Gore Vidal on “write what you know”

From time to time, I have had mixed feelings about Gore Vidal.  The man was, on occasion brilliant (Julian; his essays), but also had a streak of cynical elitism that sometimes put me off.  That said, I want to shout “HIP HOORAY for his statement at the end of his essay, “Thomas Love Peacock:  The Novel of Ideas,” published in the New York Review of Books, December 4, 1980.  Vidal wrote:

…write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all.  Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect:  that is the only way out of the dead end of the Serious Novel which so many ambitious people want to write and no one on earth–or even on campus–wants to read.

Vidal began this essay finding fault with the American idea of the “Serious Novel,” stating, “…for Americans, sincerity if not authenticity is all-important; and requires a minimum of invention,” and “During the last fifty years [fifty years before 1980, when he wrote this–but also largely true today, I think], the main line of the Serious American Novel has been almost exclusively concerned with the doings and feelings, often erotic, of white middle-class Americans, often schoolteachers, as they confront what they take to be life.  It should be noted that these problems seldom have much or anything to do with politics, with theories of education, with the nature of the good. … Irony and wit are unknown while the preferred view of the human estate is standard American…For some reason, dialogue tends to be minimal and flat.”

Vidal suggests that to salvage the novel form, a tactic that might work is to infiltrate the genre forms.  “To fill them up, stealthily, with ideas, wit, subversive notions… .”  To some degree, in the years since Vidal wrote those words, so-called genre novels have done so. (eg. Walter Moseley’s work; much of Stephen King’s work–the metaphor of IT, for example; and most certainly, the short stories of Connie Willis which I have recently been reading).

For Vidal’s term, “Serious American Novel,” I might substitute the term “Literary Novel.”  I’m not sure when that latter term was coined, but I suspect it was after 1980.  In any event, there is a difference between a literary novel and true literature.  I believe it is that difference to which Vidal was speaking.


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