Article

GORE VIDAL (OCT. 3, 1925-JULY 31, 2012): A WRITER WORTHY OF HIS WORDS

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

A young GORE VIDAL.

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.

Prose Models

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

VIDAL in middle age.

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

The elder in the ripening of genius.

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.

55 Responses to “GORE VIDAL (OCT. 3, 1925-JULY 31, 2012): A WRITER WORTHY OF HIS WORDS”

  1. Elizabeth
    August 8, 2012 at 8:02 am #

    Hey Dan, has anyone ever called you an enigma? I love how you write. I just can’t figure you out. Your writings remind me of Thoreau. Smooth and pratical, yet stirring.
    I won’t be rushing to read Vidal anytime soon, but thanks for the insight. Keep up the great work. :) . Off to the golf course!

    • danvalenti
      August 8, 2012 at 11:02 am #

      Many thanks, Elizabeth.

  2. Scott Laugenour
    August 8, 2012 at 8:04 am #

    Thanks very much for this remembrance, Dan. I am starting to read his novel ‘Burr,’ today.

    My information is that following publication of The City and the Pillar the New York Times refused to publish reviews of any further books by him. This was during a time that the editorial policy of the New York Times forbid use of the word ‘gay.’

    ‘Julian,’ is a terrific novel. So is ‘Myra Breckenridge,’ which my mother-in-law told me she couldn’t stop belly-laughing over while reading.

    Gore Vidal produced a treasure of writings and musings that have inspired me. Our Western Massachusetts libraries have a great collection of his works. Thanks again for this entry today.

  3. danvalenti
    August 8, 2012 at 11:08 am #

    SCOTT
    “Burr” is a masterpiece of historical fiction. I loved how Vidal rarely wrote about himself (except for his two late memoirs) and how he found an abundance of material in U.S. history, making of it the fiction that alone can get it proper due. I’m more familiar with his prose and essays than the other novels you mention, but “The City and the Pillar” has to rank as one of the most important literary events in U.S. history. What the NY Times did to Vidal after that book still curdles fair play and sensitivity. Fortunately, Vidal was made of sterner stuff, and he did not let that defeat him. The only time I was ever reviewed in the NYT (Review of Books), the reviewer misunderstood the book, gave it a so-so review. For such an accomplished paper, it has had a poor stable of critics.

  4. tito
    August 8, 2012 at 11:56 am #

    Isn’t Laugenour running for office Dan.

    • danvalenti
      August 8, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

      He sure is. He’s running against William Pignatelli for state rep in south county.

  5. tito
    August 8, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

    Does Laugenour have a chance, Planet?

    • danvalenti
      August 8, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

      Yes.

      • Larry
        August 8, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

        Come on Dan….. Are you kidding? Perhaps, if Smitty gets run over by a car between now and election and a weak write-in candidate doesn’t surface after the fact! The green guy just is not electable.

        • danvalenti
          August 8, 2012 at 7:40 pm #

          He IS electable. Of course, if Smitty keeps turnout low, manages to survive the toothless, softball debate(s), and doesn’t make mistakes, he wins. If, though, for some reason, turnout is unusually high, Laugenour triumphs in debate, and outhustles Smitty in the show leather department, he can win. Turnout is key. New voters in this political climate will no go for a long-time incumbent. Scott Laugenour could pull of an upset of the ages. Nothing is impossible until proven otherwise.

          • Hilly Billy 2 in Ward 4
            August 9, 2012 at 5:09 am #

            DV no matter what happens DV, Scott L has NO shot…Nice guy, intelligent guy, just doesn’t know how to present himself and to who he is presenting himself to, just over the top in his public demonstrations…too bad cause his ideas aren’t half bad, if he won it would be the BIGGEST upset since David vs Goliath…

          • Larry
            August 9, 2012 at 5:45 am #

            Smitty will win with 75% of the vote

  6. Dave
    August 8, 2012 at 1:47 pm #

    rhetorical questions from tito, and works of fiction as answers by DV

  7. Dave
    August 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

    Speaking of elections, can anyone tell me why Register of Deeds is an elected position? If it wasn’t, would there even be a question of who is more qualified? I saw in the BB that there is even a “Forum” with the candidates???????? What in the wide wide world of sports is going on here? I am glad, though, that they didn’t call it a debate because what could possibly be debated? I can register those deeds faster than he/she can!
    Ridiculousness. I have no horse in this race, but If 20+ years can mean nothing because this is an elected position, then something is wrong.

