In response to:
The Ashes of Hollywood I: The Bottom 4 of the Top 10 from the May 17, 1973 issue
To the Editors:
I have been told never to answer the critic but when the issue involves not judgment but fact then the moment arrives to perform the old Getting Even Scene, I think Mr. Vidal would call it.
In his first article on bestsellers [NYR, May 17] Vidal wrote: “As I picked up the heavy book I knew terror, for I am the rarest of reviewers who actually reads every word, and rather slowly.” I was impressed with that, and read it aloud to others.
In looking at my book, The Camerons [NYR, May 31], Vidal breaks it down into a series of recognizable movie scenes such as The Mirror Scene, The Food Scene and “There is the Fever Breaks Scene (during this episode I knew that there would be a tracheotomy and sure enough the doctor said it was sometimes necessary but in this case….”
In this case what happens is that someone in the family, unable to bear the sickness, takes a flannel rag sopping with chloroform and stuffs it down the boy’s mouth until he dies. Some way to break the fever and some way to handle the old Fever Breaks Scene. In most places it is known as murder. I think the scene we’re really being treated to is critic as mortal, Critic Beginning To Skim Rapidly. For this I don’t fault him but I would not, rarest of reviewers, go around sounding my own horn to the contrary.
I shouldn’t add this since it blunts the wicked edge of my point but Mr. Vidal, of all reviewers, caught something no one else ever did about the book. He finds himself mystified that I don’t seem to be much interested in the story itself. What I wanted to do was record life in a miserable Scotch mine town, where my people are from…LEST WE FORGET…and get someone to read about the unreadable. The fact that I somehow trapped several hundred thousand of what Keir Hardie calls the Thoroughly Comfortable into doing it, pleases me no end. In the review that follows mine Vidal makes a plea for the historical novel. Don’t the lives of miners 100 years ago count, or must people wear togas or plumes in their hats to qualify?
New York City
Gore Vidal replies:
Mr. Crichton now plays for us that old favorite The Wounded Author Accusing Reviewer of Not Reading Every Word Scene. I am sympathetic to the Wounded Author—or W.A. for short. But I really did read every word of The Camerons and The Fever Breaks Scene occurs on pages 393-394. Later, on page 446, the crusty doctor (Donald Crisp) tells the family that Jemmie has diphtheria. ” ‘This is a fever disease and it kills by dehydrating, wasting and debilitating, do you understand me?’ They nodded. ‘The membrane over the throat is highly serious and it could be bypassed by a tracheotomy….’ ” I have always liked this scene no matter who writes or films it. Later, after The Fever Breaks Scene and the Tracheotomy Discussion comes the Flannel Rag Death Scene, and very powerful it is. I suppose I ought to have included it on my list but space was running short.
I had not realized the W.A. was descended from the gallant Scots he describes. On the strength of his previous bestseller, The Secret of Santa Vittoria, I had assumed that he was Italian. Certainly he is right to take me to task for ascribing motive to him; he is also to be commended for having got a lot of people “to read about,” as he puts it, “the unreadable.”
September 20, 1973