the famous photo of JT—actually a photo of George Miles.
Interview with Michael Silverblatt, Oct 10, 2002
Silverblatt (a comrade from the Beyond Baroque era) delivers a typically careful reading of My Loose Thread; DC discusses its background and creation.
Vice: ‘Dennis Cooper on Zine Days…’
Interview with Steve Lafreniere, Dec 1, 2007
All about Little Caesar magazine and press, with critic and queercore legend Lafreniere (creator of The Gentlewomen of California zine).
Paris Review: The Art of Fiction 213
Interview with Ira Silverberg, Fall, 2011
Indispensable conversation with Silverberg (DC’s agent for a number of years) that ranges all over: from DC’s early influences to his thoughts on porn to his empathy for teenagers to the construction of The Marbled Swarm.
Desistfilm: ‘Language, and How It’s Used, Is Extremely Important in Permanent Green Light.’
DC and Zac Farley interviewed by José Sarmiento-Hinojosa, November 14, 2018.
It can be difficult to keep up with DC and all the shifts in his career. This interview helped me to make sense of the most recent shift to film and his work with Zac Farley.
Against Nature: A Group Show of Work by Homosexual Men
Catalog of the show curated by DC and Richard Hawkins, January 6 – February 12, 1988
Due to the constraints of space, unfortunately I couldn’t get into this in the book: a group show that caused controversy for refusing to sanitise queer art in a time of AIDS. Pissed off Douglas Crimp.
DC on Robert Bresson, originally in Artforum, April, 2000
I run with Dodie Bellamy’s idea about DC’s ‘aesthetics of distance’ in the book, which I trace back through Bresson. Here DC fleshes out Bresson’s influence on his work.
Violations: An Evening of Interpretive Readings of Dennis Cooper’s GIF Novels
New Museum, NYC, September 16, 2016
Participation by the likes of M. Lamar, Dorothea Lasky, Yvonne Meier, Aki Onda, Richard Hell, Chris Cochrane, and Brian Chase helped me figure out how to write about DC’s GIF novels.
Research and Influences
Out: ‘Queer to the Core’
Oral history of Queercore by Adam Rathe, April 12, 2012
With contributions from the most prominent members of the scene, this is an excellent snapshot of Queercore, which features a lot in WRONG as an example of anarcho-queer politics and culture.
Kip Kinkel’s Confession Tape
Transcript of his interview with Detective Al Warthen, May 21, 1998
This awful, tragic confession by Kinkel, who shot up his school and inspired DC to write My Loose Thread, brought me to tears when I read it first.
Shopping in Space: Essays on America’s Blank Generation Fiction
Edited by Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveney, Serpents Tail 1992
The first collection of scholarly essays on DC, Bret Easton Ellis, Lynne Tillman, David Wojnarowicz, etc. by a couple of young British writers who said fiction ‘doesn’t belong to academia’. Damn right.
Hold-Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948–1992
Bill Mohr, University of Iowa Press, 2011
The history of Los Angeles poetry isn’t well known—or it wasn’t before this book came out. Mohr’s account of Beyond Baroque was invaluable to my study of DC’s group in the ‘punk poet’ era.
Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative, 1977–1997
Edited by Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian, Nightboat, 2017
WRONG situates DC and his work in relation to a number of different scenes including New Narrative, the origins and outlines of which are charted by Bellamy and Killian’s anthology.
All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s
Daniel Kane, University of California Press, 2003
Kane’s book, which is a model of how to do the history of a quickly-changing cultural scene, and his whole approach deeply influenced the way I write and think. He’s also the author of Do You Have A Band? Poetry and Punk Rock in New York City (Columbia University Press, 2017).
Pierre Guyotat: Essai Biographique
Catherine Brun, Éditions Léo Scheer, 2005
This magnificent book about the controversial French avant-gardist is, for me, a perfect example of a critical biography and one I had in mind while I was writing WRONG.
Prancing Novelist: A Defence Of Fiction In The Form Of A Critical Biography In Praise Of Ronald Firbank
Brigid Brophy, Macmillan, 1973
At the other end of the critical biography spectrum is Brophy’s experimental take on Firbank, which showed me just how plastic and marvellously capacious the form is.
‘“Gimme Gimme This…Gimme Gimme That”: Annihilation and Innovation in the Punk Rock Commons’
José Esteban Muñoz, Social Text 31:3, Fall 2013
I’m a Dennis Cooper fan—you probably are too. Queer theorist Muñoz (who was a Darby Crash fanboy) helped me to think about how to write critically and stay true to ‘the affective mode of being and feeling that we call fandom.’
