Category Archives: Gore Vidal

Failed State, Part 2

Christopher Hitchens‘ essay on the lack of great Washington novels, mentioned here a couple weeks back, is now online at City Journal‘s website. Hitchens’ argument is similar to ones he’s made in previous articles about D.C. fiction: “[T]he fact is that Washington is and always has been irretrievably bogged down in process,” he writes this time. “And process doesn’t generally make for electrifying prose.” His touchstones are similar as well: Henry AdamsDemocracy, Allen Drury‘s Advise and Consent, and various novels by his former mentor Gore Vidal. (The article’s tone is casual, but Hitchens still can’t resist throwing a couple of elbows Vidal’s way.)

Hitchens does move the story forward, though, by (rightfully) drawing attention to Thomas Mallon‘s very good novel about McCarthy-era attempts to cleanse the Federal government of homosexuals, Fellow Travellers, and Ward Just, who is “possibly chief among those who have depicted the nation’s capital as the bureaucratic and constipated place that it in fact is.” Which is to say that faint praise is obviously the fuel of any conversation about Washington novels. Proof? Hitchens mentions that none of the big male late-20th century American fiction writers (Updike, Mailer, Roth, Cheever, Bellow) bothered to write about the place. I can’t think of many examples to the contrary (aside from a memorable D.C. sequence early in Roth’s The Plot Against America), but Bellow did at least consider writing about the city in the early 70s. As he told a Life interviewer at the time, he was waffling between writing about the District or another much-maligned town:

His next book probably will concern either Washington, D.C. or, of all the gristly places, Gary, Ind. “On and off I’ve been writing a little something about Gary,” he says, “having to do with the way white workers are getting prosperous and going off into the dunes and farmlands, leaving the city a vast black slum. Will it explode? I don’t know. That’s prophecy, which isn’t my business.”

Links: Crisis Mode

Following this week’s devastating earthquake in Haiti, the main spokesperson for the nation from the world of American literary fiction has been Edwidge Danticat, who’s spoken to the Wall Street Journal about the catastrophe and provided the paper with a brief primer on Haitian culture. A little surprisingly, I’d heard nothing from fiction writer Ben Fountain, who famously visited the country more than 30 times while researching his excellent short-story collection, Brief Conversations With Che Guevara. But Texas Lawyer caught up with him:

I expect that recovery will be long, difficult, expensive and complex. It may well be that the country never recovers in this generation. On the other hand, I think there’s a possibility, however hard it may be to focus on at this point, that the earthquake provides the impetus for a sustained, concerted and well-planned effort by the international community to help Haiti overcome its problems. In any event, Haiti certainly won’t be the same country that it was on Jan. 10.

My new favorite litblog: Years of BASS, in which a Virginia researcher makes his way through the Best American Short Story series.

Films inspired by the films described in David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest will screen soon at Columbia University.

Joyce Carol Oates: “It’s very clear to me now—as I’d always supposed—that we can’t really choose what we write about in any passionate way: the material chooses us.”

Just because Twitter forces you to be concise doesn’t mean it’s going to make you an Ernest Hemingway.

Jill McCorkle goes off-Broadway.

Christopher Hitchens on Gore Vidal going off the rails.

Jaws meets Deliverance, with bears“—the elevator pitch an author needs to catch a publisher’s attention grows ever shorter.

On a related note, here’s Charles Bock on pursuing fiction writing as a career: “A teacher of mine once told me that as a writer you’ll be humiliated, then you’ll be humiliated again, and when you think you can’t be humiliated any more, they’ll find new ways to humiliate you.”

Links: There’s a Fire

What does it take to make a debut novel successful? The Austin American-Statesman has a tick-tock on John Pipkin‘s Woodsburner, from writing to editing to publication to indie-bookstore hit.

James Salter looks back on his career.

Robert Olen Butler has written nine screenplays in the past twelve years, but not one of them has been produced. In completely unrelated news, Olen’s new novel is titled Hell.

Audio, video, and transcripts from PEN America’s recent “Reckoning With Torture” event are now online. Among the speakers were Nell Freudenberger, Don DeLillo, George Saunders, Jonathan Ames, and Paul Auster.

Don’t tell Auster his strategy of using nested stories makes him some kind of postmodernist: “There were certain kinds of books I was attracted to as a young person, two jump to mind. Wuthering Heights and The Scarlet Letter. These fascinated me. You know full well these are fictions within fictions. The act of telling becomes part of the story.”

Poets & Writers has a list of the top creative writing MFA programs in the country.

Ben Greenman is a better speller than many of his peers.

And maybe it’s mean to make fun of Gore Vidal, but he does have a way of saying things that make such behavior understandable.

