Edmund White and Emily Temple on Literary Feuds, Social Media, and Our Appetite for Drama
In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, writers Edmund White and Emily Temple talk to hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about writers feuding with each other.
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Readings for the episode
“25 Legendary Literary Feuds, Ranked,” by Emily Temple, Literary Hub · “YouTube, the Great Radicalizer,” by Zeynep Tufekci, The New York Times · The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading by Edmund White · Caracole by Edmund White · The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles by Stephen Koch · “Ta-Nehisi Coates Deletes Twitter Account Amid Feud With Cornel West,” by Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times · “Perchance to dream: In the age of images, a reason to write novels,” by Jonathan Franzen, Harper’s Magazine (paywall) · “Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it: A correction,” by Ben Marcus Harper’s Magazine (paywall)
“People like that, if they’ve sponsored you at the beginning of your career, they feel you are permanently in their debt, and you should acknowledge them at all times”
V.V. Ganeshananthan: You were pretty close to Susan Sontag until 1985 when you wrote the novel Caracole, which is set in 19th century Venice, but contains what you admit was a portrait of Susan Sontag that you hope she would “learn” from. But in City Boy—a terrific book—you also write that “on another level I knew I was trashing her and that she’d be angry. When she really was angry, however, I was surprised.”
So I guess I’m curious about the purpose and need to create that portrait. Was it useful, or necessary, to you as a writer to call her out on certain things, even if she’d been close to you—maybe especially if she’d been close to you, and blurbed A Boy’s Own Story, as you point out?
Edmund White: And then she had her editor, Roger Straus, of Farrar, Straus, write to all 34 publishers who had translated the book into various languages, and told them all to remove the blurb.
Whitley Terrell: That’s a feud.
EW: Yeah. (laughing) Although I must say, in her favor, toward the end of her life I was in a neighborhood restaurant—she lived in this neighborhood, too, in New York, in Chelsea—and I saw a man that I knew from Paris sitting at a table, and I hadn’t known he was going to be here, so I rushed over to the table to say hi to him, and then I saw this woman with white hair and a crewcut, and I thought, “Oh my God, that’s Susan Sontag, post-cancer treatment,” and she was with two other friends of mine, so I went skulking back to my table with my tail between my legs, and all of a sudden, Susan was standing next to the table, and she said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you, but I hope you don’t think I’m trying to pursue our silly little feud.”
And so I stood up, and we embraced, and that was very nice.
VVG: Oh, that’s such a sweet story.
EW: Yeah. You know, ’cause she was a big heart, and—I mean, she could be cruel, and everybody tells nasty stories about her now, about how arrogant she was and so on, but she had been famous when she was 22, and I think people who’ve been famous all their lives, they don’t usually have old friends, ’cause they get rid of all of them, and they have fights with everybody, and they get rid of everybody, but that doesn’t matter because they’re so famous that the next day they have a whole group of new friends.
WT: You mention this one incident that happened in 1982—and this is from City Boy, where you wrote a review in the New York Times Book Review of Roland Barthes’ book about Japan, Empire of Signs, and A Barthes’ Reader, which Susan had edited and introduced, and she and Richard Howard were not totally thrilled with the way you’d written the review, and they called you and got angry, and said all this stuff, and you write that “What their attacks on the phone revealed was the extent to which they assumed I was their puppet, in a way.” So there was a kind of power imbalance in your relationship, at least early on, I guess.
EW: Well, always, I guess, but I mean, she was really famous, and he had won the Pulitzer Prize, and lots of other prizes, and among poets he was quite famous, and he was the poetry editor of the Paris Review, and so on, but I think that they were both older than me, I think about ten years older, and—but they had already had very established positions, whereas I wasn’t known at all until I was in my forties, and they had both helped me. Richard Howard had helped me get my first novel published—Forgetting Elena, he’d taken it back to Random House, which had already rejected it, and he said, “You’re fools! This is a masterpiece, you must publish it!”
And so they bowed to him, and they did. And then Susan blurbed it, so they both had been very helpful to me, but when I was asked to review the Roland Barthes book, at the time I was reading a leading French critic who had written some, I thought, very interesting things about Barthes, and I cited him quite a bit, and they were both irritated that I didn’t—I did say that it was beautifully translated, but I guess that wasn’t enough, and I guess I hadn’t talked about her enough, but anyway—
EW: You know, people like that, if they’ve sponsored you at the beginning of your career, they feel you are permanently in their debt, and you should acknowledge them at all times, and maybe I should have. Maybe I—I think I was, I don’t know—
WT: Maybe there’s some point at which you have to break free of that, too, and be your own person, and maybe that’s part of, sometimes, what causes people to say, “Hey, I’m not gonna say what you want me to say, in this case.” I don’t know, I think that happens—
EW: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it’s kind of regrettable, but I guess it does happen, yeah. But I get along with most writers now, and I try to help as many young writers as I can. I mean, people call me a blurb slut because I write so many blurbs for people.
WT: Well, there was that lovely piece in the New York Times where a number of writers talked about the influence that you’d had on them, right around the time when The Unpunished Vice came out, that was really beautiful, and I thought quite nice, and indicative of how much of a mentor you’ve been to so many writers.
EW: Yeah, and then in February, there’s a book is going to be published of—I’ve written 27-or-8 books, and a different writer writes about each book, and some of them are quite famous, like Allan Gurganus, but anyway they’re all fascinating essays, and I was overwhelmed with the idea.
