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July 05, 2007

Long, Short, Gore

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

There aren't many cultureworld cliche-phrases that make me groan quite as loudly as "the novelistic accumulation of detail." Why is this phrase often spoken in tones of praise? To me it sounds like "some author or filmmaker who piles up tons of examples instead of getting around to the damn point and moving on to the next one."

Lordy, why are so many novels so very long? Even when my appetite for plowing through acres of text was greater than it is now -- back in college, or just back when my eyes were stronger than they are now -- I didn't crave ultra-long novels. I read through a decent number of the Lengthy Greats and am glad I did -- helped make me a semi-cultured person. But as soon as I stopped needing to read long I reverted to shorter works. Exceptions allowed for, of course, as we always must when it comes to culture.

But, generally speaking, I simply don't like having a piece of any kind of fiction in my life for too long a time. If I can't get through a work in an evening or two, I become impatient. I haven't even had a fiction-TV series in my life since junior high, come to think of it. In recent years, I've sat through a handful of series: season one of "The Sopranos," "Firefly," and a few of the "Prime Suspect"s. ("Prime Suspect" 1 and 3 were terrif -- why was 2 so bad?) But only a few such -- and in each case I watched it on DVD and got the chore over with in a weekend.

This isn't because I don't like fiction, let alone narrative, let alone reading, by the way. I can't resist taste-testing prose when I run across it, and I fancy myself a connoisseur of drama, plot, suspense, and story. But I seem to have a greater taste for shapeliness and intensity in narrative than the "I love losing myself in a fictional world for weeks at a time" crowd does.

As a consequence, my own tastes generally run towards movies, plays, webseries -- complete experiences that can deliver considerable involvement yet wrap it up in an hour or two, or perhaps an evening or two.

Where book-fiction is concerned, one reason I generally go for crime novels these days is that crime novels tend to be shorter, faster, more to the point, and shapelier than most lit-fiction novels are. A great Donald Westlake quote:

If your subject is crime, then you know at least that you're going to have a real story. If your subject is the maturing of a college boy, you may never stumble across a story while you're telling that. But if your story is a college boy dead in his dorm room, you know there's a story in there, someplace.

Come to think of it, I like spare French novellas for much the same set of reasons: They're intense, they can be finished in an evening or two, and they can deliver more than enough in the way of character, sociology, artistry, and storytelling.

By the way, one of the arguments I make around here that I'm proudest of has to do with the length of books. Hey world: Books often aren't the length they are because they really need to be that long. They're as long as they are because that's what suits the book-publishing industry. (Sorry for the shouting, but it seems to me a point worth stressing.) Book-length items are, after all, what the bookbiz peddles.

Part of the propaganda that the bookbiz lays on us has to do with selling us on the idea that book-length material is more serious than shorter work, and that it deserves special consideration and respect. But that's a marketing line. That's the bookbiz trying to sell us on the idea that its products are special. Why should we fall for their baloney?

In other words: Why let ourselves get hung up on the simple fact of book-lengthishness? Why not instead feel free to demand what we want, and to take seriously the work that strikes us as serious rather than just long? We've been putting up for centuries with pieces of writing that are too damn long just because the book-publishing establishment needed them to be book-length. (Oops, sorry for getting carried away again.) Enough of it.

All due honor paid to the usual worries about nonexistent attentions spans, jangled electronic-media brains, and ADD, of course.

Incidentally, I do understand that some people have a taste for ongoing and / or lengthy fiction experiences. They like living with characters, they enjoy watching people and stories evolve in near real-time, etc. The sheer time spent in the company of a show or novel or set of characters means something to some people. Alan Little writes here that he loves long books, for instance. I actually envy Alan in this. I may not share the appetite but I'd never make a case against it. I'm just 'fessing up to my own preferences.

Still, a small prediction: Thanks to electronics, one thing the near future will be delivering is tons of storytelling in what up until now has been unusual lengths. Because, well, these days, why not? The Japanese, it seems, have already beat us to this, by the way -- and isn't the whole world following in the footsteps of the Japanese?

Which leads me to what I'm currently near the end of: a month with some of Gore Vidal's American-history novels.

