Books overflow the shelves and stand in piles on the floor of Edmund White’s Manhattan apartment—just as described in his engaging new memoir, The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading, which Bloomsbury will release in June. White, who is 68, is at the stage in life when he can easily spend his time receiving prizes, such as the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, which he accepted the week before we meet. Yet he remains as productive as he was when he first made his literary mark with the elegant, groundbreaking novels Forgetting Elena, Nocturne for the King of Naples, and Boy’s Own Story.
This new book, The Unpunished Vice, is his fourth memoir in a dozen years, following My Lives, City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ’70s and Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris. And these haven’t supplanted his fiction; the same period brought the novels Hotel de Dream, Jack Holmes and His Friend, and Our Young Man. Not bad for a writer who jokingly claims to be slow and lazy.
In person, White is relaxed and witty, given to occasional giggles. Seated in an armchair underneath one of those overstuffed bookshelves, he explains why he chose to characterize reading as a “vice” in his title. “It’s stolen from a French title, Ce vice impuni, la lecture by Valery Larbaud—he’s the guy who translated Ulysses into French,” White says. “People are always so smug about reading; I thought it would be fun to call it a vice. But I do think, for a writer especially, there’s always the temptation to read rather than write or to think you should do some more research. So in a way, reading is a vice for writers, although I hasten to add that I don’t know any good writers who don’t read a lot.”
Real readers, White believes, are voracious and always looking for something new: “We always ask our friends, ‘What’s a good new book? What have you been reading lately?’ Searching for noncanonical books is something a lot of writers do. Whereas my French translator, for example, only reads classics like Montaigne and Shakespeare. He would write long essays about them, and I thought, ‘Does the world really need another essay about Shakespeare?’ It’s not quite fair, but I call them his ‘blue-chip writers’; he wasn’t looking for something that would move him personally but for something everybody has admired for centuries. I’ve always felt that people who want a canon are people who don’t really like to read; they want to limit the number of books that they have to read.”
As a member of the pioneering generation of gay authors who, beginning in the 1960s, insisted on writing openly about their lives, White is well aware of how the literary canon can be used to exclude. “We always used to be called minor or precious. Whereas I feel that Alan Hollinghurst is not only the best gay writer in English but also the best writer in English.”
Asked whether he shares the feeling of some female novelists that, while proud to write about previously ignored aspects of human experience, they prefer not to be confined in subject matter or relegated to a category, White replies: “Obviously you hope that you’ll have some appeal beyond your clan, but I don’t want to disown it the way some people do. It was exciting to be a gay writer in the ’60s because, well, the word novel is contained in the word novelty; novelists like to write about new things, and it was a new thing when I started. Now I think of a wonderful writer like Neil Mukherjee, who’s gay but his writing isn’t particularly gay. I think a lot of younger writers would say, ‘I feel free to write about gay things, and I’ll tell anybody I am gay, but I like to write about other things too’—in Neil’s case, Indian immigrants in England.”
Both White’s conversation and The Unpunished Vice show him to be as familiar with foreign literature as he is with American literature. He’s read Japanese literature extensively, from the novels of Junichiro Tanizaki all the way back to The Tale of Genji, which he cites as a major influence on Forgetting Elena, his 1973 debut. Compared to the sophistication of the Japanese and the unabashed amorality of the French, he says that a lot of American fiction seems naive: “American literature is often obsessed with rites of passage, especially male rites: ‘I killed my first bear. I laid my first lady.’ I find that kind of boring. And I find innocence as a theme very boring. If you think of the kind of weird atmosphere we live in now, the #MeToo movement and all this political correctness, it’s very bracing to read writers like Sade or Genet.”
The French emphasis on lucidity eventually had an impact on White’s work as well. “With the exception of Proust, most French fiction is written in a very straightforward fashion,” he says. “I thought of myself in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as an avant-garde writer, and my first two published novels, Forgetting Elena and Nocturne for the King of Naples, are kind of experimental. Then when I got to Boy’s Own Story, which was in a way my first autobiographical novel, I suddenly thought, I have this fascinating subject, which itself is new, so why struggle to have an avant-garde style? It’s like white on white; I thought it would only confuse people. I felt so excited about communicating this material that I thought it would just be perverse to double the innovations with style.”
One of the aspects of White’s new subject matter that still raises some eyebrows is his sexual candor, in both fiction and memoir. A chapter in My Lives titled “My Master” is an exceedingly frank account of the writer’s sadomasochistic relationship with a much younger man. “My agent said, ‘TMI!’ ” he recalls, laughing. “I’ve decided I’m a literary exhibitionist. In real life, I’ve never been tempted by that vice, and I don’t in conversation talk that much about sex, but in writing I seem to like to do it. I think it’s a great theme to explore. I mean, everybody has sex, and yet so few people write about it. My writing is sexual, yes, but it’s not pornography, where the premise is to arouse you. I like to think I’m a realist, and sex is just a new thing to explore. I was very wounded when my French editor, Ivan Nabokov, rejected Our Young Man and called it my ‘pornographic novel.’ I thought, that’s a bit rich, coming from the nephew of the man who wrote Lolita.”
White’s novel in progress sounds more sedate. “It’s called A Saint in Texas; it’s about identical twin sisters, one of whom eventually becomes a French baroness and the other becomes a saint. They’re oil-rich girls, very pretty. The social one, the baroness, is telling the story, and it’s Texas as in the ’50s. I grew up in Texas in the ’50s, but I’ve had to do an awful lot of research about things like sororities.” In other words, it’s an excuse to do more reading.