Writers on Writers

Edited by Graydon Carter  (Introduction by David Friend)

Penguin Books | 2016 | 424 pages | $20.00

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

Graydon Carter



Each month a mysterious alchemy takes place in magazine publishing.  And then: A new issue of Vanity Fair appears.  What does one find in that periodical’s pages?

For starters, there’s great photography complementing the spellbinding (and often serious) journalism, with articles and pictures exploring, exposing, and confronting issues far and wide: distant wars and America’s foreign policies; domestic tensions and the crises of addiction, abuse, and economics; all the metrics of modern life.

Yet somehow, amid that admixture, there are also a slew of star-powered cinematic flashes, high society lowdowns, interviews and profiles – all written with muscle.  Literary muscle.  Powerful sentences and surprising transitions.  Diction intended to delight and challenge, but never mystify.  In other words: Great writers are at work.

Of course we hear echoes of George Plimpton when the phrase “writers at work” is recycled.  That’s no accident.  Just as The Paris Review (in all of its distinction as a literary quarterly for decades) manifested Mr. Plimpton’s well-educated, bon vivant persona, and just as William F. Buckley’s Ivy League high IQ personified much of the National Review for half a century, so, too, does Vanity Fair depend on its editor.

Therefore, in the remarkable new anthology Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers, it’s not just the 41 writers whose work is featured or their 40-plus subjects who are on display.  This bold collection also puts editor Graydon Carter in the spotlight.

The book’s concept is a tribute to the power of the word.  No photos appear in this book.  Only words.  But the unified theme of having more than forty writers say what they have to say about more than forty other influential, innovative, astute, visionary, consequential authors is a theme that helps sustain this engaging work.

Divided into nine sections, Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers begins with Christopher Hitchens’s piece on Dorothy Parker – aptly appearing under this rubric: “One Vanity Fair Contrarian Recalls Another.”  That opener, though, follows a highly necessary (and meticulously brief) Introduction by David Friend, who joined Vanity Fair as editor of creative development in 1998, after being Life magazine’s director of photography.  Providing readers with a comprehensive summary of Vanity Fair’s storied publishing history, David Friend asserts right away: “Literature runs in Vanity Fair’s veins.” 

The body of work that follows in this book supports his claim.

Peruse the Contents of this chronicle and you might feel giddy.  There is a dizzying amount of talent on display, starting with the first section: “On Poets.”

The legacy of W. H. Auden is assessed by Joseph Brodsky and Susan Cheever (yes, daughter of John) marvelously highlights e. e. cummings.  In her own mercurial way, legendary poet Elizabeth Bishop is then featured, with Marianne Moore as her topic.

That first section is a feast.  And it only gets better.  “On Literary Lions” is the follow-up, and its eight profiles of iconic authors give the reader an octet of captivating biographical essays, all written by notable, idiosyncratic, distinguished scribes. 

It’s a Who’s Who: The late, great Willie Morris (once upon a time the youthful and trailblazing editor of Harper’s magazine) reminds us in “Eudora Welty” that she was “game for anything, always peering around the next bend.”  And Anne Tyler is quick to note in “Reynolds Price” that he “used to wear a long black cape with a scarlet lining.”  Just as particular and detailed are the many ways in which Martin Amis anatomizes a Nobel Prizewinner in “Saul Bellow” or the flourishes that James Wolcott brings to his “Jack Kerouac” profile. 

The heft of “Literary Lions” is enhanced by A. Scott Berg’s exquisite work “Ernest Hemingway,” as well as Sam Kashner’s in-depth “Truman Capote” piece.   “Tom Wolfe” by Michael Lewis also shines.

Inevitably, in a section called “A Family Affair,” there’s a powerhouse trio of pieces on the Dunne clan (John Gregory, Dominick, and Joan Didion Dunne).

In a funny way, though, even amid such a mighty array of writers composing commemorative essays on colleagues in the pantheon, someone looms large.

You guessed it.  Biographer Patricia Bosworth’s piece, “Norman Mailer,” is in the middle of the section dubbed “Literary Lions,” just as ol’ stormin’ Norman managed to make his advertisements for himself the center of literary attention for almost all of his lengthy, foot-stomping career.  Ms. Bosworth’s deft ability to make Mailer’s all-too-familiar name and endeavors seem both inspired and illuminating is admirable.  She accomplishes the nearly impossible feat of reminding us that a booze-addled, anger-fueled, misogynistic, egomaniacal wife-stabber was also a great artist.

Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writing expands thereafter.  Only a 5,000-word review could do justice to the scope and sweep of this collection.  In the section titled “Distant Shores,” the subjects include Paul Bowles and Primo Levi, along with Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Ever since Graydon Carter began editing Vanity Fair in 1992, its purview has been international and multicultural.

This becomes even more apparent in “Short Takes,” a medley of brief pieces, which begins with the almost unbearably poignant final (though incomplete) writing by Truman Capote.  Written just one day before his death in 1984 (at the absurdly young age of 59), the unfinished “Willa Cather” profile begun by Capote shimmers, despite his combined illnesses and imminent demise.  Other prose snapshots are here in abundance: Tom Wolfe, David Halberstam, Meg Wolitzer offer these glimpses: “Roger Straus,” “Ward Just,” “Judy Blume.” 

Plus “Sonny Mehta,” as his Knopf sanctuary and career are spotlighted by Dave Eggers.  It’s a readers’ smorgasbord.

If I were invited to pick a favorite among the “Short Takes,” it would have to be Jacqueline Woodson’s brilliantly concise “James Baldwin” close-up.  Somehow, in five eloquent, vivid paragraphs, Ms. Woodson manages (in a piece dated 2016) to bring back to life the true power and glory of James Baldwin’s scintillating works and days.  Shining a light on Giovanni’s Room, in particular (Baldwin’s second novel dared in 1956 to not only feature a Caucasian expatriate narrator, but to present bisexuality and homosexuality and polyamory as normal), we see again how 60 years ago James Baldwin broke new ground – yet he remains as relevant as ever.

On and on and on tumble the pages, as sections called “Behind the Bestsellers” and “Memoir” and “A Final Tale” round out the book.  It would be obtuse not to mention that in the “Memoir” portion of this collection, editor Graydon Carter wisely reprints William Styron’s pulverizing, taboo-breaking, stigma-shattering personal essay “Darkness Visible,” which was later expanded and published as a book.

It’s nearly impossible now to imagine how daring that piece was when it appeared in Vanity Fair.  Styron’s lucid, gut wrenching, transparent confessions about his descent into clinical depression and suicidal angst in the aftermath of his greatest career triumphs (his novel Sophie’s Choice and the film version of that work made him an Olympian figure) still has the power to leave readers devastated yet grateful.

Similarly, we should all be grateful to Graydon Carter (and David Friend) for their combined efforts through the years.  They manage in tandem to create a monthly magazine that always deserves attention.  As for Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers, it cements the magazine’s legacy, inviting us to meet (and to read) great authors anew.

(M. J. Moore’s novel For Paris ~ With Love & Squalor will be published in April 2017 by Heliotrope Books.)

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