Edmund White: Invention, Imagination, and Memory
Author: Frank Pizzoli
March 19, 2012
“…gays only make up about 3% of the population so we spend our whole lives ‘translating’ straight movies, books, ballets into gay terms and studying the heterosexuals around us…”
At a recent reading by Edmund White from his current novel Jack Holmes & His Friend (Bloomsbury) at Philadelphia’s Giovanni’s Room, the country’s oldest gay and lesbian bookstore, the audience leaned toward older gay men sprinkled with curious younger readers. A few days earlier the fiercely productive White had described the novel as “my most popular novel so far” when he talked with writer Frank Pizzoli about some general literary themes and some specific criticisms of his work. Pizzoli last interviewed White for LLR in March 2007.[i] White’s Sacred Monsters (Magnus Books), more than 20 essays collected in book form, was also recently released. Currently, he’s working on another manuscript about his years in Paris.
Often steeped in controversy, White remains unabridged.
Recently White’s been criticized by the Los Angeles Review of Books for his work not being “universal,” a barb also issued by Daniel Mendelsohn in the pages of The New York Review of Books, where they both have a byline. About Jack Holmes, Martin Amis wrote in the London Sunday Times that the novel contains “startling perceptions of American society…as character after character is delicately and colorfully rendered and one social milieu after another brought vividly to life. White is a connoisseur of the nuances of personality and mood, and here unveils his very human cast in all their radical individuality.” The LST reviewer Edmund Gordon wrote that the novel is “a triumphant return to form…his best yet.”
Embracing comments on White’s work reflect what French critics wrote upon release of A Boy’s Own Story, when they credited him with a “Proustian sensibility” and compared his prose to Henry James. Paris Review interviewer Jordan Elgrably thought his highest good “is the truth of the imagination.” His fourth novel, Caracole, was described by the British magazine Time Out as “elegant, fabulous, almost sublime.” William Goldstein wrote in Publishers Weekly, “To call Edmund White merely a gay writer is to oversimplify his work and his intentions.” Christopher Bram’s recently released Eminent Outlaws, The Gay Writers Who Changed America relies on White’s influence as a writer to shape the second half of his jam-packed scoring of what Bram calls the literary revolution turned social revolution.
The National Book Critics Circle finalist and author John Irving (The World According to Garp, Cider House Rules) calls him “one of the best writers of my generation.” The same-age as White, John Irving has said about White’s A Boy’s Own Story that when he first read the book in the early 1980s he “thought that the novel spoke much more to me about a boy coming of age (even though it’s about a gay boy coming of age, and I’m not gay) than J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye ever did.” Still others are less certain of his “universality,” as one online commentator thought “he’s received enduring credit for being the first to publish certain material—not the best.” Another online reader commented that White is “one of our best chroniclers of gay life, sex, AIDS, and aging. I’m glad writers like Irving recognize his universal importance.”
In his review of City Boy: Life in New York During the 1960s and ’70s, Daniel Mendelsohn writes in The New York Review of Books, “What’s most pressingly at stake for him (White), in writing ostensibly about arts and letters, is the artists and the lettres, the social and personal aspect of literary production.” What’s wrong with focusing on the social and personal aspects of literary production?
I believe that the fame of an artist or writer is mostly due to his legend, rather than his work. Look at Van Gogh, Rimbaud, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein. If we’re honest about it, most of us respond to the extra-artistic image these people have. As a writer of biography (Proust, Genet, Rimbaud), I’m obviously interested in the life as well as the work.
How does this idea play into the work you [Ed] produce? In regards to your forthrightness in writing about your own life, warts and all? Do you find this has contributed to your own fame?
I never think about that.
“Universalism” is a blessing and a curse. Your work has just been criticized by the Los Angeles Review of Books for not being universal. Using your interaction in City Boy with then-Raritan editor Richard Poirier as an example, Poirier became “furious” for your suggesting that there may be “gay” fiction, poetry, even a gay sensibility. Also, critic Daniel Mendelsohn underscores Poirier’s reaction to you as you wrote it: “a betrayal of every humane idea of literature.” Pretty stiff indictment?
I’m so bored and offended by that objection. They wouldn’t dare criticize a black or Jewish writer in the same way.
Mendelsohn didn’t read my pages very carefully, because at the end of the discussion I concede that I now largely agree with Poirier, though at the time I thought he was ignoring an exciting new possibility in art. In the intervening years there certainly have been many splendid gay novels and gay literary studies.
I suppose the more specific writing is the more it intrigues the general reader. I just finished a splendid memoir, What to Look for in Winter by Candia McWilliam, who is a Scottish aristocrat and novelist who has gone blind and faced two unsuccessful marriages. In no way does her story parallel mine, but I identified with every page.
Readers and playgoers like a work that explores all the codes and systems of a particular world—that’s why paranoia is such a good starting point for a novel (Pale Fire). Or why Moby Dick is so compelling.
