A fascinating, generous view of the reading that has shaped one of our best living writers.
Writing is often a jealous profession. Some of the greatest works were written as acts of comradely one-upmanship, while others have been written merely to punish the author’s rivals. When an author hits it big, even their most supportive of writer friends may admit to feeling a stab of jealousy every time they see their friend’s book on the shelf and think, “If her, why not me?”
The absence of this in Edmund White’s The Unpunished Vice: A Life in Reading is extraordinary, given both the quality of White’s work and the breadth of his network. White, one of the greatest writers of the last 50 years and the godfather of modern gay writing, isn’t nearly as recognized as he should be. A gay writer myself, I completely missed out on his work until about two years ago, when a mutual friend turned me on to it. Yet this same man, who counts Joyce Carol Oates and John Irving among his friends and who knew Nabokov and Susan Sontag, generously describes his more famous peers with the brain of a scholar and the heart of a reader.
And it is here that the the true value of The Unpunished Vice reveals itself. Even as he has traversed the literary landscape, White has steadfastly held onto his love of reading. The Unpunished Vice is a memoir of sorts, but more than that it is a celebration of reading. And perhaps no one is more qualified than White to host this celebration. His life has been filled with chance meetings, affairs, friendships and rivalries with literary legends. White himself almost seems like an invented, Forrest Gump-ian character, created to give us a fly-on-the-wall view of the most interesting bits of the recent history of literature. Yet he always returns to the work and the reading rather than making this a bookish Hollywood Babylon.
White’s warm, curious prose shows why he has attracted the friendship of so many titans of the industry. He is a “tireless but slow” reader who appreciates an intricate plot but also the joys of sentence-level reading. In terms of comparison, The Unpunished Vice is a bit like the film critic David Denby’s Great Books from 1996. The major difference is that while Denby took the stance of an outsider familiarizing himself with the greats, White offers views from the inside.
It is also important to note that White spends nearly equal time describing work by men and women. It is unfortunately a rarity for a white male writer to construct a personal canon out of more than just work by other white males. White’s territory is quite white, which is disappointing, but this appears to have more to do with an affinity for the French and Russian canons than it does any personal bias.
This is a particularly necessary book for any reader interested in gay fiction. Not only does White address many homosexual classics, he also goes about identifying same-sex themes in a number of works that are both lesser known or have addressed such themes in subtle or coded fashion. So often gay readers have to dine on scraps when looking for work to identify with, and White does a lot of the legwork here so that others won’t have to.
Though The Unpunished Vice is primarily an ode to the works that have shaped him as a writer and as a man, the book also gives us glimpses into White’s life. He comes across as a profoundly intellectual yet painfully self-aware person. A highlight of the book is his chapter about his husband, the writer Michael Carroll (whose 2014 short story collection Little Reef is essential reading). In this chapter, White captures the essential mixture of impossibilities that make each marriage unique while keeping the magnifying glass firmly on himself. He does this through an exploration of their individual and shared writing and reading tastes, giving his take on contemporary marriage a unique spin.
He also provides a swift tour through his young life, though readers interested in the nitty gritty should seek out one of his previous memoirs. Still, it’s interesting to note that the White that comes across here is a warmer, more generous voice than much of his previous fiction and nonfiction work. That is likely because the writing here is mostly restricted to discussions about reading. As a trailblazer, particularly in writing about homosexual life, White has had to create and examine painful histories, which he has done profoundly. Here, though he certainly tackles those topics in a number of ways, he is also allowed to be fan. He meanders a bit; White appears content to jump around here, abandoning some of the rigor bestowed upon him by his background in journalism in favor of exploration. That isn’t to say that The Unpunished Vice is at all sloppy or scatterbrained; rather, it moves forward as a conversation with a friend does.
White himself says, in the opening line of the preface, that, “Reading is at once a lonely and intensely sociable act. The writer becomes your ideal companion—interesting, worldly, compassionate, energetic—but only if you stick with him or her for a while, long enough to throw off the chill of isolation and to hear the intelligent voice murmuring in your ear.” In The Unpunished Vice, White plays by his own rules, becoming an ideal companion for the reader. Those that stick with him long enough to hear his intelligent voice murmuring in their ears will be rewarded by a fascinating, generous view of the reading that has shaped one of our best living writers.