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.



I declare here and now to Ms. Willis and to the world:  I LOVE CONNIE WILLIS.  I love her short stories.  I love the way she writes.  And, most importantly, I love the way her mind works!

I am in the midst of reading The Best of Connie Willis, Award-Winning stories, which also features her lively short afterwards to each story.  All so far exhibit a very sharp mind and humor.  Where she is going with them tends to sneak up on you.  The serious stories make me tear up towards the end; the humorous stories also make me tear up even while I am laughing at the beauty of what she is doing.  (And her humorous stories, like At the Rialto, are not just light pieces but also have a depth to them.)  READ HER!


On Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here

I’ve been away from this blog for a few months–family illnesses to deal with, but they are, for now, dealt with–and I’m back!

I’ve just finished reading Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.  The novel was written in 1935, using the ambitions of the demagogue Huey Long as its basis.  But, it reads, at times, as if Lewis had used a time machine to come forward to 2017, had taken what is happening now in America, and returned to his own time to write his work. (Of course, one could argue that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  But that would only indicate that Lewis understood something about the weaknesses in the nature of man and in American society that is universal and not unique to his era.)

The book’s nominal protagonist is a mild-mannered, liberal, small town Vermont newspaper owner/editor by the name of Doremus Jessup.  But the true main character of the novel is our society as a whole.  The book uses the novel form as mechanism to present a thinly veiled treatise on the way in which fascism and totalitarianism can happen here.  This use of the novel form seems to have fallen out of fashion in the last half of the 20th century, the concept of what a novel should be and do having narrowed considerably.  But, that is a subject I will address separately in a later post. Today, and for the next several days, I am going to present some quotes from It Can’t Happen Here, which I expect may strike a chord of familiarity with the reader, as they did with me.

Here is the first.  (A number of chapters begin with an excerpted quote from the  fictional book, Zero Hour, by Berzelius Windrip, the demagogic senator who becomes president in the novel.  This one precedes Chapter 11.):

“When I was a kid, one time I had an old-maid teacher that used to tell me, ‘Buzz, you’re the thickest-headed dunce in school.’  But I noticed that she told me this a whole lot oftener than she used to tell the other kids how smart they were, and I came to be the most talked-about scholar in the whole township.  The United States Senate isn’t so different, and I want to thank a lot of stuffed shirts for their remarks about Yours Truly.
Zero Hour, Berzelius Windrip”



After reading an essay written by Jeanette Winterson in which she defends Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (in Winterson’s book, Art Objects, Essays in Ecstasy and Effrontery), I got curious about the book, and have been reading it myself.  Winterson wrote that those criticizing Stein as being self-aggrandizing and not factual had missed the point of what she was doing.  Winterson’s view is that Stein was no more intending to write a factual book than Matisse or Picasso were trying to paint photographic portraits, that the book was meant to be a work of fiction, was experimenting with an entirely new form, and should be judged on its experimentation–producing a new way of seeing and thinking–rather than on its substance.  That may be.  Nevertheless, I think a work should provide some substance as well.

The main thing I admire about The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, is Gertrude Stein’s chutzpah.  Alice’s “autobiography” is actually a biography of Gertrude; thus, actually an autobiography by Gertrude.  A literary trompe d’oeil in which Stein can have Toklas dub Stein one of only “three first class geniuses” she has known, and in which “Alice” writes next to nothing of her own life.  A clever little con-artist, our Gertie.

My problem with the book, beyond the self-aggrandizement, is that it appears to be a rather constant recitation of the famous artists and writers, composers, or philosophers with whom Stein mixed in Paris, along with a stream of blanket statements about who got along with whom and who didn’t.  But one never is given any details that would make the content more than name-dropping or very general, minimal gossip.

For example, Stein-alias-Alice tells us that Stein liked William James and that he thought highly of her and recommended she go to medical school and become a psychologist.  But she does not tell us anything of what they may have discussed about philosophy or psychology–or even what her own views were.  She tells us only that, when she got to medical school, at a certain point she didn’t do the work because she was “bored,” yet many professors passed her anyway because of her presumed “brilliance.”

Stein-aka-Alice writes that Stein talked with the geniuses or near-geniuses, but that she–Alice–only talked with the wives of the geniuses or near geniuses.  Not only does she give us no details or insight into the “geniuses,” she tells us nothing about the wives except that they were congenial or not, fashionable or not, etc.  Perhaps this is because the real author, Gertrude, never talked to the wives.  But, then, neither as Alice nor as herself does she provide any depth–real or fictional–to her view of any of the people beyond the fact that they kept coming and going, and she saw them often or saw them rarely, or met them once, or saw them often but fell out with them (she never gives us the reasons).

Of Picasso (or Matisse or Hemingway, or others), she may tell us that they discussed or argued at length–with Picasso, long into the night–but never tells us what they discussed or what either thought.  Instead of giving us a real (or even fictional) sense of Stein’s life or her thinking, the book leaves one with the impression that this person was a pseudo-intellectual who lived a shallow, if idiosyncratic, life–and an easy one (whenever there was a question of money, it seemed that all Stein had to do was call a relative in America and money–or on one occasion, even a Ford automobile–would be sent).

Stein’s experiments with literary form may have value.  Her other works (poetry, novellas, novels, plays, etc.) may have something to them, but one cannot get any real insight into them or her from this book.  Stein’s notions as expressed in this book remind me of no-one so much as Christopher Isherwood’s peripatetic Sally Bowles.  And Stein’s very definite declarations of literary and artistic “truths,” to the degree that they’re expressed here, make me think of Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie, who fancies herself artistic,  radical,  and a sophisticated shaper of the thoughts of the little girls she teaches, but is actually just an admirer and adherent of fascism.  Although The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas has nothing in it that addresses Stein’s political philosophy, there is something about it that leaves me unsurprised to find that she was an adherent of Vichy France and its leaders.

