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Vidal's War of Words With Editor Continues

September 18, 2002|TIM RUTTEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Gore Vidal's 1981 bestselling novel, "Creation," the narrator--imperial Persian emissary Cyrus Spitama--describes his young nephew thusly: "Democritus is studying philosophy here at Athens. This means that he delights in quarrels."

So, too, does Vidal, who is as famous for his capacity for lasting animosities as he is for his acidic tongue.

Last week, when Doubleday--Vidal's current publisher--issued a "restored edition" of "Creation," an unusual author's note had been inserted, blaming--but not naming--his former editor, Jason Epstein, for poor editing.

"Through various intricate but relentless stratagems," writes Vidal, "he managed to cut a number of key scenes."

Last week, Epstein dismissed the author's note as "vintage Gore" and said he hadn't thought much of the book at the time. "I could have cut anything and it would have been an improvement," he said.

Vidal, who was in Norway and unavailable last week, has replied. In a four-page fax he titled "Editors," and in a phone conversation from his villa in Ravello, Italy, he disparaged not only his former editor but also contemporary American publishing, which Epstein helped shape.

Vidal pointed out that "I have never before talked about Epstein in public. That author's note is as close as I have come." And, in it, "I simply refer to him as an 'overly busy editor.' Pure flattery. Epstein is never busy; sloth, self-promotion and neo-Automat cooking are his sluggish activities." (The latter is a reference to Epstein's frequent essays on dining and cooking for various publications.)

"When it comes to my books," Vidal said, "editors--as opposed to copy editors--have not been needed. The popular romantic notion that a wise, self-effacing editor must always save a mindless genius by restructuring his work for him began with Max Perkins of Scribners. Today, semiliterate editors reshape, rewrite illiterate 'authors.' "

Vidal also took issue with other Random House editors' assertion that many of Epstein's reservations about "Creation," which is set in the 5th century B.C., sprang from Epstein's own longtime interest in antiquity.

"For the record," Vidal said, "Epstein has no known interest in antiquity or in any other past save his own as the self-proclaimed creator of today's publishing industry. Apart from cookbooks and the lives of big money New Yorkers, he reads little.... The general ignorance of people in book publishing is appalling," he went on, "though reflective of the rest of the American population. It's just that people in publishing have to do more bluffing."

Epstein, reached at his home in New York on Tuesday, declined to comment on most of Vidal's assertions.

Vidal does credit Epstein with retaining leading scholars to consult on the research for his historical novels. "That was very useful to me," Vidal said.

The author also noted that "Creation" was fulsomely praised by both Anthony Burgess--some of whose comments serve as a preface to the revised edition--and by Mary Renault, perhaps the leading English-language novelist of classical antiquity. In fact, Vidal recalled that in her essay on the redacted version of "Creation" for the New York Review of Books, Renault wrote, "It is a very long time since I read a book of more than 500 pages with no awareness of its length, beyond a wish at the end that it was longer."

The point, Vidal said, "is that Renault is the expert and Burgess is a first-rate critic--two hats never worn by Mr. Epstein."

Vidal was particularly biting about Epstein's abilities as an editor of fiction.

"Years ago," Vidal recalled, "Epstein gave me the manuscript of a novel," saying, "I've got to publish this, I think. I won't tell you who wrote it, but I hate it and there's a contract. Tell me what you think."

"I told him it was a marvelously funny novel," said Vidal.

According to Vidal, Epstein replied, " 'But the guy in it turns into a breast!'

" 'Well that's better than a cockroach,' I said, trying to look on the sunny commercial side.

"Reluctantly, he published Philip Roth's 'Breast' (1972). Roth then left Random House. Epstein mourned his departure.

" 'Why did he leave?' " Vidal recalled Epstein asking.

" 'Because,' I said, 'we all know when we have an editor who doesn't get it and never will.' "

"I have no memory of any of that," Epstein said Tuesday, "and I doubt I would have done such a thing. I might have discussed the book with Gore, but I certainly never would have given him the manuscript to read.

"Actually, I rather like 'Breast,' which I think is a very funny book, and I was happy to publish it. Philip, by the way, left Random House because he got a much better offer for his next two books than we were prepared to match."

Last week, Epstein insisted that he still thinks of Vidal as a friend, even though they last spoke two decades ago.

"That's optimistic, isn't it," Vidal sniffed. "What he thinks of as friendship, I recall otherwise. He was genial and generally no bother. I gave him my books and he published them," Vidal said.

The author said that, looking back on that period, his greatest regret was leaving his first publisher, Little Brown, for the larger Random House. "Epstein was the judgment of God on me for leaving the honorable people at Little Brown.

"If you want this to be a morality tale, add that note. I ended up having as my editor a megalomaniac with a cooking problem."

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