Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Gore Vidal

Quote of the Day

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It is…childish, in the deepest sense of being a child, ever to expect justice. There is none beneath our moon. One can only hope not to be destroyed entirely by injustice and, to put it cynically, one can very often flourish through an injustice obtaining in one’s favor. What matters finally is not the world’s judgment of oneself but one’s own judgment of the world. Any writer who lacks this final arrogance will not survive very long in America.

Gore Vidal, United States: Essays 1952-1992

Written by nevalalee

October 4, 2018 at 7:30 am

The Monroe Doctrine

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[His] secret ambition, after all, had been to steal Marilyn; in all his vanity he thought no one was so well suited to bring out the best in her as himself.

—Norman Mailer, Marilyn

Are writers in direct competition? Any reasonable person—who, by definition, probably isn’t a writer—would have to conclude that they aren’t. The road to publication can be brutal, and there are plenty of ways in which it punishes or ignores deserving talent, but the existence of a specific rival who is consuming resources that might otherwise be allocated to you probably isn’t one of them. Any barriers to entry or success have more to do with luck, timing, and other impersonal forces than with peers who are trying to do the same thing as you. Even prizes, teaching positions, or fellowships are less about writers competing with one another than about their separate confrontations with larger systems, in which the only sustainable solution is to work together. And critical rankings can be rightly dismissed as irrelevancies, or, at best, the byproducts of a different game with incentives of its own. As the novelist and critic Wilfrid Sheed wrote:

When a reviewer says that Malamud is second only to Bellow, it means he really isn’t thinking about either of them. When he’s reading Malamud he’s thinking about Bellow, and when he’s reading Bellow he’s thinking about Roth. This is the essence of the ratings game: distraction. Children play it all the time. “Is this the biggest bridge in the world?” “No, it’s the third biggest.” “Oh.” They lose all interest in the bridge.

But you could also argue that writers are effectively in competition, if only because nearly all the authors who have ever lived have behaved as if they were. When asked by an interviewer from the Telegraph if he thought of himself and Philip Roth as rivals, John Updike replied:

Yes, I can’t help but feel it somewhat. Especially since Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry as far as I can tell. I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow. But since Bellow died I think Philip has…he’s certainly written more novels than I have, and seems more dedicated in a way to the act of writing as a means of really reshaping the world to your liking. But he’s been very good to have around as far as goading me to become a better writer.

Saul Bellow himself wrote, “Writers seldom wish other writers well,” while Gore Vidal was even more blunt: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Elsewhere, I’ve written at length about why novelists seem particularly susceptible to what I’ve called the Colonel Cathcart complex, after the character in Catch-22 of whom Joseph Heller says: “He could measure his own progress only in relationship to others, and his idea of excellence was to do something at least as well as all the other men his own age who were doing the same thing even better.” And you could make the case that this kind of competition is good for literature as a whole, as Norman Mailer observed to The Paris Review, after noting that writers were as competitive “as star athletes”: “You say, Well, if he’s doing it, I can do it.”

But there’s another factor at work here. The most memorable consideration of literary envy I’ve ever read is Mailer’s essay “Some Children of the Goddess,” which I first encountered as a young teenager and practically memorized. Mailer speaks frankly of his competitiveness with James Jones and William Styron, as well as his uneasy sense of relief when their novels Some Came Running and Set This House On Fire turned out to be artistic nonevents. But here’s the language that he uses when he describes their relationship to the muse, or, as he calls her, the Bitch:

If Some Came Running had turned out to be the best novel any of us had written since the war…it would have meant the Bitch was in love with someone else, I would have had to try to win her back. But the failure of Some Came Running left me holding onto a buttock of the lady—if she had many lovers, I was still one of them…[While reading Set This House On Fire] I would think, “You don’t catch the Bitch that way, buster, you got to bring more than a trombone to her boudoir.”

In Mailer’s imagination, the muse seems to have taken the form of Marilyn Monroe, whom he secretly felt he might have married if Arthur Miller hadn’t gotten there first. Monroe was the ultimate unrenewable resource, and an emblem of the prize to be won. Which raises the question of how, exactly, Mailer imagined how such a rivalry might look to a writer who happened to be a woman—although it doesn’t even seem to have occurred to him that this might be a problem. He spends the rest of his essay discussing ten contemporary novels, from Henderson the Rain King to Franny and Zooey, in an attempt to figure out the pecking order. All were written by men. And it’s open to debate if Mailer even thought that women were playing the same game.