Like every writer, I hope that my work will eventually reach a large audience. In the 19th century it mattered desperately whether one was a Romantic, Realist or Naturalist but now we read with equal interest Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert and Zola.
Daniel Mendelsohn has criticized A Boy’s Own Story because he feels that in the manuscript “life” overtook “art.” What’s wrong with that? Isn’t the 20th century full of exclamations and warnings that art reflects life, that life reflects art, and now with reality TV, who can know? You mentioned during our first interview (March, 2007, Lambda Literary Review) that Andy Warhol had arranged to spend time in a Greenwich Village shop one Saturday, asking people to bring him whatever they wanted him to sign. He was, in your words, asking the questions, Is this art? Could this be art?
Actually A Boy’s Own Story only loosely echoes my own life. I was precocious intellectually and sexually, won prizes, published stories and poems and slept with 500 people before I was sixteen—quite unlike the shy, un-brilliant boy in my book.
Is there a gay sensibility? At moments, Mendelsohn sounds like a White Colonialist scolding natives for not acquiescing that he knows better than they, and everyone else, what’s good, what’s not.
I never read the Mendelsohn article so I have no idea what he says; my partner warned me off it, since hateful criticism has a way of searing itself into my brain. I don’t think there is one gay sensibility any more than there is a black or Jewish sensibility.
Speaking of “gay sensibility,” was it a struggle to inhabit a straight male voice in your current novel Jack Holmes & His Friend?”
Not at all. After all, gays only make up about 3% of the population so we spend our whole lives “translating” straight movies, books, ballets into gay terms and studying the heterosexuals around us—we know much more about them than they know about us, just as blacks know a lot about whites but whites know virtually nothing about blacks.
I think this is the first time you have inhabited a straight male voice.
Fiction is an accumulation of little true facts that are made dynamic—it’s always an exciting challenge to pull that off.
You’re good friends with John Irving and now he’s featuring a lead bisexual male character in his next novel. Coincidence?
One due more to the fact that his grandfather was a cross-dresser who often appeared in amateur theatricals as a woman, and that his own son is gay.
You admire both Alan Hollinghurst and E. M. Forster, one writing as an openly gay man, one not. Might Forster’s work have been different had he been “out”?
Of course, Forster did write a gay book, Maurice, except he wouldn’t let it be published in his lifetime. Proust wrote a lot about homosexuality but not his own. The narrator is one of the few characters who stays straight till the end. Gays in the past, like Proust, had to be inventive and imaginative and have excellent memories, because they were always transforming their loves from Phil to Phyllis. Invention and imagination and memory are all good tools for a novelist.
Help us understand The Violet Quill. Looking back, the group—Christopher Cox, Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano, Edmund White, and George Whitmore—met only seven times over one year but set into motion a literary movement. As you’ve said: The gay community was despised in the 50s, liberated in the 60s, partied large across urban settings in the 70s, and started dying off in the 80s. Did the “Quill” chime history’s clock at just the right moment?
We were enabled by the invention of new gay publications such as “Christopher Street” and about 70 new gay bookstores across the country (now sadly shuttered). We were suddenly writing fiction that addressed the gay reader, not the straight one, and that did not provide an explanation of where Fire Island was or how our characters came to be gay. We used those meetings partly to divide up the turf—Ferro got the family, I got childhood, Holleran got New York and Fire Island, etc.
This month in Melbourne (Feb. 2012) there’s an international conference “After Homosexual: The Legacy of Gay Liberation.” Not long before his death you spoke on camera[ii] with father of Off-Off Broadway Doric Wilson, of Caffe Cino fame, both of you lamenting the arrival of “assimilation.” Are we approaching post-gay?
Post-gay has long been with us—think of Michael Cunningham’s books. I regret the passing of a bohemian, Leftist gay life that was accepting of all outsiders, the mixed gay couple, the homeless old lady. You used to see all these people in gay bars—now they’re all frightfully exclusive.
In a 1988 interview for The Paris Review with Jordan Elgrably, the same year The Beautiful Room Is Empty was published, you note the difference between being a journalist and a novelist and being a typical New Yorker in that you had a keen eye for the publishing market. Yet you became discouraged with that constant drumbeat and wrote Forgetting Elena, your first published novel and one you wrote to please yourself, not a potential market. In your more recent work, have you been able to balance all those competing forces?
Of course writers in this difficult world are very aware of the market, since even established authors have trouble getting published; recently Christopher Bram said he wrote Eminent Outlaws because he wasn’t sure he could find a home for his fiction. The theme of a novel now must be obvious and striking, even in a quick summary.
Andre Gide said that with each book a writer should lose the admirers he gained with the previous one. Are you losing admirers along the way?
For what reasons may you be losing readers? And on the flipside do you feel you gained some admirers? What does this new audience look like?
Some gay readers resented the amount of straight sex in Jack Holmes, just as they disliked a “straight” novel such as Caracole, which some gay bookstores refused to handle.