VG: Well, we certainly can’t let you go until we hear you read a little bit. Could you talk to us about The Unpunished Vice, how the idea for this book came about, and maybe read to us from a passage?
EW: Well, I’ve written so many blasted autobiographies that I thought, “Oh, my God, I can’t write another,” but then again, I thought I would like to write one that would talk about my life, things like how when you’re young, you fall in love with people, and then you adopt their literary taste, because you’re in love with them, or that, in my case, early reading that I did that formed my gay identity, and different things like that, so I was trying to write an autobiography through the books I’ve read.
“I think that it’s true, that to a certain extent, people are just encouraged by the system to create that drama.”
V.V. Ganeshananthan: God, these people are so mad…it’s amazing. “I don’t even want to let her rest in peace, I want her here to lose the judgment.” I was struck when we were talking to Edmund, and also reading through your list, that there’s so many of these facts that seem to have arisen from reviews, or differing opinions on the quality of someone’s work, and if she had won, lots of the other feuds on your list might not have happened, or there would have been a really chilling effect on reviewers.
Emily Temple: They may just not have happened quite so publicly. It’s interesting you say that, because I’m interested in that urge to sue someone who criticizes your creative work, because if you’re suing someone who’s criticizing your creative work for libel, then the suggestion is that you consider your art and yourself to be essentially the same, so if you criticize my novel and I sue you for defamation, that only holds water if I am my novel in some way.
Whitney Terrell: (laughing) Right. Wait—are you not your novel?
ET: Uh, no!
WT: I’m going to have to revise some thinking that I’ve been doing.
ET: You know, you have to, as a writer, not be your novel, otherwise, you’re going to end up crying in the street a lot.
WT: Well, that relates to the idea of having a persona, I think, that’s connected, like, the public persona of the writer is the thing that some people really cherish, and want to keep—one of the things that also—what I was thinking when you were reading that is—boy, I wish I could call up Seth Meyers and get mad at him. How come Seth Meyers isn’t talking about my work? The idea of writers being that important in the culture is sort of odd to me. That’s gone away a bit.
ET: Absolutely. It used to be—I mean, it’s kind of sad, but I understand. We used to be much—or, writers, I can’t even say “we” yet—
WT: You’re gonna be there, it’s coming out, the book’s coming out, they’re not gonna take it away.
ET: You never know. But, yeah, there’s nothing like the Dick Cavett show anymore, not quite.
WT: It also made us think about, you know, new technologies, which is one of the things we want to talk to you about, I mean, TV, and you had several—feuds from that list started on the Dick Cavett show, it’s a way that a new technology like television began to get involved in the way that people had public feuds, among writers, and today, we have Twitter, instead of Dick Cavett. We want to talk about a really interesting piece by Zeynep Tufekci. She wrote this about the way YouTube radicalizes people, meaning that if you start watching a slightly right wing video on YouTube, then the suggested videos will be even more right wing, and then the next one will be even more right wing, and that works on the left, too, so her point is that the more extreme your content is, the more the algorithms will drive people’s attention to it, and I wonder if you feel like it works that same way on Twitter, like, people who are more combative on Twitter get more attention. Does that make sense?
ET: Yeah, I think that’s certainly true, the people who are more combative on Twitter get more attention. Again, we like gossip, we live for drama, and so you go and you look for the drama, and you find the drama, and so I think that it’s true, that to a certain extent, people are just encouraged by the system to create that drama. Dick Cavett, also—that was a curated system. He thought, you know, who’s gonna have an interesting conversation, or an interesting argument? This person and this person. And he brought them together on purpose, and then asked them these questions to lead them to have an entertaining argument. Whereas Twitter is really a free-for-all—
ET: You have to go looking for it.
WT: I wonder what both you and Sugi think about this—I mean, there’s two ways to look at it. One is Zeynep Tufekci’s way, which is that it is a polarizing force—social media, but another way to think about social media, when it comes to feuds like this, is that it also offers the opportunity for somebody who is not part of the curated system, right, is not a New Yorker writer, or is not somebody who is reviewing for the New York Times Book Review, who lacks power, to engage with and attack somebody who is part of that system, for doing something wrong, or for not admitting them. There is a way that it allows the people with little power to have a say on the same platform as people with power. Does that make sense?
ET: Yeah. I mean, it is a level playing field in some ways, right, so the feud becomes—you can start it as a quote-unquote-nobody, but it also makes feuds between two established writers interactive. That you can, as a viewer, also participate in real time, which is sort of interesting. It’s a little different then just watching it on TV, or writing letters into the newspaper to comment.
VVG: Yeah, I guess I think of it as more that, especially as more and more people use Twitter, it’s a reflection of the real world. If it is a leveler, it’s also a place where people who have extreme views, it’s also easier for them to find each other, and for them to gang up on people, right, and it’s pretty well known that people from marginalized identities—like women, people of color—get more vitriol online. I know that I’ve definitely seen my share of that, and sometimes, I don’t get into it with other people because I don’t have the bandwidth to combat the kinds of numbers that they can muster and because it doesn’t seem worth my time. So I wonder also about the moments that I might be giving up on an argument that could be interesting because there’s so much background noise that I can’t even see it.
When was the last time that you had a really good argument, a productive argument, online?
WT: I try never to have arguments online. That’s why I’m such a small Twitter following.
ET: Yeah, same, never. I try not to, and I think it’s really hard to have a productive argument on Twitter because—or on social media in general, because of this very thing, that it tends to bring out the most radical version of people.
Transcribed by Damian Johansson