I'm nearing the end of my fourth one. I'm nearing it slowly -- it may take me another week or longer to make it to the finish line. Still, I'm managing to plow ahead, which -- given the number of pages I've consumed and the time I've devoted to them -- surprises me some. I didn't go into this self-imposed reading project with a lot of hope. For one thing, I'm no history buff and I dislike politics. "Politics in a novel is like a pistol shot at a concert," wrote my favorite long-fiction author Stendhal -- politics is, dammit, something that occasionally demands some attention, but is unwelcome generally.

I also didn't go into my reading project with a lot of good will towards Gore Vidal. He's obviously brilliant and talented -- he published his first novel at 19 -- and I'm a huge fan of his perverse comic extravaganza "Myra Breckinridge," surely one of literature's most outlandish drag shows. (What can I say? I'm a straight guy who loves a good drag show.) But I wasn't expecting to like the Am-history novels much. Straight-faced Vidal sounded like a terrible bore.

Besides, there's Gore himself -- not the worlds' most appealing character -- to contend with. The Man Who Is Thursday expressed some strong reservations about Vidal here. I agree with most of them. Where do Gore's jaded / bitchy patrician airs come from? And even if they're earned -- even if he has been the most inside of all insiders -- wouldn't it be more becoming if he put at least a few of his weary loftinesses on hold?

At first I didn't think I'd make it through the books. As fiction in the conventional sense goes, Vidal's history novels strike me as OK to pretty-good. I don't find them very compelling, let alone involving in the "I feel what these characters are feeling" sense.

(Incidentally, this objection isn't the same thing as the usual "I don't like the hero / heroine" objection. I'm perfectly capable of getting fascinated by characters I don't like or don't approve of, thank you veddy much. Hey, did you realize that the demand to like a protagonist is one of those characteristically American demands and tastes? America: Land of clueless bozos, at least sometimes.)

Still: not bad. As works of fiction, Vidal's history novels are like quality TV miniseries, if very intelligent ones, and ones written by a guy with an unusually bitchy-glib, literary talent. The situations are effectively chosen, the characters are reasonably-well brought to life (Vidal's a good performer), the settings are convincing-enough, the historical material sweeps by in acceptably-plausible ways, the language has sufficient zest, of a distinctively weary sort.

But, despite the general fictional luke-warmishness, I'm finding the novels involving and compelling anyway. I find myself held by two things.

1) Vidal's writerly ambition, his writerly chutzpah, and his writerly engineering. Vidal has devoted his life to this series -- and it's huuuuuuuuge. It spans many generations, and incorporates tons of characters and plot lines. Things set up in one novel often don't pay off until a novel or two down the road. And the set-ups really do pay off -- it is all a well-arranged composition.

Which means to me that, as a piece of writerly carpentry, Vidal's history series is as impressive a work as Proust's "In Search of Lost Time," not that I've read more than a couple of volumes of that series. Did Vidal chart the whole thing out on a wall back when he was 25, and then stick to his plan? In any case, it's one impressive, and impressively-realized, project.

It's especially awe-inspiring when you consider it in the context of recent American literary history. For decades now, American literary writin' hasn't had much room for narrative, let alone for conventional narrative, let alone for conventionally-done historical narrative. Yet Vidal -- who is about as in-group as a literary figure can be -- has made it his life's work to advance a series of straightforwardly-written historical novels as his major contribution to world and American literature. That takes balls, baby, balls.

2) Vidal's vision. What's really involving about the books isn't the conventional stuff of fiction -- the characters' feelings, adventures, and inner lives, let alone plot suspense and / or storytelling surprises. (Hard to be on the edge of your seat when what's at stake narratively is the question, "Is FDR really going to try for a third term?") What's involving instead is Vidal's vision of American history, which is an ambitious rewriting of the conventional accounts.

Vidal's basic question is "How did a freewheeling, human-scale jumble of a republic turn into a top-heavy, empire-building behemoth run by self-serving, world-hungry, militaristic elites accountable to no one at all?" What he shows is the various elite groupings each going for the gusto. The political class, the old-money class, the media crowd: One after another they detach themselves from a modest, serving-the-republic role and let fly with the raw self-interest.

