By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, THURSDAY, AUG. 9, 2012) — We lead off today with a remembrance of the late, great Gore Vidal. Along the way to becoming a writer — and before and after all else (broadcaster, educator), that’s what we consider ourselves to be — THE PLANET has adopted many role models, heroes, and avatars.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
That’s how we learn, by standing on the shoulders of giants.
Writers are not born, since no one emerges from the womb with the skills of language. Writers
are called, however, in a vocational sense, and an authentic writer has no choice but to following the calling, no matter the cost. Those who do not answer the call assure themselves a life full of “If only I …” and a deathbed lament of “Why didn’t I?” That is the way of it for all true artists. You can’t risk deathbed regrets and the squandering of your talent.
Ignore the call at your own peril. We answered our call in letters. My brother Mick answered his in music. To this day, the two of us have never done anything else for our livings than to pursue our destinies this way. Do not make commercial success the reason why you pursue a career or profession. That is the sure road to failure, which we equate with unhappiness and restlessness of soul. Artists who pursue their calling with everything they have shall be assured of peace of mind and a wealth of psychic pay. Fortunately for the way it worked out, THE PLANET achieved a decent measure of success as the world measures it, and to this day, we still can’t believe: “Wow. We get paid to do this?” We learned early about and subscribed to the ancient Greek notion of happiness: The fullest pursuit of one’s talents and abilities along the lines of excellence. If there is a better formula for fulfillment, we have yet to hear it.
Vidal supported himself his entire life by the output of his mind, something THE PLANET has done. Vidal took great pride in that accomplishment, and so do we. Both of us wrote, spoke, taught, and broadcast words and found others who were willing to pay us for these activities. THE PLANET has never taken this great gift for granted. Rather, we felt obliged to use up every drop of it in the expression of our ideas. No one outworked us, and few took on so many projects in different media. We suspect all of this held true for Vidal.
The models we found as we began to get serious about pursuing a writing life provided scaffolding, framework, archetypes, and blueprints for how one might go about making a living at it. We admired Dostoevsky, Dreiser, Whitman, Vidal, Poe, Orwell, and the New Journalists such as Talese, Vidal, Wolfe, Capote, to name a few. There were many more. They had one thing in common: They began (and often continued) their careers in journalism, most of them in newspapers, that endangered species now in its death throes.
Moreover, we voraciously read … and read and read and read. If our Lit class in college demanded four books a week from us, we read six. We have never stopped. Along the way of such reading, a writer begins to absorb knowledge and style from here and there. The brain, the mind, and that part from which springs forth the creative element begins to “recognize” good prose from mediocre or bad. The language mechanism in the brain sifts out the styles that resonate. The inelegant styles fall to the chaffing floor. The winnowing fan for this, of course, remains personal to each writer. The only way to lock on to Your style is to write. We never bothered attending meetings for “writers” or took writing classes. Instead, we filled notebooks with writing, experimenting, mimicking styles, and fooling around in the alphabet. We wrote for any publication that would use our work, no matter how modest.
We also began to learn a crucial lesson about communication. Once a person decides to take his words and share them with others, he is being “political,” a word used in the broadest sense to describe the art and science of manipulating others. “Manipulation” has a bad rap, rightly so, from incessant advertising and the messages that inundate folks during a political campaign, but there can be good manipulation — for example, a parent who tries to manipulate a child into doing the right thing. Communication occurs once you take your words out of “diary” form, abandoning mere self-expression for the attempt to share them with others so they may try on your ideas.
It’s not the words you wish to share but the message contained in the words. You want to convince someone of something. You must necessarily become argumentative. Vidal was one of the greatest polemicist of the last 100 years. He used words the way a diamond cutter handles tools meant to crack a larger stone into brilliantly faceted gems. We modeled our approach to polemics based on Vidal’s didactic method, making his points with aplomb, not only with the intention to “win” but also to enlighten and educate. To Vidal’s sophisticated elegance, we added on dash of Christopher Hitchen‘s relentlessness and George Galloway‘s pounding, frontal assaults.
A Willingness to be ‘Out There’ with His Ideas
We admired Vidal’s use of humor to make serious points, his willingness to be “out there” with his views (“Never pass up a chance to have sex or appear on television,” he once said), and his tone, which managed to convey utter conviction at the same time as he informed the reader (or listener or viewer) that his tongue could be found planted firmly in cheek. Few wanted to go up against Vidal in a game of wits, and those who did knew they were matched against a giant intellect. Critics blasted him for employing aphorisms rather than classic argumentation, but the slam represented no more than the last futile bullet out of the otherwise empty chamber of a six gun. On a smaller scale, our career echoed much of this, so I suppose it’s natural we should have had great admiration for the man.
We both shared the view that the best time to write was morning, because in the a.m., one is closer to the dream state. As the day goes one, one loses that, although not completely. In the same way, at night, as bedtime approaches, a writer can also access that same state. The rest of a writer’s day is spent on revision.
Perhaps our favorite quote from Vidal is this one: “There is no human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.” Also, “Write something, even if it’s just a suicide note.” When an audience member asked him why Massachusetts was the only state to vote for McGovern over Nixon, a man Vidal loathed, he answered that Massachusetts, as not only one of the oldest states, was also hands-down the most corrupt. Therefore, “The people of Massachusetts recognized a crook when they saw one.”