It’s hard not to connect this kind of exclusion to the conception of literature as an economic activity defined by a scarcity of resources, or, if you like, as a contest between suitors. One of the worst manifestations of this sort of competitiveness, in art as in life, is the disqualification of potential competitors who don’t look like you, which winnows the field to the benefit of those who are already on the inside. Assuming that the pool of rewards is finite, it’s rational to limit your chosen rivals to people who fit the right profile, even if it results in a twisted Monroe Doctrine—James, not Marilyn—in which any incursion is seen as an act of hostility. If any outsiders break in, you can claim that they benefited from an unfair advantage, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, or you can pick up your toys and go home. We’ve seen this clearly in the Hugo Awards, but it isn’t unique to science fiction, which just happens to be a place where a structural weakness allowed these impulses to become visible. Over the last few years, we’ve repeatedly seen how psychological or economic insecurity on the individual level can turn to resentment of otherness on a mass scale, and writers are no different than anyone else. (If anything, they’re worse, because their insecurity is universal, and they get to set the rules of the game they’re playing. Among other things, it leads to the curious belief that newcomers need to justify their presence, when by any rational standard it should be the other way around.) Every writer ends up assembling his or her private list of rivals, and if this excludes some while including others, we can excuse this as a necessary survival mechanism in a profession that needs all the help it can get. But it’s a different matter in public. There’s no honor in winning, or even in competing in, a game that won’t accept all players. And if you don’t agree, you’ll inevitably find that you’ve been your own worst enemy all along.

The Watergate Fix

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Gore Vidal

“I must get my Watergate fix every morning,” Gore Vidal famously said to Dick Cavett in the final days of the Nixon administration. In his memoir In Joy Still Felt, Isaac Asimov writes: “I knew exactly what he meant.” He elaborates:

I knew we had [Nixon]…From that point on, I took to combing the Times from cover to cover every morning, skipping only the column by Nixon’s minion William Safire. I sometimes bought the New York Post so I could read additional commentary. I listened to every news report on the radio.

I read and listened with greater attention and fascination than in even the darkest days of World War II. Thus my diary entry for May 11, 1973, says, “Up at six to finger-lick the day’s news on Watergate.”

I could find no one else as hooked on Watergate as I was, except for Judy-Lynn [del Rey]. Almost every day, she called me or I called her and we would talk about the day’s developments in Watergate. We weren’t very coherent and mostly we laughed hysterically.

Now skip ahead four decades, and here’s what Wired reporter Marcus Wohlsen wrote earlier this week of a “middle-age software developer” with a similar obsession:

Evan is a poll obsessive, FiveThirtyEight strain—a subspecies I recognize because I’m one of them, too. When he wakes up in the morning, he doesn’t shower or eat breakfast before checking the Nate Silver-founded site’s presidential election forecast (sounds about right). He keeps a tab open to FiveThirtyEight’s latest poll list; a new poll means new odds in the forecast (yup). He get push alerts on his phone when the forecast changes (check). He follows the 538 Forecast Bot, a Twitter account that tweets every time the forecast changes (same). In all, Evan says he checks in hourly, at least while he’s awake (I plead the Fifth).

Wohlsen notes that the design of FiveThirtyEight encourages borderline addictive behavior: its readers are like the lab rats who repeatedly push a button to send a quick, pleasurable jolt coursing through their nervous systems. The difference is that polls and political news, no matter how favorable to one side, deliver a more complicated mix of emotions—hope, uncertainty, apprehension. But as long as the numbers are trending in the right direction, we can’t get enough of them.

