GORE VIDAL WAS A GREAT TALKER as well as a great writer. Dick Cavett called him “the best talker since Oscar Wilde.” He talked a lot; if you Google “Gore Vidal interview,” you get 40,000 results. But what remains of those interviews is mostly one-liners, quips and zingers, about Truman Capote, William F. Buckley and George Bush.
In this more sustained conversation, Vidal develops arguments, traces connections between past and present, and cites evidence. Of course, he provides plenty of one-liners and zingers along the way.
This conversation took place Dec. 15, 2006, in front of a live audience at the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, a group of 100 or so that brings together academics with independent writers, artists and critics. Modeled on the better-known New York Institute of the Humanities, it meets monthly during the academic year at USC, although faculty members come also from UCLA and other area campuses. Vidal’s audience that day included theater director Gordon Davidson, Getty Museum Director John Walsh, Getty Research Institute director Thomas Crow, Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel, novelist Marianne Wiggins, and UCLA historians Joyce Appleby and Eugen Weber.
Jon Wiener: There is a fascinating passage in Point to Point Navigation, where you write that Paul Bowles, who was preparing to teach at Cal State Northridge — this must have been sometime in the late 1940s — Paul Bowles asked you the night before his first class how you teach writing. What was all this about?
Gore Vidal: I don’t think his students ever found out. Paul himself was very vague. He said, “what is a class?” He had this extraordinary literal mind that he learned from Gertrude Stein, who was his first mentor when he was just out of, or on the lam from, the University of Virginia. She told him “you’re not a poet, you better be a musician, it’s easier.” So he went to study with Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copeland, and became a very distinguished musician, and then went back to writing, and wrote rather better than Ms. Stein. But that was all in the future.
JW: One of the things they do at community colleges is teach writing. I think there are programs everywhere now. At my school, U.C. Irvine, we have an undergraduate major called “Literary Journalism.” It started only a couple of years ago, but it already has over 200 majors, and if there are 200 at Irvine, there is a similar number at a hundred other schools. This means hundreds of thousands of students are studying to be writers. What do you make of this?
GV: We have Truman Capote to thank for that. As bad writers go, he took the cake. So bad was he, you know, he created a whole new art form: the nonfiction novel. He had never heard of a tautology, he had never heard of a contradiction. His social life was busy. To have classes in fiction — that really is hopeful, isn’t it. People can go to school and bring in physics. The genius of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity's Rainbow: he had to take all of his first year courses at, what was it, Cornell? One of his teachers was Nabokov. And everything he had in his first year’s physics went in to Gravity’s Rainbow. Whether it fit in or not, it just went ...read more