Gay and After
Alan Sinfield, Serpent’s Tail, 1998
Sinfield was my professor at the University of Sussex and head of the Centre for the Study of Sexual Dissidence. His argument in this book is a bit dated, but his tone—smart, public-facing, anti-capitalist, and above all connected to people’s lived experience—certainly isn’t, and it’s something I tried to channel in WRONG.
In the middle of the photograph, a man stands with his hands in his pockets on the pavement in front of a suburban bungalow. He wears a pale, short-sleeved shirt and dark trousers. Judging by the style of the house behind him and the identical one behind it, it looks like somewhere in California—there’s also a palm tree growing out of the guy’s head. The tree is actually behind him, but the way the photographer’s caught it, it looks like it’s sprouted from his head. His face is mostly in shade and he’s pretty far away and out of focus, so it’s difficult to make out his expression, but from his demeanor, it looks like he might be in on the joke. Or perhaps the way he’s holding himself indicates something else. A kind of pride, maybe? In which case it could be his house he’s standing in front of; maybe he’s just bought it and stashed the “For Sale” sign behind the station wagon parked in the driveway. Some of its tailgate reverses into the frame from the right, as part of a succulent bush encroaches on the scene from the left. That would mean that whoever took this amateurishly composed photo, standing too far back and divided from their subject by a vast swathe of road in the foreground, could be married to the man who’s standing in front of their new family home. The caption underneath the photo, one word in large black capital letters, reads, “WRONG.”
Dennis Cooper first saw John Baldessari’s 1968 artwork Wrong on a high school field trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) when he was around sixteen years old. He doesn’t seem to have cared about visual art before then, or taken much notice of it, but he remembers that the trip to LACMA was incredibly important: “I was really struck by this John Baldessari piece called Wrong. I don’t know why, but for some reason I was startled by that, and I thought ‘Wow.’ There was something about the fact that it’s art. I was completely fascinated by it, and I thought it was hilarious and strange.” (2015) Conceived as a response to an instruction booklet for amateur photographers that illustrated the “right” and “wrong” way to take a photo, Baldessari created the piece, he said, because “I loved the idea that somebody would just say that this is right and this is wrong. So I decided I would have . . . a work of art that was wrong—which seemed right to me.”
From the weird framing that fills the foreground with a band of unremarkable tarmac, to the subject’s blurry features and the tree that emerges as if from his head, there’s a lot that’s formally “wrong” with this picture, as the caption laconically states. It’s witty too: in the same way a joke works by setting up expectations and undermining them, Wrong declares itself an artwork (with all the attendant expectations of beauty and skilled composition) while simultaneously subverting the criteria of good photography—and good art. But as Abigail Solomon-Godeau points out, Wrong “obviously surpasses the realm of the one-liner,” and Baldessari’s joke also addresses larger aesthetic issues. Pushing its artistic standpoint to the extreme, it suggests that in order to be art, a piece must be “wrong”—conventions must be shattered, the aberrant must be included; the amateur is also an artist. Baldessari’s insistence that what people think is “wrong” is, in fact, art has something of a proto-punk defiance about it. As we’ll see, it’s the kind of attitude that Cooper would later embrace under the influence of New York punk rock. Cooper would title his first collection of experimental short stories Wrong.
Apart from its formal elements—how it attacks and sends up artistic convention—Wrong also imparts a social critique that would have been evident to a gay teen like Cooper, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s and was, even during this early period of his life, politically progressive. Baldessari’s photo looks like so many other amateur photos of family life in the suburbs of midcentury America. It’s the kind one might find stuffed into an old cardboard box in a junk shop or an attic: an out-of-focus, badly framed snap of Mom and Dad all smiles on their wedding day, or standing awkwardly outside their new home, or on the porch the day the baby came home from the hospital. These photos document the heterosexual family and plot its linear progression through the usual life events that American society in the postwar era deemed worthy of note: birth, marriage, entry into the workforce, acquisition of property, and so on. They guaranteed the family and its history a continuity with America’s vision of the nuclear family and its unimpeded passage through (state-sanctioned) time—a time that, as queer theorists like Lee Edelman have noted, was underpinned by a “reproductive futurism,” or the heteronormative injunction to reproduce, and was therefore unavailable in this period to queer people like Cooper. As so many other Americans in the 1960s had done, Baldessari looked at this image of the family and suburban bliss championed by the previous generation and pronounced it wrong: wrongheaded, exclusive, and sympathetic with the logic of consumer capitalism and the military-industrial complex that would lead most disastrously to the United States’ war in Vietnam.