  8. tito
    August 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    Dave, this is why you won the King of the Swamp’ award last week, satire is your strong point. Do you really think experience means anything when it comes down to it. Do you think Ms. Harris might have known someone when she was originally hired? And really has nowhere to go, the girls down at the Registry are probably just as proficient as the candidate. With that being said, Scott Pignatelli has as much a chance as the other two, in my humble opinion, as of right now I see It Phillips and Pignatelli percentage points apart, with Hinsdale Patsy a distant third.

    • Dave
      August 8, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

      tito hopefully there is a monetary reward to my award. But you make my point that unfortunately it seems experience does not matter because it is an elected position and not based on any real qualifications. If there were 3 people from the office running
      then your point about proficiency would matter, but as it sits it again makes my point that someone with 20+ years experience
      just makes sense over an electrician and someone that has never explained why she all of a sudden dropped out of a prior election.

      • ShirleyKnutz
        August 8, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

        The Probation Department is not elected and we saw how they hired!!

    • dusty
      August 8, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

      If Pignatelli wins it will be another sad day in politics for the county.

      Just for once I would like to see a truly qualified and deserving candidate win an office. If it were your own personal business you would never think of hiring Pignatelli. You would opt for the one who could actually do the job or your business would fail in a hurry.

  9. CONCERNED
    August 8, 2012 at 3:07 pm #

    Tito: What a low blown to Ms Harris. You can promote who you like, however you don’t have to dump on her with statements you that are just stupid. Where is you facts of 25 years ago ?????

  10. tito
    August 8, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

    It was a hypothetical comment Concerned, unlike your retort about the Chief and Mayor not doing the job, how stupid is that.

  11. Fan Dan Go
    August 8, 2012 at 3:22 pm #

    The stupid one, tito, is you. Concerned ws right about the mayor and acting chief wynn not doing their jobs. Where are the footpatrols downtown? You add ignorance to stupidity in your “‘analysis’ of the register race. Of course experience matters. How dumb can you get, man? A register must know as much about real estate law as an attorney. Harris has it in spades over the girlfriend of the acting fire chief sherwinski and GOB Piggy. There, how do you like it. That’s what you sound like. Harris for Register!

    • skier1
      August 8, 2012 at 7:31 pm #

      Ms. Harris’s integrity has come into question with “Parade Gate”, lawn signs put on peoples lawn with out permission. Why hasn’t the second in command at the Registers office come out in support of Ms. Harris? How does the Hinsdale Fire Dept feel about her after the parade fiasco? Stick to the FACTS and stop the mud slinging.

      • skier1
        August 8, 2012 at 8:30 pm #

        Has Ms. Harris apologized to the parade committee?

        • dusty
          August 9, 2012 at 1:09 am #

          I suspect you are on the committee to elect Pignatelli. And as such, you and the campaign sound desperate. Trash talking is really all you got to go on. Certainly cannot match Harris in the capability department.

          • skier1
            August 9, 2012 at 6:41 am #

            theSe are FACTS. Has she apologized for her actions in the parade?????? Going after an all volunteer committee and having her committee members trashing them?????????

  12. Bill Sturgeon
    August 8, 2012 at 3:31 pm #

    Dan: This article is a magnificent tribute to Gore Vidal. One of the characteristic’s that I admired the most was that he “owned his words”!

  13. tito
    August 8, 2012 at 3:34 pm #

    Hey Fantasma, who said I a male? Harris has no chance, I’ll leave it at that.

  14. JerryPosner
    August 8, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

    Dan, I am impressed with, and at times amazed at your writing. Some days I just shake my head and mutter, “where does he find the time to write SO much … and so very well?” Kudos!

  15. Jim Gleason
    August 8, 2012 at 4:20 pm #

    Babe Ruth 15′s won the first game over Watertown, CT, 8-6. One more victory for Pittsfield then off to Arkansas for the BR World Series!! Great job guys!!!

    • CONCERNED
      August 8, 2012 at 8:54 pm #

      Thanks Jim for the great news

  16. tito
    August 8, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

    Thanks Jim, when is the second game?

    • Jim Gleason
      August 8, 2012 at 4:25 pm #

      7:30. Go to baberuthregionalquincy.com and follow the leads to follow the game live. And it’s Waterford, CT, sorry.

      • Dave
        August 8, 2012 at 4:43 pm #

        THANKS JIM

        Watch games online all the time keeping track of fantasy stats, who knew you could watch local teams. 1-2-3 top of first for Pittsfield!

