David's Reviews > Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship

Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship by Gore Vidal
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Dec 10, 08

bookshelves: read-in-2008
Read in December, 2008

This book is a perfect illustration of the hazards of visiting the second-hand bookstore. I mean, here I am, with around 170 books on my "owned but not yet read" shelf, almost any of which deserves a higher priority than this. A collection of pieces by Gore Vidal published in 1968, for chrissakes. How is that gonna help my glittering, Christmas party book chit-chat cred?
Meanwhile, those Savage Detectives have slid back down to the middle of the pile, joined by the mind-improving history of the Spanish civil war, a certain man of La Mancha and sundry residents of the village of Combray. Not to mention those apparently infinite jests, Infinite Jest and The Recognitions.


But Vidal is irresistible. It’s refreshing to read material by someone with a subtle mind and an extensive vocabulary, who deploys both without apology or condescension. His style is engaging – he has an ability to make his point clearly, without beating the reader over the head. You may not agree with what he has to say, but you won’t have any difficulty figuring out what he means.

This collection contains reviews of works by Susan Sontag, John O’ Hara, John Hersey, J.K. Galbraith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edith Nesbit, and Henry Miller. In addition, there are roughly half a dozen general essays discussing such topics as the state of the novel, censorship laws, pornography, public television, the Kennedys, and the 1968 Republican convention. Vidal doesn’t pull punches in these reviews, but they seem remarkably even-handed to me. Although his criticism can be blunt, it never comes across as personal, and he seems to go out of his way to point out each author’s strengths, as far as possible. In the preface, Vidal acknowledges that his reviews are reputed to be “harsh”, but counters that he is “blunt about issues, not people”. He admits to having been “too unkind” in the piece on John Hersey, (who had apparently wanted to sue him) – I thought the review was actually right on the mark.

“To give Mr Hersey his due .... he is good-hearted, right-minded, and ... tireless. Unfortunately, he is almost always dull, and this dullness is not easily accounted for, since he deals with interesting subjects.

The Hersey technique is, simply, to collect an immense amount of data, then use most of it. ...To what end does Mr Hersey in his level, fact-choked style insist that we attend these various disasters human and natural? Admittedly the simple declarative sentences are excellent at conveying action, ... but they are hopeless at expressing a moral point of view, even by indirection. ... he does little but feed us facts in the worst tradition of those often useful but invariably overwritten profiles of the obscure with which the New Yorker has for years burdened our era’s social archives ...”

Vidal is absolutely right. Hersey’s writing is overladen with irrelevant detail, and disappointingly boring, given the potential for his subject matter to be riveting. Vidal writes with equal perspicacity about the other authors reviewed in this collection. His iconoclastic remarks about the Kennedy dynasty may not have earned him much gratitude in 1968, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong.

What Gore Vidal had to say forty years ago about Susan Sontag, John Hersey, E. Nesbit, J.K. Galbraith, and Henry Miller is probably not of interest to very many readers in 2008, but a reasonable case could be made that it should be. Good writing never goes out of fashion.
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message 1: by Gail (new)

Gail I loved your review. Vidal is, for me, an irresistable temptation to put down, quickly, any other books I might be considering, and immediately turn to his elegantly sharp wit as he punctures so many overblown bubbles.

And I think what he has had to say about other writers will always be interesting to those who are interested in good literature...including good literature about other literature. After all, we still read critics from the 17th (good grief) and 18th centuries, so why not this marvelous, illuminating work?

I don't mean to say that I agree with all what Vidal says, but I dearly love the *way* he says it.


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