American critics often complain that books are “too long” and “could have been cut” by a third or more. Why are so many books so bloated? Here’s answer from Gore Vidal, one of the great literary critics of our age:
“There is a terrible garrulousness in most American writing, a legacy no doubt of the Old Frontier. But where the inspired tall talesman of simpler days went on and on, never quite certain and never much caring what the next load of breath might contain, at his best he imparted with a new demotic flair the sense of life living. Unfortunately, since these first originals the main line of the American novel has reverted to incontinent heirs, to the gabblers, the maunderers, putters-in of everything. …
“For every Scott Fitzgerald concerned with the precise word and the selection of relevant incident, there are a hundred American writers, many well regarded, who appear to believe that one word is just as good as another, and that anything that pops into the head is worth putting down. It is an attitude unique to us and deriving, I would suspect, from a corrupted idea of democracy: if everyone and everything is of equal value, then any word is as good as any other to express a meaning. Or to put it another way, if everyone is equally valuable, then anything the writer (who is valuable) writes must be valuable, so why attempt another selection?”
Gore Vidal in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952-1972 (Random House, 1972).
It’s perversely satisfying to learn that a great critic dislikes a book that you thought you alone didn’t enjoy. In my life an example involves The Naked and the Dead, the 1948 World War II novel that grew out of Norman Mailer’s experiences as a rifleman on Luzon and made his reputation while he was in his 20s. For years I’ve considered this book one of the most overrated of the 20th century and far inferior to war novels often mentioned in the same breath, including All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. Chief among its problems is that it tells the stories of a variety of soldiers without making any of them uniquely memorable.
It’s always seemed to me that The Naked and the Dead might have had less praise if Mailer had been 30 years older when he wrote it and if the novel had not come out a few years after World War II, when critics could compare it to relatively few books about the conflict. So I was heartened to find that Gore Vidal — one of the great literary critics of our time — years ago had a similar response that I had missed. Vidal wrote in a 1960 essay in the Nation, reprinted in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952–1972 (Random House, 1972):
“My first reaction to The Naked and the Dead was: it’s a fake. A clever, talented, admirably executed fake. I have not changed my opinion of the book since, though I have considerably changed my opinion of Mailer, as he himself as changed. Now I confess I have never read all of The Naked and the Dead. I do recall a fine description of soldiers carrying a dying man down a mountain (done almost as well as the same scene in Malraux’s earlier work). Yet every time I got going in the narrative I would find myself stopped cold by a set of made-up, predictable characters taken not from life but from the same novels all of us had read, and informed by a naïveté which was at its worst when Mailer went into his Time-Machine and wrote those passages which resemble nothing so much as smudged carbon copies of a Dos Passos work.”
Wouldn’t you love to know what Vidal said when he learned that Mailer posthumously won the 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Award for for The Castle in the Forest?
(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.