  17. joetaxpayer
    August 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

    Thanks Jim,Win or lose what a run through the loser bracket.Pittsfield should be proud, great bunch of kids.

  18. tito
    August 8, 2012 at 4:48 pm #

    Pittsfield takes this. Bob Shade will be the difference!

    • Dave
      August 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

      2-0 in the first

  19. tito
    August 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    It’s 3 – 0 as I speak, we’re going!

  20. tito
    August 8, 2012 at 5:40 pm #

    7-0 after three……Pittsfield !

  21. Hurdygurdy Man
    August 8, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

    This is a brilliant piece of writing, DV, as fine as anything the great man himself, Gore Vidal, ever wrote. You are in his league as a writer and thinker.

    • danvalenti
      August 8, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

      Many thanks, HG Man.

  22. Emeritus
    August 8, 2012 at 6:12 pm #

    DV, nicely done. GV will be missed. Thanks.

    • danvalenti
      August 8, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

      Thank you, Emeritus.

  23. joetaxpayer
    August 8, 2012 at 6:18 pm #

    Can you believe it,Pittsfield New England Babe Ruthl Champs!Wow,what a run.Congrates!

  24. tito
    August 8, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

    Van Buren Arkansas, home of Big Jakes Steakhouse and the Babe Ruth World Series, this is great. It’s fun to see the kids win and have a shot at the big prize. well done!

  25. Jim Gleason
    August 8, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

    9-0 victory for Pittsfield on a 1 hitter by Steve Witkowski. Great job guys, see you soon Andrew my buddy.

  26. Giacometti
    August 8, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

    Dan…your writing of Gore Vidal was on a plane of greatness….thank you for your insightful critique

    • danvalenti
      August 8, 2012 at 8:26 pm #

      GIACOMETTI
      It was a piece that I couldn’t write, immediately after his death. Such a finality, from our earthly perspective, needs some distance. When I got into the subject, I kept seeing a lot of myself. I understood the man in a way I hadn’t before. Thanks for the kind words.

  27. Diogenes
    August 9, 2012 at 5:23 am #

    MOLLY / NANCY

    Dan,
    On a somber note, with unspeakable sadness and heartbreak, I must inform you of the passing away of one of your prolific posters, Molly / Nancy. A woman of prodigious intelligence and strength like I’ve rarely seen, the cancer finally beat her on Saturday morning, August 4, 2012. After 11 grueling years of almost superhuman bravery, she couldn’t fight back from the terrible thing that had been done to her, which had it been done correctly, could and should have given her years more of a good quality of life. She had a kind and generous heart and advocated for the protection of children and animals, both of which were very dear to her heart.
    I post this here on The Planet because for many months she enjoyed doing research to back up her postings and voicing her opinions. She was outraged when Dan got sued and so pleased at the outcome of that debacle. posting was a great distraction from the pain she felt every day but wouldn’t give in to. Even her detractors on PV would get her charged up to fend them off. Nancy was a vibrant, unique, wonderful person who I will miss more and more each day and going on without her seems incomprehensible, I thought that Dan and some others, like Susan Moore, would want to know.
    Rest in peace, little sister. you’ve certainly earned it.

    • Larry
      August 9, 2012 at 7:20 am #

      My condolences, Nancy always made a lot of sense and forwarded the discussions on this blog with a lot of intelligence!

      She will certainly be missed by all.

    • Scott
      August 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

      I was wondering if something was going on. She had a wealth of knowledge on the public school system sorry for your loss.

  28. Alice
    August 9, 2012 at 6:59 am #

    I am so sorry to hear of Nancy/Molly’s passing

  29. Gene
    August 9, 2012 at 7:08 am #

    May God accept Molly/Nancy into His good heaven.

  30. The Kraken
    August 9, 2012 at 7:29 am #

    So sorry to hear about Molly/Nancy. May she rest in peace. I enjoyed reading her posts.

  31. Giacometti
    August 9, 2012 at 8:20 pm #

    Molly / Nancy was very special…her views into any topic she wrote of here were insightful and intelligent. Although I never met her I felt I knew her. I’ll miss her. Please accept my condolences.

  32. Diogenes
    August 9, 2012 at 10:51 pm #

    Thank you all for your kind words, Nancy would appreciate them I know I do. She was very special.
    Ladies, please, get your yearly mammograms and do your self-exams. Do everything you can to avoid this particular horror.