Monday, November 17, 2008
In this week's New York Times Book Review, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter pens the following on participatory journalist George Plimpton:
George would often complain that because of the review and the need to make money, he never got around to writing the Big Book, to enter the Pantheon of greats the way Mailer and Styron had. “I could have been a contender,” Maggie Paley remembers him saying. “If I hadn’t done The Paris Review, I could have been a major writer.”
This is presented approvingly, or at least without an audible clucking of the tongue, and I have to say I find it personally offensive. George Plimpton was born to comfortable wealth, ran off to Paris after college, and eventually settled in a spacious apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. (Carter's review is even titled "Lucky George.") There is no evidence that he ever had what the rest of us would call a real job. The Paris Review was a literary quarterly; I can't imagine it took George Plimpton's nights and weekends away from him. He certainly had he time to write a Big Book (he had the time to write several nonfiction books), and he certainly had the money. It is highly doubtful that George Plimpton ever had corn flakes for dinner because there was no real food in the house and his paycheck wouldn't arrive until Thursday.
Even if he had, he could have persevered in his writing. Philip Roth wrote Goodbye, Columbus while he was in the army. William Burroughs worked as an exterminator. Georges Perec worked days as an archivist at a research laboratory, and still managed to crank out an entire novel - A Void - that never once used the letter "e." Plimpton had his entire lifetime and the entire alphabet at his disposal; if he failed to become a major writer, which is undeniably the case, it is solely his fault.
Plimpton was a socialite. There is a panoramic picture accompanying Carter's review showing one of his famous cocktail parties; I recognized Capote, but not Styron or Vidal or Puzo or the several other noted authors who are present. (Just the idea that there could be a panoramic view of his Manhattan apartment should tell you how flimsy his "need to make money" was.) I wonder if Plimpton ever stood up, around 8:15 one evening, and cried "Enough! Everybody out! I need to get a couple of hours of work in on my novel." I bet not.
George Plimpton's entire life was more privileged than that of 99.9 percent of all Americans. He could do whatever he chose, and it is to is credit that he accomplished what he did, which was to edit a literary magazine and write articles and books (he did even publish one novel, the whimsical Curious Case of Sidd Finch, which apparently didn't tap his potential as a writer). But this notion that he wasn't quite privileged enough to do all he was capable of, I think, is pretty disgusting.