Gore Vidal

I wasn’t as keen on him lately as I once was, because of the conspiracy-thought and the sympathetic view of Timothy McVeigh and the like…but still, he was a hell of an essayist.

Not a very good novelist, I always thought, but a brilliant essayist. Orwell was the same. Some people just shouldn’t write fiction; it’s odd when they don’t realize it.

The Times obit says I’m not the only one who thinks so.

In the opinion of many critics, though, Mr. Vidal’s ultimate reputation is apt to rest less on his novels than on his essays, many of them written for The New York Review of Books. His collection “The Second American Revolution” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 1982. About a later collection, “United States: Essays 1952-1992,” R. W. B. Lewis wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Vidal the essayist was “so good that we cannot do without him,” adding, “He is a treasure of state.”

Mr. Vidal’s essays were literary, resurrecting the works of forgotten writers like Dawn Powell and William Dean Howells, and also political, taking on issues like sexuality and cultural mores. The form suited him ideally: he could be learned, funny, stylish, show-offy and incisive all at once. Even Jason Epstein, Mr. Vidal’s longtime editor at Random House, once admitted that he preferred the essays to the novels, calling Mr. Vidal “an American version of Montaigne.”

“I always thought about Gore that he was not really a novelist,” Mr. Epstein wrote, “that he had too much ego to be a writer of fiction because he couldn’t subordinate himself to other people the way you have to as a novelist.”

Learned, funny, stylish, show-offy and incisive all at once – much like Hitchens, which is no doubt why Vidal named Hitch his “heir” about fifteen years ago. Hitchens used that as a blurb afterwards; he was very proud of it.




  1. lpetrich says

    He was also willing to stick his neck out in defense of homosexuality, with his novel The City and the Pillar, published in 1948. Its central character was a homosexual man, and that novel pictured homosexual people as essentially “normal”. GV wrote it in a plain sort of style that made some people think that it was a thinly disguised autobiography.

    That book caused controversy and outrage, and the New York Times refused to review it. GV had to write under pseudonyms for some years afterward.

    In the late 1960’s, GV got into some nasty shouting matches over politics with William F. Buckley, with GV calling WFB a crypto-Nazi and WFB calling GV a queer.

  2. slc1 says

    Re Ipetrich @ #1

    In the late 1960′s, GV got into some nasty shouting matches over politics with William F. Buckley, with GV calling WFB a crypto-Nazi and WFB calling GV a queer.

    Both of those descriptions are entirely correct and accurate.

  3. slc1 says

    Although at the time Vidal made the following statement, he was probably declining into senility. However, the statement is vile and inexcusable.

    I really don’t give a fuck. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?

  4. says

    He was also willing to stick his neck out in defense of homosexuality, with his novel The City and the Pillar, published in 1948.

    Though not, alas, for trans* people, writing Myra Breckendridge (and its sequel, Myron), one of the most transphobic novels I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter.

  5. 'Tis Himself says

    I was never a fan of Vidal. He was a decent essayist, a mediocre novelist, and a complete egotist. I can take egotism if the person is exceptional but Vidal never attained that level. He spent the last thirty or so years of his life being famous for being famous.

  6. asquith says

    Not familiar with Vidal I’m afraid, but why do you say this about Orwell? Not just the books he’s famous for, but other fiction like “Coming Up For Air”, I admire enormously. He and Aldous Huxley are the only fictional authors I really read, and it’s instructive to note that they’ve both written extensive non-fiction.

    Sorry to derail the topic, it just sprung out as a statement I’d disagree with strongly.

  7. says

    Wow. Ok I’ve gone off him more than I’d realized.

    asquith – because they’re crudely written. They’re interesting, but they’re not good. (I would say the same about Aldous Huxley. I frequently try to read him again, and always fail, because the writing is so crude.)

  8. pipenta says

    I’m going to have to read some of Vidal’s essays. I believe I’ve only read excerpts. He’s going on the list with Hitchens. My backlog of reading is ever growing, and that’s a good thing.

    The Polanski prosecution comment is sickening though. Why is it empathy often so difficult for people? I would think as you get older and have more experience, empathy would get easier.

  9. Orlando says

    Bit of a tangent, but following the thread of essayists who have written fiction, I don’t often see it noted that Susan Sontag wrote the wonderful novel The Volcano Lover. Those who weary of the phallocentricism of Vidal, Huxley and Orwell might like to give it a try.

  10. Lyanna says

    slc1, I was going to bring that up myself. Vidal may have been a good writer in the sense of his technical skills, but he was a worthless human, with no basic respect or empathy for others. Especially women.

    Am I going to weep because some old woman-hating fart dies? Not in the last.

  11. says

    Chris, yes – and more of an essay than a novel.

    The Volcano Lover – I wanted to like that, but when it came down to it, I didn’t. It would have made great non-fiction – like Richard Holmes’s Dr Johnson and Mr Savage for instance – but didn’t make a great novel. Compare it with, say, Alias Grace.

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