In response to:

Plastic Fiction from the October 28, 1976 issue

To the Editors:

Thank you for publishing Gore Vidal’s “Plastic Fiction.” It is a pleasure, if a bitter one, to see a famous writer assault the intelligence of greater writers, and the pointyheaded academicians who contain their pride enough to read them and learn from them. I myself am not a famous writer; not even a famous critic. Perhaps it is because of this that I am not tempted to insult others for admiring certain books more than I do. Though I am not very fond of Swift, for example, I do not imagine that those whose minds are stimulated by him are tasteless or unintelligent; and I have certainly not thought to attack them as moral monsters because they admire a man who proposed the eating of children. But Vidal is a famous man; he quotes from Gravity’s Rainbow verses which any intelligent reader knows to be parodies of American taste, and claims from such evidence that Pynchon writes like a kindergartener. And he claims that Pynchon wishes to reassure us of our personal immortality, when the exact opposite is true. And he has such nonsense published. Pynchon’s ideas, which Vidal has not tried to understand, are dismissed because, with ideas, “proofs are always being disproved by other proofs. At the end, there are only words and their arrangement.” Henry Adams is “out of date”; soon Pynchon will be “out of date” too. Obviously, writers should have no ideas at all—least of all ideas involving science, which Vidal is not ashamed to admit he is incapable of studying. I believe with Nabokov that great books are the ones that make us think; thinking is good. But why am I writing this? Because Vidal has insulted my taste, my intelligence, and my profession? Of course not; this is America. I am insanely angry only because he wants intelligence “decently to die” in our bad age of transition. Since “the future is dark for literature,” we might as well turn the lights out now. He asks for books the kids will want to read, something klassy to compete with TV, something accessible to our school-agers—without, for God’s sake, the need of teachers! Well, names do come to mind. Vidal’s teachers evidently turned books into “artifacts stinking of formaldehyde”; but there are ways of teaching books without embalming them, and some of us do not flunk anyone who does not intend to become an “academic bureaucrat.” Some even want to enrich their students’ lives with great books and great ideas, even though understanding often requires guidance and work. Why do I go on like this? I have rarely read so self-serving and stupid a piece of anti-criticism and anti-intellectualism as “Plastic Fiction.” So obviously stupid that I should know better than to respond at all. He’s just trying to sucker us into getting angry again, and I’ve fallen for it.

James W. Earl

Department of English

University of Virginia

Charlottesville, Virginia

This Issue

October 28, 1976