They collude too: They reinforce each other, they marry into each other, they provide cover and money for each other. Why? For the pleasures of ego and power. Because they can. And they're doing it at the expense of the American public, clearly understood to be a bunch of clueless rubes who are kept stupid and malleable via bad educations, political handouts, flashy media lies, and cheap entertainment.

This isn't an account, btw, for people who want to think that Lincoln was motivated by nothing but high ideals, or that FDR did his best to avoid involving us in WWII.

I find Vidal's version of Am-history reasonably convincing myself. Not because I'm a scholar -- anything but. And not because I have any automatic faith in Vidal. (Anything but here too: I know someone who was once part of Vidal's circle and who left it, having become convinced that Vidal-the-person is a liar and an egomaniac. Of course, my friend's judgment might well be wrong.) But I've had a number of opportunities to be a fly on the wall -- or more accurately a serving-person in the room -- while Alpha People in Positions of Real Power have gone about their business. And Vidal's portrayal of them rings true to me. How he presents them in his novels is how they struck me in real life: Cold! Manipulative! Connected! Unprincipled! As well as self-interested (and willing to sacrifice innocents) in ways that middle-class people can barely begin to imagine.

My gut also tells me that I'm not with Vidal all the way. Not quite, anyway -- "about 90%" feels right. His characters and in-groups are a wee bit more magesterial, all-knowing, foresighted, conspiratorial, and all-powerful (as well as wittily-verbal) than are the ruling-class people that I've had a chance to witness in action. In my experience, history and chance blindside even the rich 'n' powerful surprisingly often. And Vidal's been-there seen-it-all weariness does sometimes seem like hand-waving and laziness. Still, 90% ain't nothing. And, as I wrote in a comment on a posting recently, even when there isn't a conspiracy at work behind the scenes it often seems like there might as well have been one.

Of course, the question that can't help but arise for the reader is: If Vidal saw it as his life's work to deliver an account of American history that he believes to be more accurate than any of the usual, why he didn't he write a work of history, or (even better, as far as I'm concerned) a set of essays? (He has been a prolific essay-writer, of course. But his essays don't provide an organized account of his p-o-v.) Beats me. Perhaps he didn't want to lose time to scholarly disputation and political infighting. Perhaps he wanted to make his account convincing not via footnotes but via what's available to a fiction-author: imagination, psychology, etc. Perhaps it was as important to him that his version not just be true but that it feel true. Or perhaps he just preferred to take part in the literary sweepstakes rather than in the history-writing sweepstakes.

Final verdict: impressive and fascinating. Left me curious about "Burr" and "Julian." Coulda been a lot shorter, though.

Here's a Salon interview with Vidal about "The Golden Age," the last of his American-history novels.



posted by Michael at July 5, 2007


The only one I've read is "Gore Vidal's Lincoln" (I think that's the actual title on the cover, not "Lincoln" by Gore Vidal, which says something about his ego, or his publisher)and I really enjoyed it. It was compelling in the way novels you finish in one night are. I remember being surprised that I liked it so much, since, unlike you, "Myra Breckenridge" never sounded like much of a good time to me, and Gore Vidal for many years was, to me, a wierdo who showed up on the "Merv Griffen Show" from time to time. Sort of like "Truman Capote". As a little kid, they both had strange names---who could keep them straight? (And perhaps no one could---ba-Dum-Bum!).

Anyway, the Lincoln book is told from the perspective of one of his young male secretaries, and I remember Vidal speculating inside Lincoln's head about how frustrated Lincoln was that all the Great Work in our country had really been completed by the Founding Fathers--that what was there really to do which could make one as "great" as Jefferson or Washington? Re-making the Union, fixing the Founders' mistakes, was the only answer. It's why Lincoln was intent on going to war to "save the Union." I had never heard anyone posit this before Vidal. He makes Lincoln interesting, very bright, very human---and a bit of an egomaniac, which, in truth, he probably was. It's the somewhat unexpected "theory" behind who these characters were that made it memorable.