You’ve said that each good novel should advance a, not the, theory of the novel. Still believe that?
Yes, for instance, Jack Holmes uses a scenic technique I’ve never explored before of action and dialogue and less description and analysis than in my previous books—the Richard Yates approach, you might say.
Referring to The Beautiful Room Is Empty what did you mean by saying you wanted to show the puritanical oppression of sexual freedom? How is sexual freedom oppressive?
I mean that sexual freedom is oppressed in our country, not that sex is oppressive. Sorry about the confusion.
I recognize that passion is usually a destructive force; I agree with Racine, Shakespeare, Flaubert and Tolstoy.
Does your current novel Jack Holmes & His Friend reflect that same sentiment about love and passion?
No my characters are not tragic.
You’ve said your unpublished novels written in the 50s and 60s gather dust, although you have mined them for future works. About the tone of those earlier works you’ve said, “In the 60s we harbored utopian notions that were extremely naïve.” What utopian, naïve notions does the gay community hold today? That all of us want to get married? Have kids? Serve in the military? Be a jock? Or is the quilt picture of our community simply more complete these days?
Many gays think that if only they could have all the freedoms that straights enjoy they’d be happy—which seems naïve.
You participated in the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which you considered a rather silly event at the time, calling it more Dada than Bastille. Is the gay liberation movement still more Dada than Bastille? Younger activist groups, like Get Equal, are storming HRC like the Bastille.
I’m afraid the gay community these days is very corporate and serious.
You’ve said about yourself: “I keep feeling I’ve accomplished nothing, never written a ‘real’ novel.” That was 1988 when you, and gay men everywhere, were struggling intensely with the unreality of AIDS, the fast, sequential loss of friends. Still feel that way?
I feel that Jack Holmes is my first “real” novel in that it is a page turner, has action and dialogue and evokes duration as well as time passing—all the hallmarks of a real novel.
And, finally, with every good sentiment in mind, how has, if at all, your recent stroke affected your thoughts about writing in general, your writing, your view of the world?
Everything seems to be conspiring to make me simplify, simplify. The stroke only exacerbated that tendency.
Photographs by Jamie Villafranca
Research assistance provided by Shaun Espenshade who is a student of Greek and Latin at Franklin & Marshall College.
[i] Meeting Edmund White
Sometimes fate is kind. I’d wanted to interview Edmund White for some time, and wondered how to bring that about in an impromptu IM to Key Westfriend Chris Tittel, writer and playwright (A Live and Lusty Matter, Mammy’s Pantry, True North, about the Boy Scouts, currently working on The Chip System). That was 2007, and Tittel answered that he was having dinner with White the next evening. He’d ask on my behalf. The dinner fell through, but not the interview (LLR, Summer 2207).
Although I’m not a starchy guy, I do rely on antiquated manners no longer taught. So off went a warm but respectfully formal email that White answered in less than 35 minutes. His simple lower case, one line note contained a date, time, location, and kudos on my writer’s resume. We were strangers.
While turning a corner in White’s apartment building, not sure of my direction, he stuck his head out the door, beaming a huge smile. Once inside, he offered to make us a pot of tea with a blend sent from a friend he made while living inParis. “And some dried fruit?” he asked. He made me feel like if I’d said, “No thanks, but how about a grilled cheese sandwich,” he’d have made me one and ask how dark did I like the bread grilled.
I moved to his living room to set up a recorder, with him talking to me from the kitchen. His partner Michael scurried in and out with plastic baskets. “We’re doing laundry today. If his passing through will be a bother, we can wait,” White asked. It wasn’t. When he brought out the tea and dried fruit and then sat down in his chair I realized he was just as excited as I was. My Q&A was next to me on the couch. White said he’d glanced at but hadn’t read the questions. “I like these things to be fresh,” he explained.
Fumbling with the recorder, I finally got it working. “I’m sitting here in the apartment of Edmund Wilson…” I said, and then froze. “We’d both be in trouble if that were true,” White quipped and we both laughed. He is human. Despite the lacerating criticisms he’s endured—he’s this, he’s that; he’s not this or not that; he’s not every mother’s dream, as if any one of us is. And who among us wouldn’t want his writer’s resume?
I can’t possibly know if what he’s written will endure. Neither can White. I am glad he wrote what he did, when he wrote whatever he wrote, especially his novels. That was my time, my city, in the many ways NYC was, and remains, for so many others. If journalism is the first draft of history, novels written while the clock ticks away on current events may be the second draft. As far as writing novels, I’m with Somerset Maugham: There’s three rules to writing a novel but no one knows what they are.
[ii] Video, In “A Conversation With…” writers Edmund White and Doric Wilson share first hand accounts of the Stonewall Riots, and discuss how bearing witness to the uprising impacted their work and shaped their politics, reflecting on gay liberation, assimilation. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ob-x3QoGfg