Four years ago, Kate Millett published Sexual Politics, an analysis of the “sexism” of American culture and its literary figures. Despite the bitter denunciations which the book soon met, its central achievement is still clear. Millett was the first person to take on the he-man attitudes expressed by writers like Norman Mailer and to connect them with the gun-slinging “macho” tendencies of American society and government. It was, in that sense, a profoundly political book, for the tough-guy mentality Millett identifies is the single clearest factor connecting the major blunders of our last three Administrations. John Kennedy’s desire to look strong after the Bay of Pigs, Lyndon Johnson’s conviction that no big country should let a peewee push it around, Richard Nixon’s obsession with toughing-it-out were all part of what Millett was talking about.
Sexual Politics had correspondingly profound shortcomings. Millett had Norman Mailer by the short hairs in discussing his most macho, Deer Park self. This stung Mailer to reply, and his rebuttal, The Prisoner of Sex, was all too accurate about the overall quality of “Sister Kate’s” writing:
By any major literary perspective, the land of Millett is a barren and mediocre terrain, its flora reminiscent of a Ph.D. tract, its roads a narrow argument, and its horizons low… the food served at every inn was a can of ideological lard, a grit and granite of thesis-factories turned out aggregates of concept jargon on every ridge, stacks of such clauses fed the skies with smoke. . . and the bloody ground steamed with the limbs of every amputated quote.
Millett is back with a new book this month. Its name is Flying, and its nominal subjects are bisexuality and lesbianism. In content it tells less about the values that affect our political system than Sexual Politics did. But the structure of the book, and the fact that it was written at all, raise interesting questions about another deep cultural value: self-promotion and the urge to “make it” as a public’ figure. As the accompanying article on the White House Fellows (p. 46) illustrates, there is a close connection between the desire for fame and the process of government; the Flying affair suggests some of the other effects fame can have.
Flying is a journal of Kate Millett’s life, over an unspecified number of weeks in an unspecified time. It was a period of evident strain for Kate Millett, strain caused primarily by her emergence as a public figure. The publication of Sexual Politics and Millett’s subsequent fame (symbolized by her appearance on the cover of Time) placed considerable strain on her internal equilibrium. The cause of most of the strain was “this f** thing” (as Gore Vidal recently called it in explaining why he has failed to become President). Soon after the book came out, the press picked up the fact that Millett was a lesbian. In her role at the time as most-truculent-of-all-the-feminists, she managed, with this admission, to make countless enemies in the women’s movement (who thought she would subvert the cause) and to provide fuel for the ever-popular male notion that if a woman won’t do the dishes she must be a d***. Having her sexual tastes discussed in public, a prospect few of us would relish, also complicated Kate Millett’s relations with her several female and one male lover, not to mention the effect on her family. The best parts of Flying, in fact, the only good parts, explore Kate Millett’s adjustments to this strain with remarkable honesty and depth.
The good parts do not make this into a good book, and the blame is with Kate Millett’s style. Flying is not so much a journal as a “totally honest” documentary of her life, with not a single detail left out in the name of selectivity or pace. She made herself a promise about the book—”the rule is, it’s a record. Everything that happens to me”—and she kept it with unwarranted fidelity. The style has its drawbacks for the reader; worse, it torpedoes the message of the book. Flying is the product of a choice, conscious or unconscious, between what the author wanted to say and what she wanted to become by saying it. Like the Loud family of the television series, “An American Family,” Kate Millett seemed to think that she would become larger-than-life if she projected the verbatim happenings of her life onto a large, public screen. It was a choice in which substance was the loser and Kate Millett, too.
It is evidence of the original strength of Millett’s material that Flying is of any value at all, for the documentary approach seems calculated to subvert the message and antagonize the reader. For one thing, it makes Flying unendurably long—500-plus dense pages which seem like many more because of the mass of never-identified characters and the sprawling, unedited feel of the book as a whole.
At its most innocuous, this approach provides us with countless scenes of Kate’s Friends in the Village and What They Do. It is hard to select illustrations of these dinner parties, consciousness-raising sessions, and moments of passion, because out of context (which is how they often appear) they mean very little. For each of the scenes which is significant, by which I mean it makes a point to someone outside the circle of Millett’s friends, there are five included simply for the sake of inclusion. Often the dogged seriousness of Millett and her friends leads to ludicrous juxtapositions:
Finally it is time. We clear the couch, the two of us moving objects, towels, glasses. She holds me now, looking in her eyes. I am afraid. There is so much feeling jumping from my throat, shaking me. So glad to be here. We make love coming before we have even taken off our clothes. I tremble in her grasp, almost crying. She tells me she won’t go with me to the nonviolence panel.