Solomon-Godeau writes that Baldessari’s Wrong reflected the “anti-authoritarian, democratic, and ludic impulses” of countercultural California in the 1960s, but Cooper also connected with the piece emotionally—unconsciously (“I don’t know why”). A darker interpretation of the artwork that Cooper would have been drawn to sees it hint at a wrongness or corruption underneath suburban America’s pleasant, conservative veneer. Calling the image “wrong”, Baldessari imbues it with an unsettling menace (what Cooper remembers as a “strangeness”) by implying that there may be something amiss here, which contrasts with the innocent, domestic, even humorous scene it depicts. Viewed in this way, Wrong anticipates the work of later artists such as David Lynch, who most famously exposed the nightmarish underbelly of the suburban American dream in films like Blue Velvet (1986). Baldessari’s piece thus overturned the conventions of traditional photography while satirizing the postwar American dream, but when the young Cooper saw it first at LACMA, he may have been most startled by the artwork’s uncanny familiarity—how it seemed to echo his experience growing up and his sense that, regardless of appearances, life in the California suburbs could indeed be very wrong.
p.s. Hey. It feels strange to launch this post amidst what’s happening in the US, but today is the publication date, and it has been long planned for now, and I don’t think the blog has any posts that would be appropriate, whatever that means, in storage, so I’ll let it fly, but just to say that doing so just make me feel rather uncomfortable, for whatever that’s worth. ** Julian McAllister, Hi, Julian. Yes, what were the odds? Thanks for coming in. How’s stuff? ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. The NYT site doesn’t let me in, but I think I get the idea. ** Tosh Berman, Hi, Tosh. Serious bummer. Yes, it was really quite excellent, and, yes, too good to be true. Or true for long. Thank you. I assume it’s a strange morning there, but I hope yours is a good one notwithstanding. ** Bill, Hi, Bill. Yeah, a lot of people have spoken or written to me in these months to say the blog’s consistency and ‘being there’ and relentlessness has been comforting to them in some way. Which is nice. jj213jj seems to have been the right example at the right/wrong time. I’m telling you, the pandemic has driven a solid portion of the ‘master’ set out of their gourds. I didn’t know about the new Mika Vainio. I’ll get it. It makes sense that he must have left a lot in storage. Thanks! I suspect my weekend, as low key as it was, was better or ‘better’ or at least a whole lot less momentous than the one besetting you guys over there. ** JM, Hi, Josiah. Yeah, that was a lucky break. Oh, shit, yeah, get the hell out of there, man. What a mess. Psychological abusers must be isolated at all costs. Have you made any progress on the moving out over this past weekend? I’m assuming you going to have to sneak out? I’m so sorry, J. Stay very careful and safe. Love from here and me. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. ‘Magic’ is a huge favorite film of Gisele’s. She brings it up all the time as a reference point when we’re making ventriloquist- or dummy-related work. Excellent news about the impending publication of your story! Things are looking just great on that front! Happy! ** Ian, Hi, Ian. Funny the term ‘working like a dog’. Dogs working? Maybe those ones that pull sleds? Strange term. Yeah, ‘I Hate the Internet’ is really nice. He’s good, that Kobek guy. I think she’s from Halifax? Or may even is there? Frank Hinton’s thing was a rather severe anonymity, fake name and so on, so who knows. Wonderful novel though, ‘Action, Figure’. Things are pretty okay in Paris, actually. Compared to most of elsewhere at least. I hope things around you are some conducive. ** Misanthrope, Hi, G. Thanks. Those books need serious rediscovery. I think I’m going to do a series about ‘lost’ Alt Lit era novels as there were so many really good ones that seem to have been so quickly and inexplicably forgotten. Spooky little scare with your mom, but happily easily explained. I don’t know LPS, but I can totally imagine him going camping. He’s a dude. Straight guys do that, no? Not that the premise isn’t also simultaneously comical, now that I think about it. Okay. ** Steve Erickson, The beauty and sadness about the slaves’ things is we will never know. Yes, re: BTK. I was most impressed! Well, I’m certainly with you in hoping all of that will lead to positive change. Given the intractable evil and stupidity at the top, one wonders. One can certainly hope its power grip is being further and fatally decimated. Even that seems like a lot to hope for. ** Okay. Diarmuid’s book about my stuff is hereby born. The birth canal is open. Do what you will. See you tomorrow.