Not the Novel, Not Script Writing, but The Essay as the Best Literary Form
THE PLANET shared Vidal’s view that the novel has become a debased form of literature, existing basically to make sex seems better than it is or life more adventuresome that it can be. Novels have gone the way of poetry: Serious novelists might toil on for a small group of disciples, but they are largely ignored (see Italo Calvino, for example). Publishers had much to do with this by publishing too many bad books. Novels died as a popular art form, to be replaced today by video games, a broad term that includes most anything done with or on an electronic sccreen. Vidal knew the most purest and elegant form of prose expression is the essay, whose length can go on enough to make and develop a theme without taxing the reader into cerebral numbness.
The essay uses paragraphs as building blocks. It is impossible to write an effective essay without clear, concise, and unified paragraphs. A novel inflates the value of paragraphs by constructing them so carelessly, randomly, and numerously. Scripts don’t have paragraphs.
Vidal’s most brilliant recent work were not novels or plays, although his work in those genres was largely first rate. Rather, they came in the form of essays and speeches denouncing what happened to America following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the luckiest day in the life of the worst president in U.S. history, George W. Bush, a man Vidal hilariously mimicked with devastating insight (“Ahm a war time president”). Vidal revealed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan for what they were: Unnecessary, preventive, cynical in the extreme, fraudulently engineered, and lucrative for the rebuilders such as VP Dick Cheney.
He ‘Owned His Words’
Vidal fashioned himself as a truth teller, and he “owned his words,” something every writer and speaker must learn to do if he or she is to have any chance of goodness, let alone greatness. In teaching developing writers, that concept of “ownership” — while being one of the easiest principles to convey — is one of the hardest to get a shaky writer or speaker to employ. When a person is not sure of what he or she wants to say, or, being sure, doesn’t have the grammatical confidence, proper tone, effective style, smooth syntax, and the other specifics of expression, the astute audience member or reader will pick up on that.
When such an unsure speaker talks, he or she mumbles. When an unsure writer fills up the page, he or she lacks clarity and invariably falls into vagueness and generality. They are terrified at the thought of public speaking or writing, because they have nothing to say and usually believe in little to nothing. In the end, they are scared to say something.
Groundbreaking Novel: Success at a Heavy Price
Vidal most influential novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), owed its pull not so much for the writing, which was superb, but for the subject matter, which was taboo. That book was the first novel to confront the homophobia built into America since its founding days.
The City and the Pillar hit the best seller list, but it almost ruined Vidal’s career. The subsequent backlash, not against his writing but against his sexuality, doomed his next five novels to obscurity. The critics took him apart, as in this excerpt from a review by John Aldridge:
“[Vidal's] writing after Williwaw is one long record of stylistic breakdown and spiritual exhaustion. It is confused and fragmentary, pulled in every direction by the shifting winds of impressionism. It is always reacting, always feeling and seeing; but it never signifies because it never believes.”
Back when critics mattered, this treatment took a toll. Nonetheless, Vidal used the barbs as fuel, sharpening his rhetorical approach and taking this counter-punching style into the new medium of TV, screenwriting, and drama. Vidal never considered himself a playwright or a screenwriter, however. He knew that scripts were merely blueprints, a set of plans that the writer developed for a producer, who might do whatever he or she wanted with it, the writer be durned.
Vidal wrote scripts for money, which is the best reason possible. He wrote good scripts. He did what every writer must figure out how to do: exchange words for dollar bills. Interestingly, he was the last contract writer hired by MGM, when the studio system was declining.
THE PLANET had a brief experience with screenwriting in the late 80s, when we went to Hollywood. The “dream factory” by then had been taken over by corporate giants who knew little about TV or movies. Rather, they hired writers to develop projects that would never be filmed or produced. The “scam” is summed up best from this line in the movie Barton Fink (Fink is a playwright who goes to Hollywood to write for Colossal Pictures). The head of the studio, a Harry Cohn-Sam Goldwyn type, tells him: “Fink, you’re not a writer. You’re a write-off.” We wrote two movie scripts, took the money, and — when it came time to stay in Tinsel Town or head back East — caught the red eye out of LA. Such is the fate of a screenwriter. We headed back east richer, more experienced, and wiser, realizing the portent in our decision when flying over the Grand Canyon in the wee hours of the morning during a lightning storm.
A Love of the Process of Politics, Though Not Politics Per Se
Vidal loved politics — the process of politics, not the results. His politics were left of center, honest to a fault, and well reasoned. He politicked in an urbane, dry manner that found gold in employing overstated words in understated tone. He blistered the two-party system (“There is only one party in the United States: The Property Party. It has two right wings, Republican and Democrat”). Democrats, he told us, were “cuter, prettier, and a bit more corrupt.” Republicans were stupider, most rigid, and more hidebound by doctrine. That was in 1970. As the years passed by, his assessment became more trenchant.
Among his best works were the series of American history novels. These books included politics and personalities of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Aaron Burr, 1976, and Lincoln. Joyce Carol Oates said Lincoln was “not so much an imaginative reconstruction of an era as an intelligent, lucid and highly informative transcript of it, never less than workmanlike in its blocking out of scenes and often extremely compelling. No verbal pyrotechnics here, nothing to challenge a conservative aesthetics biased against the house of fiction itself. By subordinating the usual role of the novelist to the role of historian-biographer, Mr Vidal acknowledges his faith in the high worth of his material.”
When Gore Vidal died, the collective IQ of the world dropped. We shall miss him. Fortunately, we have his body of work.
If ever a writer was worth his material, it was Gore Vidal. May he rest in peace.
AT THE CREATION OF THE EARTH PLEASURE, THAT DIVINEST BIRTH, FROM THE SOIL OF HEAVEN DID RISE, WRAPPED IN SWEET, WILD MELODIES.
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.