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Bringing History Home

August 09, 1987

I must respectfully disagree with Jack Miles' statements regarding the historical fiction of Gore Vidal, namely, that "history must be knowledge already held in common if the central, poignant effect of historical fiction is to work properly." While this would be ideal, to limit subjects to those with which readers are already familiar would be to limit them greatly indeed, since there is an incredible historical ignorance in our country, even among those who are considered "educated." Therefore, it's inevitable that any writer who tackles something out of the very ordinary will use a certain amount of exposition, and the question is not whether this is appropriate, but how well he does it, how unobtrusive he makes it. There's no reason a book cannot be instructive as well as entertaining and "artistic."

Writers who think they are "serious artists" and hence "above" instructional fiction also can be seen as contributing to the homogeneity of much fiction; there are so many books and films set in World War II precisely because this is one of the few recent events people know much of anything about--but this familiarity in no way makes these books superior to those with less commonly known themes or settings.

If these self-proclaimed "artistic" writers feel so smugly superior to Vidal's type of writing, they should try it sometime. I'm writing such a book now, and it's much more difficult than any other type of writing I have ever done. I agree with Norman Corwin ("Trivializing America") that the finer popular works are those which have "a decent respect for history."

Incidentally, Time magazine's review of "Empire" notes that Vidal is "stuck with the emptiness of a foregone conclusion," seeing the familiarity which Miles mentions as a necessity in the opposite way. So it's all in the eye of the beholder, isn't it?

JUDITH CANTOR

Los Angeles

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