Posted by: annette on July 5, 2007 4:23 PM

You made me want to dip into Vidal's American-history novels, which are also longtime favorites of my father's. The SALON interview intrigued me, because it made me think that Al Gore seems to have absorbed much of Vidal's critique of our corporate/political culture. Certainly Gore's new book THE ASSAULT ON REASON sounds like it might have been dictated by Vidal.

Posted by: Steve on July 5, 2007 4:50 PM

Michael, the guys at The New Pamphleteer appear to have taken the hint about the book lengths imposed by mainstream book publishers. I haven't read any of the pamphlets in their catalogue, but "The Consolation of Shoes" looks like fun.

And your preference for crime/mystery novels reminded me of this quoation from Philip Pullman, from his acceptance speech for the Carnegie Medal for Children's fiction in July 1996:

"[I]n adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness. Adult readers who do deal in straightforward stories find themselves sidelined into a genre such as crime or science fiction, where no one expects literary craftsmanship. But stories are vital. Stories never fail us, because, as Isaac Bashevis Singer says, 'events never grow stale.' There's more wisdom in a story than in volumes of philosophy. [Contemporary writers, however,] take up their stories as with a pair of tongs. They're embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do."

Posted by: Kate Marie on July 5, 2007 6:36 PM

"Julian the Apostate" is Vidal's best work. It is far more lucid and has more narrative velocity than any of his other fiction. The rather complex religious arguments made by the characters in this novel comport well with the actual raging controversies of the time. And the characters are not in any sense overly dramatic. They wear their historic costumes well and seem to speak or think as we would expect of people in that age. And if you like "Julian", you will be fascinated by "Creation". It is easily the most profound of his philosophical novels and, again, sits well within the historic period he describes. Vidal always had something of an inferiority complex when he compared himself to novelist Robert Graves, whose scholarly novels of ancient times he seems to have greatly admired. But his material. though perhaps not as richly detailed as the work of Graves, nevertheless holds up quite well in its own right.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on July 5, 2007 7:21 PM

Which Gore? Not that one?
Then I'd rather skip the post, I'm sure you'd understand:
If I can't get through a work in an evening or two, I become impatient.

Posted by: Tat on July 5, 2007 8:02 PM

Publishers' contracts usually establish minimum word lengths, but say little about maximum lengths. Authors pad novels to meet the contract minimums, often to the detriment of the story. Some of the trouble is the fault of distributors, who have only so many rack pockets in groceries, and if they can stuff five seven-dollar (longer) novels in a pocket, that beats stuffing a pocket with six five-dollar (shorter) novels. Thus they fill a pocket with $35 of merchandise, instead of $30.

Most stories move better and are actually richer and more compelling to read if they are whittled down. Since serious story editing has become almost nonexistent in NY, novels wander all over the place, without discipline. I figure if fiction is in serious decline, which it is, much of the fault lies with the absence of serious editing. It gets worse: as bad as NY publishers are, the whole world of print-on-demand vanity publishing, with minimal editing, is ruining readership. There are a few exceptions, of course, but readers are wise to steer clear of self-published or vanity published work.

Those publishers that wish to rescue fiction from oblivion should think about hiring the most brutal editors they can find.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on July 5, 2007 9:17 PM

We've been thru this before, you and me, about long and short novels. I'm shocked beyond belief that you'd give Bore Vidal, out of all the pompous blowhards in lit-fic, the room he demands. Perhaps, then, you'll give some others a shot?

Posted by: Scott on July 5, 2007 10:43 PM

Answer to Vidal's basic empire question: fiat money. To be more precise--when the american dollar left the gold standard (money backed by gold-on-demand from the govt.), it went on the oil standard (american dollar backed by oil--all oil bought in dollars, and the system is held together by the biggest military on earth to protect and coerce this arrangement, hence Iran and Iraq).

Gore Vidal is an extremely witty, smart, and interesting character who is completely in love with himself, and therefore largely insufferable.

Posted by: BIOH on July 6, 2007 1:20 AM

Here's my piece about novel length .

I've been reading a lot over the last two years, and it's hard for me to read anything over 500 pages more or less. On the other hand, I just started Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars/Green mars/blue mars trilogy, and noticed how long it is.

