| A Writer
Mr. Gore 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
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
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."
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).
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Back to top
Original material by John Rechy appears
frequently on these pages.