How often we must reflect today that the salt hath lost its savor. At a “reading” at Queens College not long ago, I saw and heard Norman Mailer reading “poems” to his audience. He showed all the innocent delight of a child, and he was well received. But Mailer, rich and approaching his 80’s, had little need to show up for such an exercise except the biggest one of all. Getting his fix of applause and his ego boosted yet once more, the bloated, jug-eared old geezer was again the good bad boy of his own dreams. The whole thing was as sweet as it was absurd, but there was not the savor of the old Village Voice effusions, or The Deer Park, or An American Dream, written under the gun serially back in the 60’s. Nearly 40 years ago, Norman Mailer had already called himself “Normal Failure” and acknowledged that he had not fulfilled his youthful promise. Yet today, he is still ready to show up for trivial recognition for bad work, and he cannot even pronounce the word “poem” correctly, much less write one. But I do not blame Mailer altogether, because the audience was a large part of the fraudulence—and, come to think of it, so was Queens College.

Perhaps even more remarkably, I recently riffled through a library shelf of fiction by Gore Vidal and failed to find one creative or powerfully placed word in thousands of pages of droning. To ask why Gore Vidal writes novels today might also be to ask why he is published or read by anyone, and also to ask why he ever wrote anything in the first place. Unlike Mailer, he has no talent for fiction whatsoever, and never did. His pages are not as well crafted as those of Kathleen Norris, nattering on as though they were processed by Bulwer-Lytton or Snoopy in their “It was a dark and stormy night” klutziness. But the question “Why?” is only too easily answered. Walking into the film Gattaca not long ago—I wanted to see what Uma Thurman looked like in clothes—whom did I see but Gore Vidal, struggling to get into character. Like Norman, Gore just had to be seen. And that is the answer to the question: Vanity and impertinence are the only reasons Vidal writes, but they are no excuse for anyone to read him.


Writing is a kind of engineering or design that gets easily confused with the person who did the crafting—a mistake that no one would make with a bridge or an airplane. An excessive emphasis on personality is always a bad sign; what is worse, we cannot even blame our decayed times for the problem. The cult of personality was there from the beginning—even among the best writers.

Surveying the newspapers may suggest that writing is not the only thing that would make more sense if construed in reverse. The history of the Western world might be more palatable if, after an early democratic/plutocratic period in which lack of virtue and ability was no bar to advancement, a revolution restored the aristocracy to its place, and the populace, when not working at handicrafts, wept for joy to hear poems recited with a lyre at hand. Drama was a communal ritual, legend was epic, and all philosophers were pre-Socratic. Gods actually existed, the world was enchanted, and I hasten to add that the cultivation of grapes had been perfected, as time stopped forever in my ineffable vision.

An unavailable dream, you say? No, indeed. It is called Greek lit or “classics,” and the Roman stuff is swell too, if you prefer. Of course, I do not mean to slight the ancient Hebrews. Those sensible people had wine also, and God spoke to them, and their poems more than compare with any you care to mention, probably because they recognized divine inspiration when they saw (or felt) it. This unavailable dream is found in a widely available book called “the Bible.” I would rather read about Nathan rebuking King David with a story or about the reception of the Prodigal Son than about “President” Clinton pardoning Marc Rich at the behest of the Israeli government. More wisdom than the Knesset hath Solomon, and bitter is the fruit thereof.

If politics, culture, and religion make more sense in reverse order, then perhaps we can apply the principle with more focus in regard to the art of writing. We live a world in which the craft of writing is more recognized than ever before, if we can believe college catalogues; yet, when we look for examples of the art, we are driven into the past. Certainly, fine work is being done today, but it is not so easy to find. What is easy to find is lousy work, which is marketed in large part as a direct personal expression of the author, and the “author” is usually her glossy photograph—the younger the better. In other words, you are asked to buy the person as packaged in a book. So we arrive at the literary cult of personality, and the first thing to say about it is that never before in history have the personalities been such feeble ones. I do not think that writing should ever have been occulted in personality, but it has been for a long time, long before modern conditions of trade or corporate publishing ever existed.

Writing began to rot as soon as it was first inscribed. The perfect example is Homer (if he existed). Homeric procedure is fabled for its “objectivity,” which noble souls have desired to recover ever since it was lost. Yet Homer is subjective or self-referential in his invocations, and perhaps even in his brilliant picture of the court of King Alkinous, in which the bard or rhapsodist Demodocus performs his epic function within the poem. Even so. Homer is “objective” here because he put the epic poet in his place and insists that, at times, the hero could fulfill the function of the epic poet, eloquence being a manly attribute. This pattern is repeated in the anonymous Beowulf, which shows something about the folk mind of prehistoric Europe in the good old days before sliced bread.

No sooner had Homer put down his lyre than the imitators, parodists, and academicians took over. Every imaginable corruption of writing had already occurred in Greek by the time of Alexander. “Modern literature” may be said to have begun with the poems of Archilochus, who was, I think, the first man in history to write autobiographically, and we owe more to the Greek romances than we should. Postmodern literature surely existed in the works of the hilarious Lucian of Samosata, who had everybody’s number—including ours.

