Dennis Cooper expressed his frustration with being labeled as a cult writer.
Dennis Cooper, a 70-year-old individual, was born in Los Angeles but currently resides in Paris. He is a novelist known for works such as The Sluts (2004) and the series George Miles, which consists of five books and explores disturbingly violent gay desire. Originally released in 1989 as Closer, the book has been reissued as a Serpent’s Tail classic. According to The New York Times, the series is considered “high-risk literature” that delves into the extreme boundaries of human behavior and amorality. Critically acclaimed author Irvine Welsh praises Cooper’s work for pushing the limits of liberal tolerance to their maximum. Fellow writer Bret Easton Ellis describes Cooper as a supremely elegant stylist and the last literary outlaw in mainstream American fiction. Rachel Kushner, author of The Mars Room, credits Cooper’s George Miles cycle as a significant influence on her generation, stating that these books were widely read in the 1990s and left her in awe.
Why is Closer being reissued at this time?
I am unsure. They simply asked if we could, and I replied with a yes. All of my books are no longer in circulation in the UK. I have been unsuccessful in finding a publisher there for quite some time.
Can you remember where the story started?
For many years, I attempted to plan out the entire five-book series before beginning to write any of them. I created charts and worked out the details because the structure is quite complex. In 1985, I resided in Amsterdam when I fell ill with a sickness known as “rodehond” or “red dog,” which is German measles. It was a severe illness and many of my friends were also dying at the time. I feared it may have been AIDS. This experience motivated me to focus and concentrate on my writing while I was bedridden and recovering from my illness.
Did you intend to challenge your readers?
Absolutely. I have always been intrigued by the themes of sex, death, and objectification. These subjects had already been accepted in literature – Bret Easton Ellis had recently published Less Than Zero when my book Closer came out – but I felt that my approach was still quite unusual. While I appreciate Bret’s work, my friends warned me not to read Less Than Zero because it could be overwhelming. So, I waited until after I finished Closer before reading it and found that while we have similar backgrounds and interests, he presents them in a more conventional manner.
What influenced your aggressive attitude towards sex and violence?
I was a troubled child with a unique imagination, and I desired to connect with others who may have shared similar experiences. Describing these things in a way that doesn’t simply provoke or shock readers, but instead prompts them to consider the emotions of both the victim and the perpetrator, is challenging. It’s not just a matter of good versus evil. After reading Sade, I became inspired to discover how to use style to entice readers into grappling with these complex dynamics.
How did you initially discover Sade?
When I was 15 years old, I volunteered for Eugene McCarthy’s campaign for president in 1968 while staying with my parents’ friends in Washington DC. Their son had a copy of 120 Days of Sodom on his shelf and I was reading it, shocked by its content. I was also busy organizing a benefit concert for Simon and Garfunkel in support of Eugene McCarthy. It was a secret that I was also reading Sade’s works, which amazed me. I had seen pornography before, but nothing like this.
What is your reaction to your own fictional work being labeled as sadistic?
I can comprehend the reason for this occurrence, as most individuals prefer not to engage with such material. They prefer it to be neatly categorized into a horror film or erotic novel, where it can be seen as a titillating adventure. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do about it. Initially, I hoped to overcome this and convince others of the seriousness of my work, but I have come to accept that I will never be considered a prominent figure in literature. Instead, I am labelled as a “cult writer,” which is a way of showing me respect but also serves to marginalize me. People often say, “Yes, I understand he is a serious writer, but his work is just too strange and dark. It’s not on the same level as Cormac McCarthy.”
Is that causing you any discomfort?
I have been under pressure for many years to write a novel without any gay characters and devoid of sexual and violent content. It was suggested that my subject matter was hindering my recognition as a talented writer. As a result, I wrote God Jr, a novel that I am quite pleased with, which centers around a father coping with the loss of his child by immersing himself in a video game. However, it received minimal attention. People simply dismissed it as another work by a writer known for including LGBTQ+ themes. Despite this, I consider myself fortunate as my work has been the subject of three substantial academic books, including Diarmuid Hester’s 2020 biography, Wrong. Often, writers who receive accolades such as the Booker prize fade into obscurity after a decade, but I have been able to maintain relevance.
What book are you currently reading?
I am nearly done reading So Beautiful and Elastic, written by Gary J Shipley and published by Apocalypse Party, a small press located in Philadelphia. There is currently a thriving movement of independent publishers in the US, and these are the books that I primarily consume. The internet has played a significant role in decentralizing the publishing industry, allowing for the emergence of dynamic presses throughout the country, not just in New York.
What literature did you consume during your childhood?
I enjoyed reading poorly written adaptations of The Man from UNCLE, I Spy, Batman, and other low-quality books. However, the highlight for me was my admiration for Bob Dylan. During the 1960s, he was quite impressive. After hearing him mention Rimbaud in an interview, I decided to read Rimbaud’s works when I was only 15 years old. This experience was a significant awakening for me. It opened my eyes to the idea that even at a young age (as Rimbaud was when he began publishing), one could be a genius and explore psychedelic experiences. This realization was life-changing for me.
Do you continue to revisit Rimbaud and Sade?
Not Sade. I read him so intensely when I was young, but I think I got what I might get out of Sade. An actor in a film I’m making recently discovered Rimbaud and was going on about him, so I ended up rereading him just to see: “Is this guy really as good as I remember?” He is! My favourite translations are by Enid Rhodes Peschel. I’m not someone who can say, oh, this is the most accurate text, because I don’t speak French – I should’ve learned, I’ve been here 19 years – but I really like her translations of A Season in Hell and Illuminations. Some versions feel a little fussy, kind of beautified. Hers feel more electric: more sharp, a little colder, more direct.
Dennis Cooper’s book, “Closer,” is available from Serpent’s Tail for £9.99. To help the Guardian and Observer, you can purchase your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional fees may apply for delivery.