Princeton Election Consortium

And it’s striking to see how little the situation has changed since the seventies, apart from a few advances in technology. Asimov had to buy two physical newspapers to get his fix, while we can click effortlessly from one source to another. On the weekend that the Access Hollywood recording was released, I found myself cycling nonstop between the New York Times, Politico, Talking Points Memo, the Washington Post—where I rapidly used up my free articles for the month—and other political sites, like Daily Kos, that I hadn’t visited in years. (I don’t think I’ve been as hooked on political analysis since George W. Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, which still stands out as a golden age in my memories.) Like Asimov, who skipped William Safire’s column, I also know what to avoid. Instead of calling a friend to talk about the day’s developments, I read blog posts and comment threads. Not surprisingly, the time I spend on all this is inversely correlated to the trajectory of the Trump campaign. During a rough stretch in September, I deleted FiveThirtyEight from my bookmarks because it was causing me more anxiety than it was worth. I still haven’t put it back, perhaps on the assumption that if I have to type it into my address bar, rather than clicking on a shortcut, I won’t go back as often. In practice, I’ll often use a quick spin through FiveThirtyEight, Politico, and Talking Points Memo as my reward for getting through half an hour of work, which is the only positive behavior on my part to come out of this entire election.

Of course, there are big differences between Vidal and Asimov’s Watergate fix and its equivalent today. By the time Haldeman and Ehrlichman resigned, Nixon’s goose was pretty much cooked, and someone like Asimov could take unmixed pleasure in his comeuppance. Trump, by contrast, could still get elected. More surprising is the fact that the overall arc of this presidential campaign has been mostly unresponsive to the small daily movements that analytics are meant to track. As Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium recently pointed out, this election has actually been less volatile than usual, and its shape has remained essentially unchanged for months, with Clinton holding a national lead of between two and six points over Trump. It seems noisy, but only because every move is subjected to such scrutiny. In other words, our obsession with polls creates the psychological situation that we’re presumably trying to avoid: we’re subjectively experiencing this race as more volatile than it really is. Our polling fix isn’t rational, at least not from the point of view of minimizing anxiety. As Wohlesen says in Wired, it’s more like a species of magical thinking, in which we place our trust in a certain kind of magician—a data wizard—to see us through an election in which the facts have been treated with disdain. At my lowest moments last month, I would console myself with the thought of Elan Kriegel, Clinton’s director of analytics. The details didn’t matter; it was enough that he existed, and that I could halfway believe that he had access to magic that allowed him to exercise some degree of control over an inherently uncontrollable future. Or as the Wired headline put it: “I just want Nate Silver to tell me it’s all going to be fine.”

The autograph man

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Thomas Pynchon

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “Do you have anybody’s autograph?”

Last weekend, I took part in a local authors program sponsored by the Oak Park Public Library, in which writers from the area were given three minutes each to talk about their work and then hopefully make a few sales. I had a good time and I sold a bunch of copies, which is always a plus. Yet whenever I do an event like this, I’m brought up against the fundamental awkwardness of the interaction when I’m asked to sign a book. For one thing, I can never come up with anything clever to say in the inscription, so I end up scrawling something like “Enjoy!” or “Best wishes!” even to my own family members. (I’ve also realized that when you’re signing all three copies of a trilogy, the buyer starts to get a little impatient by the time you’ve begun dating, inscribing, and signing the third book.) And while I’m always gratified by sales and attention—especially sales—I usually feel like a nocturnal creature that has been dragged, blinking, into the daylight. I became a writer partially because I like hanging out on my own, absorbed in a draft or a pile of research materials, and whenever I’m compelled to be out in the world, it’s as if I’m engaging in a kind of elaborate impersonation.

I assume, though I don’t know for sure, that a lot of other writers feel the same way, even as they’re asked to invest increasing amounts of time in creating a public life that has little in common with what they do for a living. These days, it’s taken for granted that writers will promote themselves with any and all means at their disposal, to the point where even an ordinary desire for privacy starts to seem outré. Here’s the thing about Thomas Pynchon: it’s fun to talk about his “reclusiveness,” as if he were an elusive cryptid like Bigfoot, but by all accounts, he’s an ordinary guy living in New York, with an active social life and a diverse circle of friends. He just doesn’t feel like giving interviews or having his picture published, and that perfectly reasonable stance is so out of line with our expectations that it becomes newsworthy in itself. I’ve always liked what the critic Arthur Salm had to say on the subject:

The man simply chooses not to be a public figure, an attitude that resonates on a frequency so out of phase with that of the prevailing culture that if Pynchon and Paris Hilton were ever to meet—the circumstances, I admit, are beyond imagining—the resulting matter/antimatter explosion would vaporize everything from here to Tau Ceti IV.

