Saturday, April 08, 2006

Sex and television

"Never pass up the opportunity to have sex or appear on television." -- Gore Vidal

I had a funny thing the other week in Montreal (no, neither sex nor television was involved), the whole conference I was there for was extremely good & I saw a number of old friends & met lots of new people I liked including one who I thought was totally excellent, a professor of eighteenth-century literature (well, we were almost all professors of eighteenth-century literature, it was that kind of conference) called Marcie Frank. We really clicked in that way you do sometimes and had some very funny and interesting conversations and she happened to mention in the course of something else that she'd written a book on Gore Vidal. I started rhapsodizing about my undying love for the writing of Gore Vidal but the lunch hour was over & we had to go back to the conference--and only when Marcie was given her formal introduction by the convener did I realize that this was the author of a book sitting waiting to be read on my office shelf back in Cambridge, How to Be an Intellectual in the Age of TV : The Lessons of Gore Vidal.

(Sent to me, I may add, by my friend A., who has an eye for what will interest me and retrieves things that otherwise are going to go unreviewed and parcels them up for me, it is always exciting and interesting to get one of these packages. They're not the books I'd buy, usually, and are mostly non-fiction rather than novels, but they are always curiously well-calibrated to my tastes in some funny and unexpected way. Samples--hmmm, haven't read any of these yet, the first two at least sound like things I must make sure to get to before too many more months pass....--a really great-looking book by Eric Konigberg called Blood Relation ["My uncle was a mobster, a killer and a con artist. FBI agents called him the smartest hit man they'd ever met"]; Alan Jacobs' biography of C. S. Lewis; and a book with an extremely charming title, chosen I believe primarily for that reason, Zane Grey: His Life, His Adventures, His Women.)

Anyway, back to the main topic, Marcie's book turns out to be excellent. Some really, really interesting stuff on public intellectuals and the Partisan Review types and Sontag and others, a great feel for the history of television & for the American novel & the peculiar charms of Gore Vidal's public personae, and the clincher is the last two chapters which are both particularly good, one on sexual politics versus the regular kind (it includes an extremely nuanced take on the accounts Vidal himself gave of the incompatibility of his literary and political aspirations, plus a good synopsis of the famous scuffle at the 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago in which William F. Buckley, Jr.--in response to Vidal's having called Buckley a crypto-Nazi for supporting the Mayor's use of force against the rioters--called him a queer on national television) and another on what might be called Vidal's television novels. Anyway, I found it extremely engaging, and very lucidly written although it is inevitably the kind of thing that will appeal more to professional academics or at least the academically inclined than to others.

It's published, by the way, in an attractive format by Public Planet Books, an imprint of Duke University Press that I must look out for in future, I like the idea of short books by writers in and outside the academy interested in questions that bear on contemporary public culture.

The other night I had a minor headache (I never get headaches!) and it seemed to me it could only be cured by light reading of some frivolity, fortunately I remembered I had bought Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief last week & I read half of it and finished the rest earlier this evening. Very enjoyable reading; I can't exactly say I admired it, I felt it was rather derivative (the whole premise of Olympians/children of Greek gods/adaptation of Greek myths seemed a bit too literal-minded, and shades of Harry Potter at every turn) and I don't think it will be a great classic yet it really is a good book nonetheless, a very engaging first-person voice and a good start at some characterization stuff that will presumably be developed in subsequent installments. I want to see the author's brain working a little less consciously, though, and the imagination allowed to take its more wayward course.

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