In response to:
On Pornography from the March 31, 1966 issue
To the Editors:
Gore Vidal filled an ample portion of the March 31 issue of The New York Review of Books with a vast essay “On Pornography” (presented as being a review of The Olympia Reader) which strikes me as one of the most ungenerous pieces of writing which I have ever read.
Considered from the viewpoint of criticism, Mr. Vidal’s fulminations can hardly be taken seriously. He writes for instance: “As literature most of the selections are junk, even though the writers include such celebrated contemporary figures as Nabokov….” Stop. No need to go further. Nabokov, precisely, is not in the selection presented in The Olympia Reader and Mr. Vidal has just proven that he has not done more than glance through the book which he attacks with such vehemence (six months, no less, after its publication).
It would be an idle and hopeless job to attempt any discussion of Mr. Vidal’s literary tastes and judgments, but at least I think I have the right to question his motives. I never even talked to the man, and I fail to understand why he pursues me with such insistent hatred, why he takes so much trouble to misrepresent my ideas, my role, and, may I say, my character.
Spinsterish persiflage is one thing, but this seems to transgress the boundaries of literary criticism and of simple good taste.
I don’t really mind being called “a peddler of dirty books” or a “merchant of smut” by the imbecile censors who are my habitual opponents, but I feel that Mr. Vidal does not do justice to himself when he uses that sort of terminology against me.
I don’t mind being told by that arbitre des élégances that I write “like my worst authors” (and to support that verdict Mr. Vidal quotes one of my sentences, which I admit is a semicliché, but nothing worse than that); but Mr. Vidal himself writes sentences such as this: “One would think that the pornographer would think that his readers would want to know exactly how each body looked.” Phooey.
And what about this: “Kahane died in 1939 and his son Maurice Girodias (he took his mother’s name for reasons not given) continued Kahane’s brave work….” Beware of his laudative adjectives!…. Brave is of course to be understood as anything derogatory you may fancy to read instead. As to the mysterious reasons why I suddenly took my Catholic mother’s name, Mr. Vidal would naturally like his readers to assume that they were downright infamous. But the truth is so much simpler, if one deigns to remember that France was once occupied by Hitler’s troops, and that carrying a Jewish name was not such a healthy risk in those days. Did I have to explain that?
When he chose his title, “On Pornography,” Mr. Vidal candidly advertized his allegiance to the Establishment.
His efforts to appear sophisticated and broadminded are totally unconvincing: Vuigarity is never a good substitute for intellectual independence. The constant use he makes of the word pornography to describe anything sexual or erotic is an unmistakable sign of that allegiance. It is meant to bring to the reader’s mind the image of something unspeakably lewd and dirty. Pornography is one of those words. It means nothing, its etymology does not make sense, but it has that grinding, horrible quality which is so much more effective than loads of common sense. To call a work of art pornographic is an old device practiced by generations of censors to justify their ugly work.
To describe as pornography the selection of contemporary avant-garde writings (some of which, I willingly admit, is purely parodic and may be of uneven quality) presented in The Olympia Reader is not just being unfair. By so doing, Mr. Vidal tries to bring down the work of authors such as Genet, Miller, Nabokov or Burroughs to the level of cheap sex fiction, by assimilation. To him there are strictly no nuances: There is legitimate literature on one side, and pornography on the other. And what does make legitimate literature legitimate in Mr. Vidal’s view? I have the uncomfortable feeling, after reading this bilious diatribe, that nothing will satisfy Mr. Vidal that does not carry the censor’s seal of approval.
Speaking of clichés, I shall not be indiscreet enough to discuss Mr. Vidal’s profound insights into sexual psychology or tribal taboos, because it would be too easy to be cruel. But I would like to bring the reader’s attention to the following statements he made in his article, which seem to express governing ideas:
“…And though the high courts of the New American Empire cannot be said to be very happy about this state of affairs, they tend to agree that freedom of expression is…essential to our national life….”