Walter Murch's autograph

It’s possible, of course, that certain authors would love to be public figures, if only they’d get the chance. Yet it’s revealing that when we think of the novelist as a celebrity, our minds go back to Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal feuding on The Dick Cavett Show, and the pool of memories dries up the closer we get to the present. Occasionally, a writer famous for fiction will start to assume a role of greater social importance, but it’s almost always at the expense of his or her work as a novelist: Arundhati Roy hasn’t published a novel in seventeen years. That’s the strange thing about the push toward ever greater levels of exposure: even as writers share more and more of themselves on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs like this, their real role in public life—at least for novelists—grows progressively marginalized. In that light, the aggressive presence of authors on social media feels less like self-promotion than a simulation of the cultural role writers no longer possess, if they ever really did. (And it’s also clear that the skill sets required to write a novel and curate a decent Twitter feed have about as much in common as writing and public speaking, which is to say, next to nothing.)

Deep down, I feel much the same way about readings and signings, which are moments when writers can play at being famous in ways that they haven’t experienced—or are spared from—otherwise. (Obviously, this doesn’t include celebrities who were already famous before their books were published: Lena Dunham’s book tour has about as much in common with your average reading as Cirque du Soleil does with a local black box theater’s production of Hedda Gabler.) If it sounds like I’m overthinking it, well, I probably am. But it doesn’t prevent me from feeling a little uncomfortable whenever I find myself in that kind of encounter, regardless of which side of the autograph table I’m on. The only person I’ve ever asked for an autograph is Walter Murch, and the fact that he was a perfect gentleman about it didn’t make our few seconds of small talk any less awkward. Luckily, that moment occupies only a tiny sliver of the mental real estate devoted to his movies, books, and interviews. To the extent that I feel I know Murch, or anyone, it has less to do with the handshake we shared than with all the time I’ve spent in his virtual company, when neither of us was playing a role, and we were far enough apart for at least one of us to really say something, even if the conversation only ran in one direction.

Written by nevalalee

October 24, 2014 at 9:53 am

Googling the rise and fall of literary reputations

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on December 17, 2010.

As the New York Times recently pointed out, Google’s new online book database, which allows users to chart the evolving frequency of words and short phrases over 5.2 million digitized volumes, is a wonderful toy. You can look at the increasing frequency of George Carlin’s seven dirty words, for example—not surprisingly, they’ve all become a lot more common over the past few decades—or chart the depressing ascent of the word “alright.” Most seductively of all, perhaps, you can see at a glance how literary reputations have risen or fallen over time.

Take the five in the graph above, for instance. It’s hard not to see that, for all the talk of the death of Freud, he’s doing surprisingly well, and even passed Shakespeare in the mid-’70s (around the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, as Woody Allen’s creative peak). Goethe experienced a rapid fall in popularity in the mid-’30s, though he had recovered nicely by the end of World War II. Tolstoy, by contrast, saw a modest spike sometime around the Big Three conference in Tehran, and a drop as soon as the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb. And Kafka, while less popular during the satisfied ’50s, saw a sudden surge in the paranoid decades thereafter:

Obviously, it’s possible to see patterns anywhere, and I’m not claiming that these graphs reflect real historical cause and effect. But it’s fun to think about. Even more fun is to look at the relative popularity of five leading American novelists of the last half of the twentieth century:

The most interesting graph is that for Norman Mailer, who experiences a huge ascent up to 1970, when his stature as a cultural icon was at his peak (just after his run for mayor of New York). Eventually, though, his graph—like those of Gore Vidal, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow—follows the trajectory that we’d suspect for that of an established, serious author: a long, gradual rise followed by a period of stability, as the author enters the official canon. Compare this to a graph of four best-selling novelists of the 1970s:

For Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, Irving Wallace, and Arthur Hailey—and if you don’t recognize their names, ask your parents—we see a rapid rise in popularity followed by an equally rapid decline, which is what we might expect for authors who were once hugely popular but had no lasting value. And it’ll be interesting to see what this graph will look like in fifty years for, say, Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown, and in which category someone like Jonathan Franzen or J.K. Rowling will appear. Only time, and Google, will tell.

