Gore Vidal is very much in the spotlight these days. The Golden Age: Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot is the last installment of seven in what has been called his American Chronicles (he prefers the name Narratives of Empire) series, published by Doubleday. Vidal's also headed for Broadway with the revival of The Best Man, a play about presidential politics penned in 1960, set to open this week. On top of that, his distant cousin Al Gore is running for president.
Then again, as one of America's foremost critics, essayists and prolific writers of historical fiction, Vidal, who has been called everything from an acerbic wit to a provocateur, has always been a public man. When PW caught up with Vidal in his suite at the Plaza Hotel recently--where just outside the window the city was barricaded for the U.N. Millennium Summit--he talked about history, politics, publishing and the annoying habit of the press to get things just plain wrong.
Seeming not the least bit agitated, Vidal told PW that he had just been reading in the New York Times how he "proudly" stated that he hadn't changed one word of The Best Man since 1960. "They are making it sound as if I thought it was perfect and therefore I couldn't change it," he said. "Now, if you keep doing that once or twice in the press, then you really are creating a monster. I'm obviously small game, but when they do it to Hillary, or somebody like that, it is major stuff."
Perhaps being the subject of several articles prompted Vidal to lead the conversation into a discourse about the faults of the fourth estate, but it was a subject that seemed very much on his mind. In a recent New York magazine article the author is quoted as comparing The Golden Age and other work, including Washington, D.C., Burr and Empire, to Shakespeare. "I was making a joke," said Vidal. "I said that this series of novels is in a way doing the same sort of thing that in poetry Shakespeare did with the history of England, taking real people that existed in history and reinventing them. Then, I quote--to get away from the fact that I'm even comparing myself to Shakespeare--I said I feel very much as P.G. Wodehouse did when he said, 'My stuff is a bit different from Shakespeare, but at least I don't go in for rhyming couplets.'" So he didn't say that proudly either. "This is as stupid as you can get." Vidal's characteristic wit is not always understood.
It seemed the opportune moment for PW to check its recording device.
Misunderstandings and misinformation are nothing new to Vidal or, as he sees it, to history. He said he has been motivated to write historical fiction in part due to the lackluster teaching in American schools. Even good schools, like Exeter, where he did his studies, are not exempt from his criticism. "The history in textbooks for high schools are hilarious," he said. "They are nothing but good citizenship propaganda, which might be very good for good citizenship, but it is very bad at telling us who we were and who we are."
Through fiction, Vidal doesn't so much try to set the record straight as he does attempt to illuminate what he thinks is missing from the history books. In The Golden Age he explicitly makes the case that FDR not only knew of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor before December 7, 1941, but also provoked it in order to get the U.S. into the war. The Best Man revolves around presidential candidates who grapple with the ethics of using personal dirt to tarnish each other--a subject that textbook writers will undoubtedly have to grapple with in a post-Clinton era.
When Vidal, twice a candidate for congressional office and the grandson of Sen. Thomas Pryor Gore from Oklahoma, speaks about the current state of the union, he sounds thoroughly pessimistic. "At the moment, there is nothing to be optimistic about," he said. "The economy is peculiar. The weather is changing, not in our favor, and no one does anything about it nor will they because it cuts down on profits. I've never seen a time when the people have disliked their government more than now."
Vidal calls himself a realist, although writing his books is an optimistic act. "Well, you don't write a book if you think the thing is helpless and if you think it will do no good," he explained.
As for current historical fiction, Vidal said his own research allows for little time to read it. "I read politics and quite a lot of history," he said. But he is not out of the loop. Had he heard about American Rhapsody by J Eszterhas, which exists somewhere between fact and fiction? "I've been told about it," he told PW. Rhapsody touches on some topics not unfamiliar to Vidal's work, such as the role of Hollywood and sex in politics. "But I lack his style," said Vidal, exercising his sarcastic muscles again. "Political porn" is how the author of sexually daring works The City and the Pillar and Myra Breckinridge characterized Eszterhas's book.
Does Vidal think that he would have enjoyed the same career--which started with a brief stint on staff at E.P. Dutton before he went on to publish over 20 of his own novels, numerous screenplays, plays and essay collections--in the current publishing climate? "I don't know," he said. "It seems more like a lottery than it used to be."
The Golden Age is Vidal's first book with Doubleday, a sister company under the same corporate umbrella with Random House, which he left over literary differences last year. "I suddenly realized that I was dealing with people who had no knowledge of books of any kind, and no knowledge of books that had come out more than six months ago," he told PW. "That was the policy of Mr. [Alberto] Vitale--print and pulp, print and pulp." Vidal described his current editor, Gerald Howard, as one of the last old-fashioned editors. "He really knows a lot about literature and he really likes to read. The others all seem like marketing people to me." Before Howard, Vidal worked with editors Jason Epstein and Harry Evans, among others.
Vidal, who turns 75 next month, said he was not sure if any more novels were in his future. However, a new collection of essays is due out from Doubleday next year. In March 2001 he will be featured in Mark Carnes's Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America's Past (and Each Other), published by Simon & Schuster. He has also been a subject, most notably of a biography written by Fred Kaplan, released last year by Doubleday. Despite what the press has stated, Vidal insists he is not upset about the Kaplan book. "I haven't read it, nor will I. But I have friends who told me that it is a rip-off of Palimpsest [Vidal's memoir]," he said. He also knows of two other books about him in the works.
How does the historical novelist who has spent a career researching other lives feel about becoming the subject of research? "Well, there's a lesson in this," he said. "I read how vain and narrative and narcissistic I am. I never write about myself. But people like X, Y and Z--and I'm speaking now only about male writers--do nothing but write about themselves and they are considered marvelous, objective writers and I'm considered vain. To have this reputation is the sign of some sort of social insanity."
Tired from preparing for the Broadway opening, Vidal was not too fatigued to defend his reputation. He attributed much of his negative press over the years to journalists too lazy to ask for the real story behind the feud with Norman Mailer, or about his talent for speaking in complete sentences ("That does give people a shiver"), and having unusual, even unpopular opinions. Would he change anything or take anything back he might have gotten wrong?
"No. If I was wrong, it was for the right reasons," he joked. That's quintessential Gore Vidal. There's no mistaking that.