Elsewhere: “Meanwhile, effort must be made to bring what we think about sex and what we say about sex and what we do about sex into some kind of realistic relationship. Indirectly, the pornographers do this….” And again, on the same theme: “It is to the credit of today’s pornographer that intentionally or not he is the one who tells us most about the extraordinary variety of human sexual response and in his way he shows us as we are….”
And to complete this survey of Mr. Vidal’s thinking, a last quote: “Certainly to maintain that a homosexual act in itself is anti-social or neurotic is dangerous nonsense….”
The first of those statements shows that, like so many intellectuals today, Mr. Vidal believes that our society has finally conquered total freedom of expression. After the recent ruling of the Supreme Court in the Ginzburg-Eros case, it is impossible to entertain any such delusions. Justice Stewart, a member of that court, may well say, “the Constitution protects coarse expression as well as refined, and vulgarity no less than elegance,” but we can only admire that magistrate’s faith in an ideal: Reality is very far from such pious imagery. The battle for the liberation of art and literature is not yet won. The anti-sex fiends are still roaming the streets. Only eight years ago Lady Chatterley’s Lover was still under a ban in the United States.
In France, the country which invented civil liberties and modern democracy, I have been sentenced more than 25 times in recent years for the publication of books in English which my judges could not read. I have had 80 books banned—among which Lolita, The Ginger Man, Our Lady of the Flowers, Story of O, Candy, Fanny Hill—all books which are freely on sale in the United States—and I have had to cope with firm jail sentences amounting to as much, at times, as six years in all, and an 80 year and six months suspension of my publisher’s license. The Supreme Court’s ruling may very well announce such a mad wave of intellectual censorship in America, and that would not be so surprising in a country which adopted a character like Senator McCarthy as moral ruler of the nation. (At least my General de Gaulle has a sense of humor, however somber and Wagnerian it may be)….
I have done some fighting: much more so than any of the distinguished publishers who today in America are reaping the financial and moral harvest of my little literary discoveries. And that I have not done my fighting simply for money, at least that Mr. Vidal grudgingly admits (…and hastens to add that is only due to my “incompetence”: read stupidity).
My feeling is that there still is a good deal of disinterested fighting to be done before we are able to enjoy life in a really free society: free morally and intellectually, as well as economically and politically.
I invite Mr. Vidal to join my side in that fight. His present idea of freedom appears simply to be: the abolition of prejudice with regard to homosexuality. My own view, may I say, is a little broader. But the job ahead of us, in this year 1966, is still big enough to necessitate the participation of all those, straight or crooked, hip or square, homosexual or ministers of the Lord, for whom freedom is a live ideal.
Gore Vidal replies:
Apparently years of persecution (real and imagined) have made Mr. Girodias insensitive to anything but panegyric or abuse. In his anguish he makes me out to be an enemy of pornography, passion, the avant garde (as he understands it), and even Life itself. Worse, I now “pursue” him with “insistent hatred,” and admire nothing which does not carry “the censor’s seal of approval.” This is nuts. A course in remedial reading would do Mr. Girodias no harm. My piece could not have been more friendly. First, I gave an amiable review of his career, relying on his version of what happened, and ignoring the hostile reports of Nabokov, Donleavy, Southern, et al. Second, I made it clear that I am opposed to all censorship of books. Third, I maintained that the sex lives of adults should be of no concern to the state. Fourth, I said that I enjoyed pornography and found the pornographer’s role nearly as useful as that of the prostitute, the constant hero of our race.
I suspect that as one of nature’s defendants, Mr. Girodias finds it difficult to believe that he is not entirely alone in his proud defiance of society. If he were a bit less dizzy, he might have recognized that I am on his side and that I respect his career. It is true that I don’t admire his prose style but at least I enjoy it, which is something. The fact that he has chosen to be a martyr in the cause of sexual freedom strikes me as splendid, although I agree with Henry Miller that that battle for the writer (as opposed to the lawyer) has long since been won. But to each his martyrdom and I for one will bear affectionate witness to Mr. Girodias’s auto-da-fé, as the faggots crackle in Times Square and Justice Brennan holds high the cross.
May 12, 1966