I think there are two levels of reading: 1)a more aesthetically based kind where you notice style and which requires more concentration and 2)a more casual kind (with a less dense style and less ambitions at metaphor). One can't automatically insist that more casual novels are necessarily inferior; see Dickens, Cervantes, Rabelais, even Dostoevksy...all page turners.

The problem is: more casual stories are often better as TV series or movies. If Dostoevsky were around today, he might be a writer for Law and Order or CSI.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on July 6, 2007 2:44 AM

There's no conspiracy about book length, it's simple economics.

The size of the book has some, but not a lot, to do with the cost of the book to the publisher. A lot of the cost is essentially fixed. When it comes down to it, a $26 book can be profitably published at half the length for $23. Except for the fact nobody will buy an $23 novella!

Sorry for shouting, but the publishing industry isn't stupid. If they *could* publish short works profitably, the *would* publish short works profitably.

So let's put the "blame" where it belongs. Human beings have a strong tendency to value things by bulk, and simply won't accept the price per pound of book (price per word for electronic) doubling when there are alternatives.

As for padding, at least in the SF/Fantasy world, the cry from the editors is constantly cut, cut, cut. Authors are being told simply "remove 100 pages" to meet length limits before the editor will *start* reading it. Length limits are mostly imposed by the bookstores that want to be able to shelve more stock.

If your literary taste extends to complex works in which there are dozens of fully fleshed out characters subtly rendered, this is a crying shame (you simply cannot do that in a novel of 125,00 words and still have room for plot).

Posted by: Tom West on July 6, 2007 6:04 AM

Your rant was so long I couldn't finish it. Might I suggest an Executive Summary feature, perhaps as a popup?

Gotta go...

Posted by: Don McArthur on July 6, 2007 8:04 AM

Thanks, Don, for being the one who finally said it. No blog was ever so aptly named. I frequently start a post, and read and read, then scroll down to see how much longer it is, and throw up my hands and read the last paragraph. An executive summary is a wonderful idea. But the fact remains that "2 Blowhards" gets read (or read at) at least 2-3 times a week.

Posted by: Michael P on July 6, 2007 10:07 AM

Gore Vidal? For God's sake, MB. Do you live in a time capsule where it's always 1974? We'll be hearing about the literary merits of Stephen King next...

Posted by: tschafer on July 6, 2007 10:34 AM

Annette -- That's great, it's like "Fellini's Satyricon." I should start entitling my blogpostings in that way: "Michael Blowhard's 'Linkathon'." You might get a kick out of this recent posting, which I wrote after finishing "Lincoln." I didn't have anything interesting to say, but there are tons of smart Lincoln buffs among the commenters.

Steve -- There are a lot of "gores" around these days, aren't there?

Kate Marie -- That's a great Pullman passage, tks. The attitude of the snooty set towards storytelling is really quite something to behold. You'd think they'd wish it well even if it doesn't really interest them. But no, many of them actually wish it would just go away. Bizarre.

Charlton -- Thanks, I had a hunch "Julian" might be one of his best. You'd do a great audio production of it -- have you thought about trying to snag the rights?

Tat -- I do understand.

Richard -- Yeah, no foolin'. An interesting development (that I imagine you're more aware of than I am) is that many of the traditional editors have gone freelance. Since publishers often don't do much old-fashioned editing these days, and since most writers need it, the now-freelance editors are peddling themselves directly either to the publishers or to the writers. I've known book-writers who have paid freelance editors out of their own pockets in order to improve their books. You gotta wonder sometimes what it is that book publishers are offering authors these days, aside from "turning your project into a physical book and dumping it in bookstores for eight weeks."

Scott - Yeah, I have a built-in aversion to Vidal myself and was surprised to find the history novels as semi-interesting as I did. So which overlong novel are you in the middle of these days anyway?

BIOH -- We should suggest to Vidal that he do a novel about the oil industry.