Gore Vidal on literary competition

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Gore Vidal

I went into a line of work in which jealousy is the principal emotion between practitioners. I don’t think I ever suffered from it, because there was no need. But I was aware of it in others, and I found it a regrettable fault.

There was more of a flow to my output of writing in the past, certainly. Having no contemporaries left means you cannot say, “Well, so-and-so will like this,” which you do when you’re younger. You realize there is no so-and-so anymore. You are your own so-and-so. There is a bleak side to it.

Gore Vidal, to Esquire

Written by nevalalee

August 25, 2013 at 9:50 am

Posted in Books, Quote of the Day, Writing

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Survival of the envious

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Gore Vidal

“I believe that nothing completely satisfies an imaginative writer,” wrote Frederick Locker-Lampson, “but copious and continuous amounts of unmitigated praise, always provided it is accompanied by a large and increasing sale of his works.” I’d like to say that this is a humorous exaggeration, but really, it’s pretty much the truth. Writers, by nature, are insecure creatures: they’ve chosen a trade that offers few visible rewards for years on end, often in the face of justified skepticism from their family and friends, and even those who make it into print generally only do so after much rejection. Once they’ve been published, they’re likely to find themselves confronted with an entirely different set of problems: the fact that their work is freely available to public opinion leaves them perpetually skinless, to use Walter Murch’s memorable phrase, and these days, a writer who wants to obsess over sales figures and reviews can do so in real time, a prospect that might have made even Locker-Lampson’s head explode.

And the amount of information available to contemporary writers only magnifies their natural tendency to emphasize bad news over good. No matter how well things might be going in other respects, there’s always a lukewarm reader review, a dip in sales rank, or a list of award nominees that glaringly omits the writer’s own name. Worst of all is what I like to think of as the Colonel Cathcart complex, in which a writer can’t be altogether happy if there’s another author out there somewhere, his age or younger, who is doing ever so slightly better in the same general field. Few writers, no matter how emotionally healthy they might be in other respects, can bring themselves to view their own success in absolute terms: it’s always the relative measure that stings. Which is really just a particularly ingenious way of guaranteeing that no writer can ever be entirely content. “Writers seldom wish other writers well,” Saul Bellow says, in a slightly softened version of Gore Vidal’s more pointed observation: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

Philip Roth

None of these observations are new, of course; even if they hadn’t been confirmed by other writers, they’re facts that any writer can verify just by consulting his own feelings whenever another record-breaking advance or movie deal is announced. And all the evidence implies that such dissatisfaction is a permanent part of the writing life. If you had a laboratory in which you could assemble a perfect writer, one whose career followed a perfect trajectory—early acclaim yielding to massive mainstream success and a second golden period in old age—you’d end up with Philip Roth, whose unhappiness with his own life’s work is a matter of record. But the most terrifying truth of all is that these feelings aren’t an undesirable side effect of a writer’s existence, but an essential element of it. Any writer who survives to produce more than a few good books is a creature who has been forced to evolve under considerable environmental pressure, and the one common trait that lies beneath all great careers is the refusal to be satisfied.

In an ideal world, this kind of professional envy would concentrate solely on matters of art: it’s natural and presumably healthy to want to write better books than any of one’s peers. (Like most writers, I’d like to believe that if the books I wrote already existed, I’d be content just to read them, and leave the hard work to someone else.) Yet this obsession with the quality of one’s craft shades naturally into the less positive characteristics that are equally central to a writer’s identity. A writer is like a show dog who has been bred for certain desirable characteristics that happen to go hand in hand with chronic, sometimes crippling problems, like a pekingese whose flat face leads to trouble breathing, or a great dane with hip dysplasia. For writers, the desirable qualities are perfectionism and obsession with craft; the side effects, sadly, are insecurity and jealousy. As far as treating the condition goes, a steady drip of praise and good sales is one answer; drugs and alcohol are another; but the best cure, inevitably, is work, as Norman Mailer once said with regard to his own bad reviews:

[They] put iron into my heart again, and rage…and so one had to mend, and put on the armor, and go to war, go out to war again, and try to hew huge strokes with the only broadsword God ever gave you, a glimpse of something like Almighty prose.

Written by nevalalee

March 25, 2013 at 9:50 am

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