At its worst, self-documentation produces a tone of excruciating self-consciousness, which eventually dominates the book. After a few pages, an understanding dawns on the reader of just what Millett means by making a journal of her life. She is not dredging old experience for its meaning—oh, no. She is setting out to record a certain stretch of her life with no other purpose than the exercise of recording it. This approach has served other people well: Not long ago William Buckley produced a fascinating journal of one of his busy weeks. “Busy” is the significant word here; in Millett’s case the recording is her main activity. Flying ends up like a picture of someone taking a picture of herself. It is full of passages like:
“Do you know you are in a book?” I ask Rachel, suddenly remembering it only fair to warn her. “Of course.” She blinks behind her heavy lenses. “Everybody knows you’re writing a book, you never shut up about it.”
Millett fairly drowns the reader in trivia without ever really figuring out what she has to say. If she had wanted to explore, as a literary subject, a writer writing a book about herself, she might have taken the novelist’s liberty of leaving out the boring material and focusing the ungainly narrative. But if, as seems more likely, she was really interested in illuminating the moral caverns where she dwelled, she need not have used the Andy Warhol technique. She is not Andy Warhol; she has important things to say in this book, and when the reader happens upon one of them in the slurry of her prose, he is glad he kept reading.
Why did Kate Millett make such a terrible choice? The core of the matter is that Millett had something else on her mind beside telling her story: she was establishing a public identity. She says that as the public Kate Millett grew more famous, her inner identity went into eclipse. Flying was an act of “recovering my being.” But by this she means not merely taking the private measure of her soul, but impressing her identity upon the public. Sexual Politics had already given her a name. But Flying would accord her a different and less common kind of celebrity, as one of those people whose daily minutiae are in the public domain.
After putting down Kate Millett’s book, the reader may be tempted to conclude that writers will be corrupted if so much as an inkling of concern for “making it” stirs in their brains. Of course that is not true. Frank Conroy’s Stop Time, Willie Morris’ North Toward Home, Lillian Hellman’s two volumes of autobiography—these all are fully as calculated as Flying, and much more successful in creating bright identities for their authors. Yet in none of them has the attention to appearance harmed the substance; if anything it has improved it.
The question, then, is one of choice: When does concern for appearance advance the writer’s meaning, and when does it entice him to sacrifice his impact or compromise his values?
No one writer more fully displays the complexities of the public self than Norman Mailer. He has his share of frivolous books and buffoon-like public appearances; it is hard to trace books like Marilyn and slapstick performances like his races for mayor to anything but Mailer’s boundless enthusiasm for self-promotion. At the same time, much of his self-conscious prose gains power by his role on center stage, and he understands the genuine importance of celebrity in literary acceptance:
Let any of you decide for yourself how silly would be A Farewell to Arms, or better, Death in the Afternoon if it had been written by a man who was five-four, had acne, wore glasses, spoke in a shrill voice, and was a physical coward. . . . The way to save your work and reach more readers is to advertise yourself, steal your own favorite page out of Hemingway’s Notes From Papa On How The Working Novelist Can Get Ahead.
A far less equivocal example of how celebrity can hurt a major writer is Truman Capote. Unlike either Millett’s or Mailer’s, Capote’s prose style is as un-self-conscious as anyone could want, a stylistic delight pure as rain. Much of his early work, The Grass Harp and the like, was too perfect an imitation of the precious novels every literary youngster dreams of writing, but his “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood, is a genuine masterpiece. The very quality of that book, and the quality of what he has done since, raise questions about what makes Capote run—or more specifically, write. In Cold Blood emerged in 1966 to a sunburst of acclaim, not a bit of it accidental. As Capote recently told Gerald Clarke of Esquire:
When In Cold Blood came out, I was on the covers of three magazines simultaneously—Newsweek, Life, and Saturday Review—and I had a lead review in every Sunday book supplement in the country. That’s a parlay that has never been beaten and never will be.
Later that year Capote held his famous party for Katharine Graham at the Plaza Hotel in New York. It was the event of the season, and of many seasons after. Esquire ran a two-page cartoon identifying all the glorious in attendance, and The New York Times just happened to get a copy of the guest list, which it printed as an updated version of “The 400.”
