ESTHER: In light of your latest book’s concerns regarding
memory, life, love, and death, it is considerably shorter than
Palimpsest, although they cover the same amount of
VIDAL: Books are as long as they are meant to be. When the subject’s
done, the subject’s done. Also, my objection to most American
writing is that it’s endlessly garrulous and pointless.
So I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be precise
and to the point on what I wanted to cover?”
ESTHER: You kept your observations about Howard Auster’s
life and death to a discreet minimum.
VIDAL: What would be the maximum?
ESTHER: What was it about Howard that made your relationship
last all of those years?
VIDAL: No sex. But nobody believes that. This is America where
everybody must have a full sex life all day long. Fifty percent
of heterosexual marriages end in divorce. Where does that come
from? Exclusivity. “You’re mine, you’re mine.
You swore, Agnes, when I married you, that you’d be true
to me.” Come off of it. This is a bunch of BS.
ESTHER: You mentioned in the book that you and Howard had completely
separate sexual lives. Could there be a balance between exclusivity
and playing the field?
VIDAL: I suppose that somebody 16 or 17 might conceive that,
yeah. Reality does not support it.
ESTHER: You’ve often contended that “homosexuality”
is not a noun but instead a verb, an act -- so one can only
be a homosexualist or same-sexualist.
VIDAL: Only a country like this one could have thought up [the
idea] that sexual tastes, whatever they may be, dictate identity.
Only a bunch of morons would have come to that conclusion.
ESTHER: Yet, despite Kinsey’s findings, we continue with
VIDAL: Kinsey was not only not right about everything, he was
just as puzzled as I am. He and I thought very much alike on
many lines. He had come to the conclusion that sex is a continuum.
It changes throughout life or doesn’t change throughout
life. It’s really no big deal. So he approached it, quite
correctly, as an expert on fruit flies [actually gall wasps].
ESTHER: In what way can we apply this same principle to other
behaviors such as religious beliefs, race, and gender?
VIDAL: I always find that to use religion or race or sex as
identification is folly. After all, once you isolate yourself
in a category, Adolf Hitler will come along and say, “I
don’t like this category. They’re not voting right
so we better get rid of them.”
ESTHER: I was just about to segué to politics. Most people
from your background tend to accept, if not embrace, U.S. dominance
in the world, yet you’ve always been critical of “the
Empire.” Why did you turn out different from your peers?
VIDAL: I read more books and lived a much fuller life than these
people. I was brought up in the engine room of the Republic:
the U.S. Senate. I know how we’re governed. I know what
the weaknesses are, and I know the things we do very, very badly.
One is empire building, nation building, whatever you want to
call it. No, we are not suited for any great tasks as a nation.
Once we have a civilization -- a civilization begins by knowing
the difference between an adjective and a noun -- then reality
starts to intrude. But as long as you go along, “Oh he’s
a nice man; I trust him with everything” -- this is for
the barbarians. Not that we have progressed very far from that
state; and we’ve done some regression of late.
ESTHER: Is there anything positive you can say about the Bush
VIDAL: Yes, it’s all over.
ESTHER: Do you think it is the worst administration in U.S.
VIDAL: There’s no competition. There are failed administrations.
There are wrongheaded
ones. There’s never been one that was disastrous to two
other countries who had done us no harm and could do us no harm.
There’s no example of that. And a few weeks ago, we lost
habeas corpus; after 800 years, we lost the Magna Carta.
We’ve got an Attorney General who I don’t think
has read the Constitution. Or, if he has, he just blanks it
out. To come forward with all sorts of rationalizations for
getting rid of due process of law, without which there is no
republic -- forget democracy, we never had it and will never
have it. We’re not suited for it. But we did have a very
well functioning republic, which saw us through a couple of
major wars, victoriously. Now we have nothing.
ESTHER: In the book you mentioned the stolen U.S. elections
of 2000 and 2004. Why did Gore and Kerry allow the Bush administration
to steal both elections? After all, these are powerful, well-connected
VIDAL: Powerful is not the word. Well-connected is the word
-- at least they knew how to raise the money. That’s well-connected
in a corrupt republic. So we’re looking more and more
like Paraguay. You must ask them why; I’ll never know.
ESTHER: Your book deals with death quite a bit. Do you feel
that the America you leave will be worse off than the one you
entered in 1925?
VIDAL: Prevailing evidence convinces me that it will be much
worse. And there’s not one sociologist who will not report
that upward mobility, which was always our great thing, stopped
some time ago. If your father is a garage mechanic, you’re
not going to make much more money than he did no matter what
you do. So that is gone. We are a stagnant nation.