Robert -- I often like casual myself, I just don't tend to like really long. Maybe I have ADD, maybe I'm quick to get the point, maybe I just don't have the taste for hanging out in a fictional world for weeks at a time, beats me. Did you read the Japanese piece I linked to in the posting? It talks about some interesting publishing developments over there, where publishers seem to be more resourceful than they are here. Curious how you react to it.

Tom -- Was someone talking about a conspiracy? My point (not that anyone has to pay attention to it) is simply that because the book publishing biz is devoted to publishing book-length artifacts, we have developed a tendency to overvalue the book-length piece of writing. (The writer who doesn't think he's a real writer until he's "done a book"; the reader who feels she isn't reading unless she's finished a book.) A given piece of writing may or may not want to be book-length. Thanks to electronics these days, a narrative can be as long as it needs to be -- which, judging from my own small experience and what many pro fiction-authors have said to me over the years, often isn't 250-500 pages. Many pro writers would love to write their stories at the 20-100 page length that many stories want to be, but are locked into the book-length thing simply because the book industry demands that. You have much more faith that the book publishing biz is economically semi-rational than I do, btw. In my experience they often behave in ways that can leave a person wondering "Do they actually want to make money or not?"

Don, Michael P -- I'm glad you feel free to skip, and that you visit despite my attacks of verbosity. But we do try to supply variety too -- we scatter a lot of short postings and linkathons around. But it's fun sometimes (if only for the writer) to let it roll out ...

Tschaefer -- You mean it isn't 1974 any longer? Damn.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 6, 2007 10:36 AM

I enjoyed "Julian" though it's been many years since I read it. After reading "Burr" and not being able to finish "1876" I came to the conclusion that Vidal writes well where he doesn't have a political axe to grind (as in "Julian") but where American history is concerned he will twist and lie to suit his purposes.

Where he lost me was in "Burr" with his portrait of George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Biography of Washington is sort of a pet preoccupation of mine, as I feel the general historical memory of him is as the old man with the white wig on the dollar bill. He's so taken for granted now for some reason, or condemned for being a slaveowner.

Anyway, Vidal portrays him as a clumsy, stupid fat guy tripping over his own feet, disrespected by his troops and manipulated by his staff. This suits Vidal's purposes in the novel but is totally at odds with the real man.

Washington in his mid-40s (the time of the Revolution) was tall (6-2) lean and strong and an outdoorsman. He and had spent most of his life in the woods or outdoors supervising his plantations. His horsemanship was so good he he was referred to as a "centaur."

He was no intellectual but a charismatic man of action. He had the charisma and physical strength to wade into a fist fight between two regiments, grab the ringleaders each by the scruff of the neck and shake them and order them to stop. The troops were so intimidated the fight ended and they went back to camp.

Washington was the wonder of the age. No one in Europe believed in 1783 that he wouldn't proclaim himself King or Dictator but would return home to Mt. Vernon. Most were astonished when he declined to run for President again after his second term and gave up power. A man so great we'd name our capital after him.

That Vidal would stoop so low to portray such a great man as a buffoon convinces me there is no honesty in the portrayals of American history in his novels. So I don't read them. In my opinion, good historical novels should have a fairly solid basis in fact, or they are just fantasies.

Off my soapbox now.

BTW David Hackett Fischer has a great sketch of Washington's character in "Washington's Crossing" and James Thomas Flexner's "Washington: The Indispensible Man" is a great biography

Posted by: Reid Farmer on July 6, 2007 11:04 AM

Except for the fact nobody will buy an $23 novella!

Now, now. They bought "Legends of the Fall" didn't they? At least I did.

Posted by: Reid Farmer on July 6, 2007 11:07 AM

Essays: when Vidal writes about books, fiction, creativity he is fascinating and spot on. When he writes about politics or economics he is a kook. He doesn't cut America any slack: we're a country of dumb sheep pushed here and there by powerful knowing elites. Yawn. We've never done anything good, never done anything right. Whoboy.

