Interview: Gore Vidal – The New York Times

from the book review archives
Diane Johnson chatted with the confident writer in 1977, asking him to explain what made him a self-proclaimed “authority” on all things literary.
Credit…Seymour Chwast
Supported by

Interview first published April 17, 1977
Mr. Vidal, you recently wrote in The New York Review of Books, “When it comes to matters of prose and of fiction at this time and in this place, I am authority.” Is this authority conferred by fiat? By whom? Or is it seized? Or revealed?
It is earned, mostly, but it is also a matter of temperament. The critic must know more than either writer or academic. He must also value experience and have a truth-telling nature. I think I have that. In their youth most people worry whether or not other people will like them. Not me. I had the choice of going under or surviving, and I survived by understanding (after the iron — if not the silver — had entered my soul) that it is I who am keeping score. What matters is what I think, not what others think of me; and I am willing to say what I think. That is the critical temperament. Edmund Wilson had it, but almost no one else now does, except for a few elderly Englishmen.
No doubt to be a critic one must be a well-educated moralist with an experiencing nature, but one thing is troubling: Is it also necessary to be good? You mention in your essay on Louis Auchincloss that it is an article of faith with Americans that only a good person can write a good book. But you do not exactly say whether you agree.
That’s an abiding question, and I’ve often thought about it. But in a way it’s like saying that you can’t be a good writer and bad in bed.
Well, I don’t see that it’s quite the same. Anyway, some of our most famous writers — Hemingway and Mailer, among others — have seemed, by their works, to believe just that. Despite what people may hear about them privately.
Well, almost all American male writers are alcoholic, and as a result of the alcohol they become less capable sexually as they get older. They also become confused about which is their penis, which is their pen. Think of all those clones of Hemingway, drinking and worrying — fortunately they write very little.
But human goodness — to return to the question — may be beside the point. Mailer said he would be a better writer if his contemporaries had been better writers, and, pitiful statement that it is, one knows what he means. If there were a half dozen good literary critics around, all writing would be better. As it is, an act of publication is almost for its own sake — there are so few critics writing whose opinion one would care to read. It’s better to publish in England because the level of criticism is a bit higher. At least they know how to describe books. Here it’s hit and run. There’s no accountability. A critic whom no one knows strikes out at a writer whose other work he doesn’t know.
Like playing literary Battleship. Yet in your book you deplore the panegyric as much as the unillumined attack.
Yes. With us the ability to detect mediocrity or anything else is rare. Evaluation descends, through ignorance, to mere opinion, and opinion is a matter of fashion. And fashion is based on middle-class, middlebrow values, despite the mock defiance of an occasional licensed fool, like Vonnegut.
Where are the critics with commitment to study and reflection? Is there any other critic who would do today what I did, in “Matters of Fact and of Fiction,” for Italo Calvino? I read him, thought about him, and presented my findings. I wait for a critic to do this for my work. Oh, academics do it, and their works are useful in helping you keep track of when you wrote what — you can always look in their appendices. But in academe the tone is wrong. The object overwhelms the subject. One does not know who the scholar is; therefore it does not much matter what he thinks. The opposite case is the mad egotism of a writer like Mailer, whose subjectivity becomes the topic, whatever the occasion. What’s wanted is the essay, in Montaigne’s sense — the attempt. The critical act must ultimately be the examination of one’s own life.
Oscar Wilde said that criticism is the record of one’s own soul, the only civilized form of autobiography, with which, I take it, you would agree. And you mention another great critic, Montaigne. Have you been influenced by these men? Or by whom?
I must read more Wilde. I read and reread Montaigne. But what really started me writing critical essays was my reading of George Saintsbury. When I was 25 I bought a house up on the Hudson, and for 10 years I read, and supported myself by writing for TV. Saintsbury was a terrible Tory, but good on the French.
And good on style. Do you give him credit for your brilliant style, or do you reserve credit for that to yourself? I don’t remember that Saintsbury was ever funny.
He was good on the text. It was through Saintsbury I came to read the French, especially Sainte-Beuve, and another critical line that interested me was Peacock/Meredith/Huxley.
Peacock, Meredith and Montaigne were all self-educated, in the way you describe yourself. Is that significant?
Self-education is the point of education. But it is easier if you have escaped the stifling of the academy. I had only one interesting course at Exeter, on Plato and Milton, otherwise the boredom was complete. I tried to educate myself by writing down the events of history, in parallel columns, to learn what was happening in Assyria while events went forward in, say, France. I always wanted to know everything. And if I were a dictator, this is how I would require children to be educated, starting them out at whatever the best age is, with whatever the best theory is of the origin of the world, and bringing them back along through history — in parallel columns — no black history or English history or other separatist nonsense — making them read the math, and philosophy, and literature of each period, so that when they are 17 or so they would know the best that has been thought and said in the world, to appropriate Matthew Arnold’s phrase.
Your assumption, then, is that curiosity is an innate property of the human mind? It’s a nice view.
I must believe that or I couldn’t live. The whole reason I write those historical novels is to teach myself. Being a puritan, I believe it is good to know something. Still, regarding curiosity, there is some evidence to the contrary. Except Bellow, my celebrated contemporaries all seem to have stopped learning in their 20s. D.H. Lawrence said it all, in a review of Hemingway, when he pointed out that Hemingway was essentially a photographer — and photographers don’t age well.
Matthew Arnold held disinterestedness, with curiosity, to be the properties with which the critic would save culture, by which he meant much more than just literature. From the wide range of subjects in your new volume, I gather that you too are concerned with this connection.
The relation of literature to culture is evident, though it seems widely to have escaped notice. Culture is in the hands of schoolteachers who enter literature in much the same way that the Victorians went into the church, and once safely inside the academy, increase their own kind, spawned by misreadings of Joyce. They are insulated from most of the public novels, by writers like Saul Bellow and me, who expect their work to be read by people. Academics particularly delight in novels that mistake the university for the universe, of the sort that Prof. John Barth writes. But, to paraphrase my own essay, it seems not to matter to American culture whether any given book is good or bad, for who, after all, would know the difference?
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