Roundup: Bait and Switch

(If you’re arriving here from the Readerville Journal, welcome. If you’re not arriving here from the Readerville Journal: The folks at that venerable site have been nice enough to dub this site its Blog of the Week.)

Frank Wilson‘s Books, Inq. points to a review of Lionel Shriver‘s The Post-Birthday World, an exemplar of very divisive novels. (Wilson’s taken this up before regarding Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road.) It was one of my favorite novels of last year; my review for Kirkus is floating somewhere on the Barnes & Noble review page.

Coudal Partners, a Chicago-based marketing firm, has put out its latest edition of Field-Tested Books, in which various writers contribute short essays about their experiences reading outside of the usual contexts of libraries, living rooms, and public transit. Bless Joe Meno‘s essay on Winesburg, Ohio, which I blogged about at Allvoices.

Mark Twain‘s home in Hartford, Conn., is in deep trouble; a visitors’ center wound up costing double what was anticipated and energy costs are way up. I’d suggest putting on a short play and charging customers a ton for it, but maybe that’s a little too glib. Seriously: Donate here.

Superman is 70.

Guy Sorman, writing in City Journal, enthuses about the Amazon Kindle. Walking in Central Park one day, he convinced his wife that she needed to read Herman Melville‘s Billy Budd, right now, and uploaded it to his Kindle: “I typed “Billy Budd” on the keyboard. It took five seconds to complete the wireless download and cost me approximately $6, debited from my Amazon account.” Had Sorman talked to me, I could’ve saved him six bucks, but I will concede that the Kindle is preferable if you’re insisting your spouse read something outside at that very moment.

I knew that Gore Vidal was bitter at how he’s been treated by the New York Times over the years, but yeesh:

What do you think is your own best novel? I don’t answer questions like that. Ever. And you ought not to ask them.

Well, it was a great pleasure talking to you. I doubt that.

Roundup: Fighting Words

Among the many fine pieces in the new Bookforum—and as Wyatt Mason reminds us, there’s still plenty of serious literary criticism being done—is an interview with Ron Hansen, who talks about (among other things) what drew him to writing about the West: “Part of it was that I thought the western seemed loaded with potential to tell us who we are now but had fallen on hard times with its melodrama and clichés of character and plot. I hoped to take the typical outlaw narratives as seriously as Shakespeare took Holinshed’s Chronicles and to find in the West of the nineteenth century some genetic markers for our present condition.”

If you’re studying alcoholism in American literature, you have plenty to work with: The Amherst Bulletin reports on an upcoming UMass continuing-ed course featuring Robert Louis Stevenson, Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, Richard Yates, and more. (via)

Oddest goodie-bag gift ever: To thank John Irving for showing up, the Guardian Hay festival is bringing in a Greco-Roman wrestling champ, so the novelist-wrestler could get in a workout.

The Independent sits down with Gore Vidal, still snippy about his reputation:

“Mailer once said that ‘Vidal lacks the wound.’ What do you think he was referring to: the fact that your grandfather was a senator? Your privileged upbringing?”

“Privileged? You mean more privileged than a fat boy from South Africa,” Vidal snaps [Mailer's father was born in Cape Town] “with a doting mother?”

Roundup: History Lessons

Bookslut points to a great Wisconsin Public Radio feature called “Author! Author!” (not to be confused with this). Last year’s “Pulp Fiction” segment is especially rich, including Chris Ware, Tom Wolfe, John Wesley Harding, and Studs Terkel discussing Nelson Algren‘s Chicago: City on the Make, number two on my personal list of great books about Chicago. (Here’s number one, immortal.)

Kevin J. Hayes, author of American Literature: A Very Short Introduction, is back again, this time looking for advice about autobiographies. Not my bailiwick, but a few personal favorites that spring to mind: John Updike‘s Self-Consciousness, Paul Auster‘s Hand to Mouth (one of my favorite being-a-writer memoirs), Alison Bechdel‘s Fun Home, Woody Guthrie‘s Bound for Glory. Tough one. What’s the distinction between an autobiography and a memoir? Can you not write about James Frey and still claim you were comprehensive in discussing this?

Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s house doesn’t appear to be in the same dire straits as Edith Wharton‘s, but it still needs help.

In relation to its recent “What I’ve Learned” feature on Gore Vidal, Esquire dusts off Vidal’s 1962 review of Robert Gover‘s first novel, One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding:

And he has written a tragedy, for all of us; he reveals the emptiness and banality of a bored society’s emotional responses, not to mention the poverty of its dialogue. There is always a division between what a society does and what it says it does, and what it feels about what it says and does. But nowhere is this conflict more vividly revealed than in the American middle class’s attitude toward sex, that continuing pleasure and sometimes duty we have, with the genius of true pioneers, managed to tie in knots. Robert Gover unties no knots but he shows them plain and I hope this book will be read by every adolescent in the country, which is most of the population.