The Romans had many gifts, but literary invention was not one of them. Juvenal’s satire stands alone for its severity and purity even today, but the modern-seeming pathos of Vergil, Catullus, and Horace is far removed from the glories of Greek poetry—though not so far as we are. Veneration of Homer was never personal, but the cult of Vergil always was, and Catullus and Horace—their brilliance notwithstanding—seem to us like people we have known. That is the mark of the declension into the cult of personality, and the only prescription for recovery from such a condition would be a recursion into barbarism and, with it, a healthy return of primitive integrity and objectivity, as in Beowulf, the Chanson de Roland, the Nibelungenlied, and the Icelandic sagas. Alas, romance soon followed, and many a tear was shed. Dante Alighieri wrote a grand poem of mystical architecture, harmonizing passion and reason in an uncanny balance, the likes of which we have never seen again. He put himself into his poem from the beginning, and has been the object of a cult of personality ever since. The rough genius of Villon, however impressive, features a lot about Villon.

Moving rapidly along our literary timeline, we find a fraudulent “rebirth” looming. Cervantes wrote the first, best, and last novel before dying on the same day as Shakespeare, rendering further fiction unnecessary; for this we thank him (and his humility). His humor objectified the subjective, as he split himself in two and, changing horses in midstream, found himself riding Rocinante (as Lionel Trilling once put it). Cervantes evaded “personality” by dissolving it in pages imbued with a keen awareness of the gap between the written word and experience. As for Shakespeare, some still question whether he wrote his works—a mark not of a problem but of his matchless impersonality, which afforded him the properties of a chameleon. In an age of religious strife and political treachery, there is no word from him about ideology and every word of imaginative projection. As shook the spear, so fell the staff leaving us with a magnificent void as far as personality goes, and an unparalleled achievement as far as writing is concerned. Naturally, this lesson was ignored and reversed, as with the curiously empty cult of Bardolatry, and such insults as the lamely literal Shakespeare in Love. Will is just one of us, after all; for today, that is all a writer can be. But Will never sought publication in the modern sense, though he did tread the boards. His admiring superior, Ben Jonson, did wrap himself in a book. (Poor Ben—so proud of his master’s degree.)

About John Donne, I will only say that a man who could preach a sermon in his own death shroud exhibited a humility that is notable. In some ways, the greatest personality in the history of English literature is John Milton. You cannot tell him from his syntax (or his diction), and that is what I call a writer. But those days are gone.

The greatest personalities and writers of the “long Eighteenth century” were such losers as Swift, Pope, and Dr. Johnson, who would not have allowed a representative of our culture (Defoe) through the front door. Dean Swift has a reputation for madness that is directly related to his lucidity, as much a matter of ideology as of style, but let us face it: Saeva indignatio is just not good public relations. Pope is full of tension because his brilliance is in conflict with his values; Samuel Johnson, even more so. The subject of the greatest of biographies, Johnson struggled to subordinate his personality to his belief in general truth and in piety. (Poor Sam—so proud of his honorary doctorate.)

The 18th century was the last time that a writer or egomaniac or celebrity or vieillard terrible could be put in his place. Horace Walpole did it to David Hume in Paris on November 11, 1766. I remember—I was there. “You know, in England we read their works, but seldom or never take notice of authors. We think them sufficiently paid if their books sell, and of course leave them in their colleges and obscurity, by which means we are not troubled with their vanity and impertinence.” You should have seen Dave’s face, but enough about the 18th century, even though they were better days—public hangings and all that.

My patience with the 19th century has long been exhausted; there are just too many bad examples. Shelley should have been drowned in his bath, if he ever took one, and not in the Gulf of Spezia. Wordsworth (who did write some good poems, I must admit) should have been hanged for his youthful radicalism, and quartered for his aged pomposity. Keats and Emily Bronte could write, but the worst example was Byron, because his only subject was himself He was the first writer-as-celebrity (in our sense), and his death at Missolonghi was a good career move. As for the rest of this unsatisfactory century, I will only point out that Dickens himself is the protagonist of all his works, and that he ended up making public appearances and reading from his work. Sound familiar? As far as our own shores in that period are concerned, I have always been perplexed as to how Ralph Waldo Emerson escaped the attentions of an enraged mob. Such an intervention would have helped a lot, but why cry about unspilled milk?

Our century began with the cult of Tolstoy, and the chief cultist—as far as I can tell—was Tolstoy. The whole story is as sad as it is disgusting, but we have to remember that there had been a time when Tolstoy wrote with matchless clarity. When we recall Tolstoy’s cult of his own simplicity—he was, like Richard III and Ben Franklin, proud of his own humility—we realize that nothing is safe from gross corruption, and certainly not the vainglory of authors.

The rest of the century is pretty much a loss as far as mental health is concerned, but I blame two greatly gifted and photogenic writers for setting prominently destructive examples. William Faulkner, his other virtues not withstanding, never said “no” to a photo opportunity or a chance to spout off. Ernest Hemingway was even worse as far as self-absorption was concerned, taking more trouble with his endless portraits in Life than he did with his books. Whatever their merits, these two did a lot of damage to others who wanted “to be writers”—that is, to he in gossip columns, to drink, to blow smoke. So much for the 20th century.

I have come to think of writing as something like harmonica playing: In most cases, it is merely a painful imposition that should be suppressed. Flannery O’Connor once said something similar, but she was always an exception. The question is, how can we effectively suppress writing? Well, it is too late to tell Virginia Woolf to go jump in the lake (she already did that), but it is not too late to discourage the young ruthlessly. Further, we can refuse to entertain bad writing before our eyes, or to indulge the vanity of authors as they blather on the tube about their creative process. We can also refuse to accept any political instruction from poets and fictionists. When it is too late to suppress writing or to nip it in the bud, as with Vidal or even Mailer, then the advice to them must be, “Do give up your day job.” That ought to do the trick.