Book Review: Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers
edited by Graydon Carter
Penguin Books, 2016
It’s an ironclad rule: any anthology whose main aim is self-congratulation will make its readers slog through some fairly insufferable sludge before presenting them with any kind of banquet. In the case of Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers, this rule is doubly true: very few mainstream magazines can boast a roster of writers anything like what Vanity Fair has assembled in its century of existence, and virtually no mainstream magazine in human history has ever excelled Vanity Fair at self-congratulation.
And sure enough, Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers exacts a price for its pleasures. The good news is twofold: first, the Introduction is only two pages long, and second, it’s not written by that grand poo-bah of pomposity, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. The bad news is likewise twofold: first, the Introduction is called – steady on now – “Ink in Our Veins,” and second, in it David Friend does his level best to channel his inner Graydon:
Frequent contributors included Alexander Woollcott and Sherwood Anderson, Aldous Huxley and Edna St. Vincent Millay, Colette and D. H. Lawrence, Paul Gallico and Janet Flanner. Noël Coward sold his first work in America (a short satire) to V.F. – at the age of twenty-one. A.A. Milne gained international renown when the magazine ran his first children’s poem, “Vespers.” Not a half-bad bunch.
Not a half-bad bunch, huh kid? And who knows? If you work hard and keep fetching coffee for a few more years, you might get a chance to change their typewriter ribbons … heh, yeah, those were the days …
However: only two pages. And then the fun begins, a glorious collection of the magazine’s best bookish writing. True, out of a combination of lingering grief and squinty-eyed commercial sense, the late Christopher Hitchens turns up twice (a distinction shared only by his friend Martin Amis and not by any of the five dozen writers in VF‘s roster who are better than either of them). But at least Carter and Friend have picked him on some of his good days, as when he writes quite energetically about Dorothy Parker:
People revere and remember Mrs. Parker’s work to this day, for its epigrams and multiple entendres and for its terse, brittle approach to the long littleness of life. There’s a tendency to forget, though, that the “edge” and the acuity came from an acidulated approach to stupidity and bigotry and cruelty.
And they also include Salman Rushdie’s 2012 tribute to Hitchens, with its quieting, perfect moment:
There was a last dinner in New York, at which the poet James Fenton and I, by previous arrangement, set out to make him laugh as much as possible. Distressingly, this unleashed, at least once, a terrifying coughing fit. But he enjoyed himself that evening. It was the only gift his friends could give him near the end: an hour or two of being himself as he had always wished to be, the Hitch mighty and ample amongst the ones he loved, and not the diminishing Hitch having the life slowly squeezed out of him by the Destroyer of Days.
Actually, one of the most surprising strands running through the book is also one of its most impressive, the thread not of writers celebrating distant literary icons (as in the sense of Hitchens writing about Parker, or A. Scott Berg’s superb essay “The Hunt for Hemingway”) but writers reflecting on friends who happen to be writers. “Eudora, who is quite simply the funniest person I have ever known, could easily have become the grande dame of American letters, but clearly would have found herself tittering at such a self-important posture,” Willie Morris writes of his old friend in 1999. “She is wryly self-effacing with a gentle irony.” And along these same lines are Anne Tyler’s luminous reminiscences of Reynolds Price in “Duke of Writers”:
He was twenty-five years old back then, he tells me now, but in 1958 he seemed older than God. (I was sixteen and a half.) Which made it all the more remarkable when he perched on his desk tailor-fashion to read us his newest story; or when he said, to a student analyzing a poem, “You’re good at this, aren’t you!” (He seemed genuinely pleased, and admitted straight out that he hadn’t seen what she’d seen. For me, that girl’s face will always symbolize the moment I first understood that we students, too, had something to offer – that we weren’t the blank slates we’d thought we were in high school.)
The sharp inventiveness of Friend’s selections more than compensates for his oily Introduction (which can, after all, be skipped), and the crowning tribute of his skill is his inclusion of the greatest essay of a writer writing about a writer in VF‘s history, William Styron writing about himself in his 1989 piece Darkness Visible. In this merry, boozy, chatty company, the thing stands out like a corpse face-down in a swimming pool, just as it should.
Truman Capote, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Bishop, Arthur Miller, John Leonard, and of course in-house scribe Dominick Dunne … these and many others are here writing at the top of their game, and it isn’t long before any reader will be wishing this anthology’s 400 pages were 800.