Posted by: Doug Anderson on July 6, 2007 11:15 AM

Reid -- Tks for the thoughts and recs. I'd love to read a good (preferably short), sensible account of Washington. Didn't Brookhiser do one recently? I wonder how it was. But I should catch up with David Hackett Fischer too, I suppose. Still ... All those hundreds and hundreds of pages. Can't they turn 'em into a one-hour History Channel presentation? As for novellas -- well, actually the book publishing industry *could* very easily publish shorter books and market them sensibly. The Japanese book industry certainly does so -- they often publish quite tiny books, as well as books that are collections of tiny pieces of writing. The reason they don't is partly a cultural thing to do with readers -- American readers tend to like volume for their dollar. But it's partly book-pubishing idiocy, unresoucrefulness, and stuck-in-a-rut-ness. And part of the problem is books coverage. Reviewers, editors and feature writers often don't take books seriously unless they're 1) hardcover, 2) self-important, and 3) book-length. (Collections of essays, stories, humor, and miscellaneous pieces don't get the same kind of respect.) There's a whole ... I dunno, myth or something around the book-length-piece-of-writing as being something automatically special that keeps people spellbound. It's a spell that really needs to be broken, as far as I'm concerned.

Doug -- Vida's sometimes incredibly shrewd and canny in his writing about books and creativity, isn't he? Writes from knowing the process well, for one thing. I don't mind the elites-manipulating-the-masses thing as much as you do, I guess, though you're certainly right that he overdoes it. I think there are elites, and they are self-interested and powerful, and they do screw the general population over, and they really couldn't care less about the country's general welfare. (And that the history of how this came to be is an interesting one.) They're just not quite the all-knowing, all-powerful, semi-deliberate conspiracy that Vidal seems content to think of them as.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 6, 2007 11:31 AM

I'd love to read a good (preferably short), sensible account of Washington. Didn't Brookhiser do one recently? I wonder how it was. But I should catch up with David Hackett Fischer too, I suppose

I haven't read the Brookhiser one and I agree Flexner is a long slog. Actually, you could take the Fischer book off the shelf in a bookstore and pretty much read the Washington bio sketch while standing there. Sounds sort of like the "Reader's Digest" version you want. I'll have to look for a good short bio

Saw an interesting thing a few months ago where some computer graphic artists had reconstructed Washington's height and physical build using information from life modeled statues, paintings, and actual items of Washington's clothing. Very interesting.

And I was just being silly and contrary on the novella thing - you guys know the business!

Posted by: Reid Farmer on July 6, 2007 4:36 PM

Vidal made a deliberate choice to write for a smart general audience rather than for a literary audience. He has the chops to be an abstruse cult author, but he decided not to. I bet that's part of the reason you like him.

Posted by: John Emerson on July 6, 2007 11:29 PM

Belated response, but better late than never:

I like long novels as long as they have *stories*. I forced myself through Don De Lillo's Underworld on a friend's recommendation, fighting boredom all the way and hoping against hope to the bitter end that something might actually happen. It never did.

Have never read Gore Vidal. Am generally happy to leave deep "whence & whither America?" introspection to Americans.

Posted by: Alan Little on July 15, 2007 7:52 AM

I've read a number of Gore's novels, his sympathy is always with elites, and anti-populist elites. Gore hates the common man with a passion of a true decadent aristo which he is: taking Xerxes side over the Greeks, Burr over Hamilton, the South over the North, etc.

Gore is also a fool and an idiot. America far from being "militaristic" is the least military-oriented nation on Earth. Are Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Sheryl Crow, Laurie David, Anderson Cooper, and Nancy Pelosi "militarists?"

Gore's elites hate/fear military men. Because Military Men are dominated by working-class and middle-class white guys who find upward mobility, responsibility, and power through military careers. You don't find lots of old-money guys in either the front lines or the Pentagon. Instead Harvard, Yale, all the Ivies banned ROTC and the military from campus. Because the elites hate-fear having to share power.

What good is Nancy Pelosi in a war? None whatsover, what's needed is a bunch of 19-20 year old Lance Corporals.

Gore is a gay man (colors his anti-military, anti-populist attitudes) as well as an old money aristo. In his ideal world we'd be a tiny nation ruled by property-owning elites, with voting determined by wealth. No wonder his hostility to Old Hickory. Andrew Jackson represented everything that was a threat to him.

Posted by: Jim Rockford on July 15, 2007 11:19 PM

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