I am inclined, as relates to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, to quote Hemingway:  “A rose is a rose is an onion.”


Somerset Maugham–Writer of Spy Fiction!

I recently read Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil.  It’s not terribly deep, but much of it is engaging, which is more than I can say for a lot of current literary fiction.  More engaging though, is a book of his (long) short stories. The Betty Davis movie, The Letter, was based on his short story of the same name.  Hollywood changed the ending of course; it couldn’t let a murderess get away with her crime as Maugham did in the story.

Now, though I’m reading other stories in that book–a number of them about a British World War I spy named Ashenden, apparently loosely based on time Maugham spent as a member of British Intelligence.  These stories are sometimes a bit slow, but each builds to reveal an aspect of human nature.  In some ways, I think these stories could be considered a predecessor to John Le Carré’s works.


For those writers who may, at the moment, feel bogged down by their work or by the heavy intrusions of life and the wide world, I highly recommend a book entitled Steal Like an Artist, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon.  Along with good advice, Kleon’s book has about it a cheerful creative abandon.  His feeling of freedom is contagious–the ultimate in the sense of play necessary for creative work.

Amongst Kleon’s words of wisdom, culled from others, is that nothing is completely original.  Creative work always builds on what came before.  (I’d add that that is true whether the creator realizes it or not.)  He notes that we learn by copying (not to be confused with plagiarism–read the book! ) You begin by copying those writers/artists you like, and end up unable to do so adequately, but in the process, find something else original to you.  (Who wants to be a mere imitator anyway?)

The Kleon book has much advice that we writers may already be aware of, but forget when we feel weighed under–advice like:  “The way to get over creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself,” or “write what you like” (rather than what you “know.” –something that I strongly advocated in the very first  post of this blog).  However, my favorite advice from Steal Like an Artist is:  “If you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.”  –meaning, of course, that if you are the most talented person in the room, you’re not being intellectually challenged in a way that will make you grow and expand.

I’m not generally one for motivational books of any kind, but this one replenishes my spirit every time I read it!

(For a full dose of Austin Kleon’s playfulness, see his website at www.austinkleon.com.)

Passing Thoughts

For me, September was a tough month filled with medical research, hours on the phone dealing various other personal and financial concerns, not to mention a troubling reaction to a vaccination I got on the first day of October, and frustrated preoccupation with the obstruction causing the federal government’s shut-down.  So I did not do as much writing, or as much focused thinking on literary matters, as I would have liked, but I did do a bit of reading, and have some passing thoughts on what I read:

*****I have been reading, contemporaneously, Showing My Colors, by Clarence Page; Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin; and a Dover Thrift Edition of selections from the writings of Frederick Douglass, with an introduction about his life by Philip S. Foner.  My impressions:

Granted, Clarence Page, a columnist at the Chicago Tribune and often a guest pundit on MS-NBC news shows, is the product of a different time and different circumstances from that of either Baldwin or Douglass, and his essays are, perhaps, attempting something different from their works.  (Page might justifiably protest that he is a journalist while they were, essentially, advocates.)  Nevertheless, since all three address some of the same subjects, I can’t help making the comparison and feeling that his book pales next to their works.  Page’s essays suffer from what ails many modern pundits:  too great an effort to sound erudite–to lean on conventional sociology, and to quote other experts, while pretending to say something original–and too little inclination to take a position on what they address.  It makes such works, in the end, rather wishy-washy endeavors that use many words to tell us not much.

Baldwin, and Douglass, on the other hand–while also themselves products of very different times and circumstances–write directly and powerfully.  They take my breath away (particularly, Frederick Douglass), and once I pick them up, I cannot put them down.  They were true original thinkers.

*****I read a bit of Agatha Christie’s They Do It with Mirrors, and though I was not expecting great depth, I was hoping for an enjoyable escape.  I was not impressed.  It’s the first Christie book I’ve ever picked up, so perhaps I needed to try an earlier work.  Maybe her writing got more pro forma after the upteenth book she wrote.  It happens.  Perhaps the National Public Television rendition of They Do It with Mirrors prepared me to expect better, but I found the writing and the characters quite thin, even for a cozy.

*****I also read a number of stories in The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, and I’ve got to say, I think her work has been highly underrated.  Her stories combine the cynicism of a Saki with the whimsical turns of a Hitchcock.  And, in this very thick book, the stories run the gamut from mystery to domestic to science fiction to ghost stories of a sort.  I particularly liked the short-short “The Female Novelist,” which takes a poke at fiction writers who are essentially self-absorbed persons writing masked autobiography.  On the second page, the female novelist complains about her novel’s rejection, saying “I know my story is important!”   Her husband refers to mice he has seen in the bathroom and responds:  “So is the life of the mouse here, to him.”  What has that to do with anything, the wife asks, and he responds:  “…mice are concerned with a more important subject–food.  Not whether your ex-husband was unfaithful to you, or whether you suffered from it, even in a setting as beautiful as Capri or Rapallo…”  As I am sometimes fond of saying, a story about a love affair ending shouldn’t be about “my boyfriend left me,” but about the nature of love.  There needs to be a connection of the particular to the universal.

******Finally, I read Pat Barker’s novel, Blow the House Down, and for gritty toughness, I’ll only say:  “Take that, V.S. Naipaul, when you say women’s writing is unequal to you because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world.”  I’ll match her toughness against yours any day.  Nyah. (You must picture me sticking my tongue out.  And if you don’t know why I’m bringing Mr. Naipaul into this, see my post from July 2013.)