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A Writer Protests

November 6, 1993

Mr. Gore Vidal
Italy
 

Mr. Vidal:

When a friend of mine told me recently that you referred to Alfred Chester's 1963 "review" of my first novel, City of Night, in your recent collection of essays, I was sure that you had decried that personal assault. I was sure of that because I have admired your courage in surviving similar personal assaults veiled as criticism, ugly assaults like those by William Buckley and others, assaults I do not consider "funny," as I'm sure you do not, assaults on the level of Chester's on my novel.

And so I was taken aback that, instead, you chose Chester's vile review of my first novel as exemplary of "high" criticism. You call it "murderously funny, absolutely unfair, and totally true." Recognizing the contradiction in your own statement, you go on to refuse to "show ... how it's done," while clearly implying that you know how.

"Totally true"? To the contrary Chester's review was itself totally fake. I would assume that you, having often been the object of such, would recognize that sort of fakery, the kind that a critic who has been personally assaulted by a book's subject, and its author, resorts to in order to disguise the fact that he has been disturbed, even wounded, by it. Instead of dealing with that, he attacks its quality.

Critics I respect highly have publicly objected to Chester's review: Soon after it appeared, Frank O'Hara wrote in Kulchur: "I cannot but be convinced that Rechy not only has his own voice, but also that it has an almost hypnotic effect on many other writers, which is able to bring out all sorts of bitchy and flatulent attitudes which are otherwise cleverly hidden in conditioned, or assumed, stylistics. He even manages to get Alfred Chester down to the 'Oh, Mary' level."

More recently, in response to a Poets & Writers interview with me, in which I referred to Chester's attack, Edward Field, a friend of Chester's and the editor of a recent collection of Chester's essays, apologized publicly to me (Poets & Writers,September/October 1992). He wrote: "It was with a good deal of sadness that I read in the John Rechy interview of the damage done to City of Night by the late Alfred Chester's bitchy review of it.... [I]t was himself [whom Chester] was savagely attacking in the review." Mr. Field went on to point out that the offensive title of the review--"Fruit Salad"--was not Chester's "but the New York Review of Books's, which has long demonstrated homophobia in its essays and cartoons."

Last year in The Advocate, David Ehrenstein wrote an essay about the initial reception to City of Night: "To judge from reviews of the period, such unapologetic homoeroticism plainly made literary critics--particularly gay ones--distinctly uncomfortable. Poet Frank O'Hara was one of the brave few to hail Rechy in a completely straightforward manner.... Novelist Alfred Chester, by contrast, bitchily dismissed City of Night."

No, Mr. Vidal, Chester's type of murderous assault does not require "high" art. It is the easiest form of attack--and the easiest to detect. It merely requires a low nastiness (what Frank O'Hara labeled the 'Oh, Mary' level).

I'm curious about this, Mr. Vidal: Didn't the title the New York Review of Books donated to Chester's review--"Fruit Salad"--make you wince even slightly, especially when you saw it resurrected in their 1988 Selections From the First Two Issues? It did Barbara Epstein, belatedly. To her credit and in response to a letter from me protesting the exhumation of that spiteful "review" and its now even more offensive title, she wrote me: "You are right about the title `Fruit Salad.' Selections is a collection of pieces intended to recall our first issues for new subscribers, and I see that when we reprinted the Alfred Chester piece, we should have removed the title. I'm sorry." Did the title, like the review, strike you as merely "murderously funny"? I would say that that screechy review and its outrageous headline are not exactly an example of the "comprehensive dignity" you ascribe to the journal you frequently write for.

If you had read any of my nine novels since City of Night, or at least the foreword by me that now accompanies all new editions of my first novel and refers to Chester's "review," you would find how unfair and untrue that man's bleatings were. You might, in your own words about first disliking Burroughs's Naked Lunch "begin to see things ... missed first time around ... what criticism is meant to do--show us what we missed or just plain didn't get." You might even find more evidence in Chester's "review" for your "Eckerman's" contention that "envy is the only credible emotion, isn't it?" Yes, very often, Mr. Vidal.

You are right when you say that Chester's review is--or, rather, attempted to be, since it did not succeed in being--"murderous." Despite advance praise for my novel from Christopher Isherwood, James Baldwin, Larry McMurtry, and others, Chester's review--being the first (eagerly printed weeks before publication date) and appearing in a journal that vaunts its literary authenticity--had an undeniably powerful effect on how my first novel was viewed critically; Chester's review was quoted by others, including Richard Gilman in the New Republic and the reviewer for the Village Voice, precisely because of its "murderous" tone. As you well know from your own experience, that is the sort of vitriol that journalists seize on eagerly.

The effect of Chester's malice lingers among some noisy "critics," those you yourself often decry and who, not incidentally, make the New York Review of Books their Bible, and even write for it. Indeed, I find myself, 30 years and nine books later, still often having to ward off the impact of Chester's assault on my reputation at its inception. Each time I battle the New York Times Book Review to give attention to a new novel by me, I detect the influence of what you call Chester's "murderously funny" denigration of me as a serious writer.

Still,I've gone on to write nine more novels; and my first novel survives, intact, highly respected, taught in major universities, never out of print, issued and reissued constantly in foreign translations.

Indeed, the Gallimard edition, just reissued with my new foreword, drew high praise from Hugo Marsan in Le Monde in July of this year and provided, from the crucial vantage of time, a view of it almost entirely opposite that of Chester's. Noting that "thirty years later ... the novel has not aged a bit ... one reads [it] eagerly," Mr. Marsan writes: "[W]e understand better its exceptional authenticity, its premonitory vision, its subtle literary innovations. The characters ... have the tragic complexity of Vautrin, Charlus, or Morel, and the aggressive solitude of the marginal people of Jean Genet.... [I]ts poetry is not ostentatious nor imposed.... [T]he protagonists are individuals of flesh and blood."

I have, Mr. Vidal, produced a body of work that is as authentic and worthy as that of any other writer of my generation, a body of work that I am proud of.

John Rechy

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