On the peripheral edge of the Beat Movement sits Charles Bukowski. Lauded as all manner of things from the “laureate of American lowlife” to a “pulp fiction professional”, Bukowski’s style and indeed, volume of work makes him appealing. With thousands of poems, hundreds of stories and six novels under his belt, there’s definitely a lot to be learnt from Bukowski’s methods, however harebrained they may seem in hindsight. Of course, drinking yourself into oblivion and sleeping with anything that moves is not the answer to becoming the darling of the fiction writing but Bukowski’s appeal is in the believable, genuine and portrays a sect of society that is rarely considered honestly in literature. Here’s a few things that a reader or even a budding writer can learn from one of America’s greatest novelists, whether applying them to your literary life or otherwise.
The first thing that can be learnt from Bukowski and his writings is persistence. His first novel wasn’t published until he was nearly 50. Previous to this, he had had a couple of stories published in his mid-twenties but then found his work rejected every time. It looked like he’d basically given up but in the fifties he started up again and began submitting hundreds and hundreds of stories and poems to different publications. Despite this, it still took years to find success but nothing stopped his commitment to writing. Bear in mind, Bukowski’s personal life was far from rosy, as he passed through tens of jobs, sunk deeper into his alcoholism and three feisty wives. Bukowski’s poem ‘so you wanna be a writer’ is a testament to the reasons behind his commitment.
The next thing is honesty. Bukowski is a candid and at times, painfully honest writer whose first four novels are almost direct parallels with his own personal life, using his literary double Henry Chinaski. The attitudes he gives to his protagonist are basically mirrors of his own and as he discusses in depth his neglectful parents, his apathetic approach to work and his love of prostitutes and lack of respect for women, the real man behind the words is created. In his poetry there are many direct references to particular individuals or groups he hates and by being honest, Bukowski’s narratives are believable and entertaining. Fiction is naturally about creating myths and making stuff up but Bukowski uses the stuff he knows to good effect, creating a wholly different an enjoyable form of literature.
Everyone can also learn from Bukowski’s discipline. Every day he would write, his first novel Post Office (1971) catalogues the endless ten to twelve hour shifts which were then followed by several packs of beer and quarts of whiskey and then, the writing began. This was his routine of sorts throughout the whole of his working life and the discipline allowed him to get to the published state that he did. Before turning to writing he used this discipline to discover and explore his love for literature. Hours spent in the library getting to know the greats and forming his opinions on them. Through this time he was able to shape and find his own voice and it’s the first tip for all writers that to be able to be successful, you must first read voraciously. Bukowski was never one to sit back and relax in his reading recliner, he worked endlessly to achieve the results he ended up with.
The final area in which Bukowski can be learnt from is by studying what you could call his ‘literary map’. This simply means seeing exactly how Bukowski drew upon influences of others and in turn became an influence, continuing the evolving development of literature. Throughout his work, Bukowski is explicit in his descriptions of his personal influences namely Norwegian Knut Hamsun, of Hunger fame, French author Céline and John Fante, the Italo-American author of Ask the Dust. Fante is probably most influential to Bukowski’s work as he too works in a semi-autobiographical way talking about the same LA areas. The scores of authors since Bukowski whose work shows elements of his style are numerous and although some may have done little more than offend him personally, all are a testament to his literary map.
Charles Bukowski was never integral to the Beat Movement and was very much on its edge but he moved in many of the same circles and knew those involved personally. Despite his many foibles (if that isn’t too weak a word) Bukowski produced a catalogue of work to be admired and an attitude which all can learn from.
Good essay, very enlightening. I appreciate it.
Whenever people ask me why I love to read Bukowski so much, I struggle to put my reasons into words, and I think this is probably the best explanation that I’ve seen of why he is so important. I totally agree that he deals with a particular social strata in an honest and genuine way, which is what makes his prose highly readable (I literally cannot put his books down, and that’s rare for me). Reading this has helped to summarize just why I love his work.