There is nothing wrong with a gay and lovely party. But when read in the context of what Capote has done since then, the party assumes an unpleasant significance. There was an undertone to Capote’s celebration which seemed to say, I have finally made it. We are celebrating my arrival, and now that I am at the main table I will never be hungry again.
Being hungry, more for recognition than for money, is what it seems to take for Capote to write. He was fired from The New Yorker before he went home to Alabama to write Other Voices, Other Rooms. In the years before In Cold Blood, he hung about the periphery, a respected writer, yes, but somehow minor. No dukes were clamoring to have him aboard their yachts, and on the talk-shows his name was not established.
The social and financial rewards which followed In Cold Blood satisfied these hungers, but they also seem to have extinguished Capote’s creative drive. If, like Mailer, he had been bursting with other things he wanted to say, other parts of the world he wanted to explain, he could have used his new prominence as a lever by which to influence greater numbers of people.
But if he was bursting with ideas, he has managed to keep his enthusiasm within bounds. In the last eight years Capote seems to have spent more time being recognized as a Writer than bothering with the messy work of prose. His latest book, his only book since In Cold Blood is an example: The Dogs Bark, a thick book, a book of graceful prose, whose creator is hailed on the dust jacket as “masterly” by Somerset Maugham and “the most perfect writer of any generation” by Norman Mailer. Inside are old magazine articles; of the 411 pages, all but 59 are from the hungry days before the Big Book. Of the 59, 20 are devoted to a “self-interview” which was published in Cosmopolitan and which, Capote has said, took two hours to write.
The interview is clearly the most interesting thing Capote has published in eight years, for in it he dilates on life at the top. He has his tastes (“I like fast, finely made cars, I like lovely motels with their ice machines and eerie anonymity”), he has his philosophies (“I can’t think of a single rich person who, in terms of contentment or a lessening of the general human anxiety, has it easier than the rest of us”), he has his friends and he has his pace of life. Both of these last two involve his lunches, preferably with “beautiful, or at least extremely attractive, alert, and au courant women.” The lunches, Capote says, are what make his day, as the party might have been said to make his year.
Capote has said, “My great fault is that I understand everything,” and that makes his performance as a talking Writer all the more intriguing. In his Cosmopolitan interview, as in nearly every article about him since 1966, Capote described in elaborate detail his great work in progress, called Answered Prayers. He says it is an immensely complicated book, about some of the same people he has frolicked with in Acapulco and New York. Its delay is due to his own high standards (“When you get to know so much, you become critical because you know the difference,” he told Esquire), and when it finally comes out, his detractors will be sorry they carped.
I have no doubt that Answered Prayers will appear. Capote has no less acute a sense than Norman Mailer for the ups and downs of literary fortunes, and he must sense that if he puts the book off much longer his standing as Writer will be endangered. These are the first pangs of recurring hunger. The interesting thing is that he has lasted as long as possible with promises of how good the work is going to be, rather than in trying to complete the story.
I am not one of those who believe that an author’s output is public property and that we all are somehow cheated if he fails to deliver. But one discordant element in the In Cold Blood acclaim suggests how little Capote cared even for the message of this, his most important book. The most serious objections to Capote’s project came from the British critic, Kenneth Tynan. Even a glance between the lines of Capote’s book, Tynan said, suggested that the two killers were pathological monsters. They were “insane” in the sense that they lacked a moral anchor, yet Capote made no effort to present evidence of their insanity to the courts, where it might have prevented the executions.
Capote heatedly denied the charge that he had placed Art (the book wouldn’t come out until the men were dead) above conscience. But in his eagerness to prove his good faith treatment of the killers, he walked right away from the most powerful point in his book. Oh no, his rebuttal said, I can’t imagine where you got that idea about monsters or evil men; obviously you’ve misunderstood. This was, of course, the era of high Liberal Chic in thinking about crime: to care about crime was racist, and to talk about born killers was to offend the notion that criminals were the products of a sick society. In Cold Blood was years ahead of its time in refusing to gloss over criminal pathology, but Capote seemed afraid that the idea would displease the people who came to his party. So he dropped it. Imagine Dostoevsky, in a similar situation, turning to his critics to say, “Oh, you’ve misunderstood, I didn’t mean any of that about the Grand Inquisitor.”