How to Say Serious Things

Matters of Fact and of Fiction: Essays 1973-1976

by Gore Vidal
Random House, 285 pp., $10.00

The title of Gore Vidal’s latest collection of lively essays written for magazines and reviews mainly between 1973 and 1976 has a dark inner meaning. Half of the pieces deal with the shrinking hopes of our novelists, half with American political history; but the politics and politicians have become fictions and the novelists have been either taken over or driven out by the public appetite—natural under the circumstances—for fact. The politicians have grabbed even love—in the form of self-love—from the novelists, as one sees in the wildly funny short piece on one of England’s most visible treasures, the Earl of Longford, toiling toward canonization via publicity on television. The piece ends with the lines “Pray for us, Saint Frank. Intercede for us, and teach us to love ourselves as you loved you.”

Gore Vidal is a glancing wit who has the good essayist’s art of saying serious things personally and lightly. Where others lumber along earnestly in professional prose, he rides gaily in and quickly unhorses his man. He is not one of those brutal wits, bloodied but unbowed, who destroy themselves when they destroy others. He is a moralist whose subject is hypocrisy and the clichés which provide the public with short cuts to self-congratulation. (A political example: Socialism = Sweden = suicide; no facts encourage one to take this drug.) Underneath his rapid mockery and laughter there is a passion for social justice and truth-telling, and his command of a nonchalant prose and care for the English language give his sarcasms their edge. His frivolity is on the surface; beneath it, both as a reviewer and a writer on American history, he has a well-grounded intelligence. There is nothing light-minded about his study of the Adams family or his portrait of Grant, or in his wrestlings with the theorists of the nouveau roman.

Six of the seven articles on fiction are on the dilemma of the modern novelist and the first is a hilarious examination of “The Top Ten Best Sellers.” It gives us the Genesis of a wit’s bleak argument that will develop:

The bad movies we made twenty years ago are now regarded in altogether too many circles as important aspects of what the new illiterates want to believe is the only significant art form of the twentieth century…. Most of these books [the ten best sellers] reflect to some degree the films each author saw in his formative years…. Certainly none of the ten writers (save the noble engineer Solzhenitsyn and the classicist Mary Renault) is in any way rooted in literature.

Even Solzhenitsyn gingered up his Tolstoy in August 1914 with some very bad film sequences, as Vidal later on shows. The famous fire in Hollywood was described as a “holocaust”—“the style you see must come as naturally as that”—and since Gore Vidal himself worked a bit on Ben Hur and was able to persuade “the art director to remove tomatoes from Mrs. Ben Hur Senior …

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