August 3, 2012

The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal
Edited by Jay Parini

On Writers and Writing: A re-post in honor of Gore Vidal (1925-2012) – I turn back again and again to Gore Vidal’s writing for several reasons: his snarky humor, his reflections on other writers, his insights on literature and politics. The essays here feature Gore in fine Snark Mode. Writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of many Tarzan adventure stories, Vidal observes: “Not one to compromise a vivid unconscious with dim reality, he never set foot in Africa.” On the jumbled prose of a USC English professor: “Professor Halperin has not an easy way with our rich language.” And on John Updike, with a glancing swipe at a certain U.S. politician: “There is nothing, sad to say, surprising in Updike’s ignorance of history and politics and of people unlike himself; in this, he is a standard American and so a typical citizen of what Vice President Agnew once called the greatest nation in the country.”

Gore Vidal being Gore Vidal, sometimes even a passing reference is an opportunity for a sideswipe. In an essay on the memoir of Tennessee Williams, Vidal refers to “the artistically gifted and humanly appalling Carson McCullers.” Robert Lowell and Jean Cocteau receive better treatment. Dorothy Parker and Truman Capote seem well-equipped to withstand anything Gore tosses their way.

His reflections on William Dean Howells and Dawn Powell are particularly enlightening. In fact, combined together, these essays have helped me better understand a key point in craft: How third-person narration in a story or novel invites (and welcomes) a variety of observations, illuminations, opinions and commentary often not allowed for by first-person narrators. That seems like a fairly basic lesson in craft; one I certainly know and, of course, have studied. But without directly focusing on the essential mechanics of point of view in either essay, Vidal’s writing provides a master class on the subject. Similarly, in Tarzan Revisited, Vidal notes: “Though Burroughs is innocent of literature and cannot reproduce human speech, he does have a gift very few writers of any kind possess: he can describe action vividly … Because it is so hard, the craftier contemporary novelists usually prefer to tell their stories in the first person, which is simply writing dialogue. In character, as it were, the writer settles for an impression of what happened rather than creating the sense of the thing happening.”

The concrete lessons about writing are couched throughout, cushioned (though it’s often a rather firm, even uncomfortable cushion) between thoughtful observations about writers and writing. Three long quotes to provide example:

From his 1983 essay on Howells, commenting on many contemporary writers: “Then, if he is truly serious about a truly serious literary career, he will become a teacher. With luck, he will obtain tenure. In the summers and on sabbatical, he will write novels that others like himself will want to teach just as he, obligingly, teaches their novels. He will visit other campuses as a lecturer and he will talk about his books and about those books written by other teachers to an audience made up of ambitious young people who intend to write novels to be taught by one another to the rising generation and so on and on. What tends to be left out of these works is the world. World gone, no voluntary readers. No voluntary readers, no literature – only creative writing courses and English studies, activities marginal (to put it tactfully) to civilization.”

From a 1953 essay on novelists and critics from the previous decade: “It is a possibility, perhaps even a probability, that as the novel moves toward a purer, more private expression it will cease altogether to be a popular medium, becoming, like poetry, a cloistered avocation – in which case those who in earlier times might have written great public novels will be engaged to write good public movies, redressing the balance. In our language the novel is but three centuries old and its absorption by the movies, at least the vulgar line of it, is not necessarily a bad thing.”

And from a December 1967 essay in Encounter: “In any case, rather like priests who have forgotten the meaning of the prayers they chant, we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend others gods, perhaps in silence or with new words.”


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