ESTHER: Are there any current politicians you would like to
VIDAL: Not as much as I would like to see them retreat. The
system is totally rotten. How are you going to get good buds
on the tree? You’re not going to. You’re going to
get the dregs of Eden.
ESTHER: What should we do about the inherent corruption in our
VIDAL: There’s nothing to be done. It’s like asking
somebody in Paraguay, “Why do you keep putting generals
in office?” “Well, we put them in because they take
the office.” “When are you going to stop the corruption?”
“Well, when we stop having generals.” It’s
circular. Our politics became totally corrupt with the invention
of television and the cost of TV advertising. And the only great
art form we ever created was the TV commercial. So everything’s
merchandising. Anything that comes out of the Neoconservatives
is going to be more lies and more hyperventilating and more
and more grotesque details, because that’s all they do
is lie. I think that’s what the Bushites learned -- how
to lie on a grand scale.
ESTHER: Looking back, what is your greatest achievement?
VIDAL: Anybody who starts to think along those lines is out
of the running. I’m still running. Limping.
ESTHER: What do you think about interviews in which you discuss
your work -- do you think it serves the work or should the work
speak for itself?
VIDAL: If you notice, I do that almost never. What have we been
talking about? Politics. State of the Union. We haven’t
mentioned a novel of mine. Somebody said, “Why, you could
read all of Palimpsest -- your first forty years --
and no one would know you ever wrote a successful novel.”
That’s not for me to write about. It’s rather a
plus not to do that, but everyone else is braying like donkeys:
“Look at me, look at me.” This is not a congenial
culture, you must admit -- to the extent it is a culture.
ESTHER: Do you write for an audience that would discuss your
VIDAL: If you think about the audience you’re writing
for, you’ve had it.
ESTHER: Do you write for yourself?
VIDAL: There’s nobody else around.
ESTHER: Yes, but you know others will read your novels.
VIDAL: Well, I know they’ll get most of them wrong, but
that’s the educational system. The people who write book
reviews, write about the arts -- the people who write about
these things are nobodies. Often they’re honest enough
to know that they are nobodies and they have no right to these
opinions. Yes, everybody’s got the same feelings, I know
that. And all feelings are equal. [But] when it comes to high
culture, everybody’s not equal. Some people know more
than other people. If I’m going to be instructed on brain
surgery, I’m not going read Stephen King. It’s the
first rule of criticism. No one but your mother cares about
your opinion. Start with that. You’re a blank slate. Forget
the author. He’s at least written on his slate. And you’re
going to write about his writing on his slate. And you’re
going to pass [judgment]: “Oh, I just hated his work.
My god he’s an awful man. I can just tell.” Well,
this kind of bogus moralizing goes on. We haven’t had
a decent literary critic in my lifetime. We’ve had good
critics who bury themselves in the academy and are never seen
again, particularly by their students. We occasionally have
great explainers like Edmund Wilson, who stopped reviewing novels
around 1945. Just when my generation really needed a critic,
he’s doing the Iroquois Indians -- which is probably far
more useful. So we are adrift. Even the worst newspaper in England
has better book reviewers than The New York Times.
So don’t pass judgment. Now, what do you do if you have
to review a book? The most difficult thing on earth, and most
people don’t know how difficult it is, because most people
can’t do it: describe what it was that you read. If you
do that properly you don’t have to throw adjectives around
and make cute noises. Just describe it. The words that you use
for the description will lead the criticism. Now if you can
plow that into some heads, you will have done great work.
ESTHER: What current novelists do you admire?
VIDAL: Everybody thinks old novelists go rushing out to get
the latest product, to see what the latest models are. I just
don’t read them. I’ve never read contemporary fiction
unless I realized it was of a very high order, which was not
often. But how could you tell? Look at book reviewing. It’s
an absurdity. A good review means nothing. A bad reviewer is
somebody who feels he’s been cheated and is due by this
hustler who’s got ahead of him in line.
ESTHER: Have there ever been criticisms that hurt your feelings
VIDAL: No. What I hate is being misquoted.
ESTHER: Robert Altman recently died at the age of 81. As someone
of his age and an ardent filmgoer, what do you think of him
and his films?
VIDAL: I had dinner with him two nights before [his death] in
New York. I trust it was not cause and effect. He was wonderful.
His films are great. I’ve never seen a bad one. I’ve
seen ones that were not as good as others.
ESTHER: You write about power and privilege from what many would
perceive as a powerful and privileged viewpoint or position
VIDAL: Well, you write what you know. As Iago says to Othello,
who asks why, “You know what you know.” One of the
great mysteries of Shakespeare, that line.