Throughout his career, expatriate writer Edmund White has brought a sensual richness and intellectual rigor to the printed page. From his 1973 debut as the 33-year-old novelist of the Nabokov-praised masterpiece, Forgetting Elena, to the recently edited 1991 edition of the Faber & Faber anthology of short gay fiction, Edmund White has exerted a considerable influence in international literary circles. Published widely in England, America and France, White has taught at Columbia and Yale, and in 1983 was the recipient of a Guggenheim grant. He is currently on staff at Brown University, and is back in Paris completing a colossal five-year project – a critical biography of Jean Genet. White speaks to the Free Voice of his life and work.
Free Voice: How has living in Paris affected your writing?
Edmund White: I came here in 1982 and I stayed because Paris is a wonderful place to work and because it’s quiet. People leave you alone here, so you have more time to yourself. It’s rainy – perfect reading and writing weather. I don’t think Paris is a great disco or staying-up-all-night city. For that, I’d rather be in New York.
F.V.: What has French culture contributed to your work? For example, I noticed in your earliest novels references to French history and French words. Have you always had this interest?
E.W.: I think I always had a dream of coming to France, and being here has given me a kind of ‘independence.’ For instance, if you’re a writer, it’s nice to have your books come out in two or three countries – in my case, those three would be England, France and America. What happens is that the same book, like Caracole, will bomb out in America, do quite well in England, and get nice reviews here and not sell any copies. The same passages that will be singled out for being over-the-top in England will be praised in France and ignored in America. You begin to realize what can be attributed to cultural differences and what is a question of personal taste, which gives you a kind of independence toward your work, an overview. The Americans, for example, like my autobiographical fiction, and they don’t like the fancy novels, like Caracole or Forgetting Elena. With the French, just the opposite is true.
F.V.: The larger cultural frame imprints these kinds of assessments.
E.W: Right. The French are very skeptical of feminism and gay liberation – leftist critical thinking is considered slightly ridiculous. They’ve had these periods of being very involved with leftist politics; with Mitterrand, in a way, leftist politics triumphed and sank. I think people are extremely disillusioned with it all. And in America, where it never had a chance, never was really a factor, academic intellectuals go on believing in it because it was never put to the test. And now, because of the collapse of Communism in general, in America all that energy has shifted into lifestyle questions. The thing that really struck me in going back to Brown is the kind of insane length the “politically correct” have gone to. In France, intellectuals are tremendously admired; in America they don’t have any power at all except on the campus, where they have an absolute power, so they tend to torture each other for not being politically correct enough. That’s a perspective I would not have had had I not lived here.
F.V.: The feminist movement in America even fueled itself on French theory, but the French think, for example, that the idea of Women’s Lib is silly and just a bit weird.
E.W.: I think what’s interesting in France and in England is that people have been so disabused after having gone through all these political changes over the last 40 years that now people do actually say what they think. When the gay anthology came out in England, nobody said “Why aren’t there women in this thing” or “Why aren’t there blacks.” Some people wondered why gays need their own anthology, but only one or two. One woman reviewing it for The Independent said she read with a voyeur-like curiosity because she wanted to know what gay life was like. In America, you’d never get that. People would be terrified to say they had been voyeuristic about gay life. So when you say “What have you gotten from French culture,” it’s not as if I go and look at Seurat’s paintings and say “Oh, now I want to write just like that.” It affects me in a more intimate way. I think if you live cross-culturally, it makes you more independent-minded. You can see that one country is madly chasing after one idea, and another is chasing after another – and where are you in all that.
F.V.: Has writing the Genet biography influenced your work?
E.W.: Maybe not in a direct way, but in terms of what to do with one’s life. Recently I’ve had the feeling that I want to write one more big novel and then finish a book of short stories and then never write another word of fiction again. I just want to write plays, which is exactly what Genet did. As Aaron Copland once said, as you get older it’s important not to compete with your younger self, but to do something entirely new – otherwise you just watch your powers diminish.
F.V.: How has your writing changed over the years in terms of how you approach your work and what you do?
E.W.: I’m more confident. I tended to be filled with self-doubt before, and never felt that anything was any good, so I scrapped a lot of pages that were perfectly all right. Sometimes I would rack myself between choosing between two possibilities, both of which were equally good. After all, a work of fiction is a fairly long one which begins to establish its own tone and rules, and all you need to do is stick to it and just do it – you shift your concern away from your own self-definition to the work itself.
F.V.: What about gay fiction and gay writing in general. Is there a gay writer? Is a gay writer really different from a straight writer? And if, so, how?
E.W.: It’s a good question. In terms of a librarian’s phenomenon – in terms of classifying books – yes, gay fiction exists. Things that have changed enormously – there are gay bookshops, self-identified gay writers, readers, mailing lists – a whole system. There’s another phenomenon, which is gay life, which was very marginal and has, with obvious exceptions, really only come into existence since 1969. Nowadays, for example, gays are very well integrated into French life. The French don’t like to be hived off into little small minority groups. People want to stay in the mainstream, and they don’t want to find themselves isolated because of race, sexuality or religion. In France, you don’t have a gay novel or a black novel or a Jewish novel – what you have is the novel. But you have famous gay writers, like Barthes, who have won big prizes, who exert some power and who are well-known. France, in some ways, has had such a tradition of being open about gay life – it’s kind of a non-issue.
F.V.: Is it solely the subject matter that sets gay fiction apart?
E.W.: Well, there used to be a lot of debates about the gay sensibility, whereas I would say that there have been successive gay sensibilities which vary according to the era, so that, for instance, there was the camp sensibility in the ‘40s and ‘50s, then gay liberation, and now there’s a kind of profound sadness. So it all depends on a particular moment. And there are some people who have the gay sensibility who are straight and some gay writers, I would say a little like David Leavitt, who strikes me as having a kind of straight sensibility. Then there are some books, like Allan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library, which could only have been written by a gay person – for instance, the way of mixing sort of sexy backroom culture with high culture seems to me something you don’t see that often in straight literature. You get something like Henry Miller, who doesn’t seem to me very intellectual, who’s a kind of sex beast, who brings in very little of high culture.
F.V.: You’ve said you selected things for the anthology on the basis of personal taste. What draws you in fiction?
E.W.: Well, I like writing about sex. I don’t like pornography, and I don’t like romantic fiction, which is a kind of of hazy veil thrown over the realities of sexuality. Pornography has to follow the actual rhythms of a sex act – it is a sex act itself. The kind of writing that I like describes the humorous and tragic thoughts that go on in your mind when you’re actually having sex – which almost nobody has ever written about before, which seems to be brand new, and which is a very interesting subject matter. I like writing about sex; I like writing about morals and manners. I like psychological density. Social comedy. And I’m a very slow reader – I’m almost a lip reader, so I like things to be very carefully and beautifully written. There are great writers like Dostoyevski who are sloppy. I like writers who write very carefully because I like to savor everything.
F.V.: Certainly your own writing is very tight, not one extraneous word. How does the actual writing process work for you?
E.W.: I think when you write fiction, there’s always a contrast between your obligations to truth and your obligations to beauty, which aren’t always the same. You say to yourself, “If I write it this way, it will be more honest, but if I write it that way, it will be more beautiful.” It’s a real choice, presented in exactly those terms, and depends on what kind of person you are. I’m the one who goes for beauty. The politically correct complain that somebody like Genet is only interested in sado-masochism, so they don’t like his view of sexuality, but to me his view of sexuality is so much less important than the quality of the prose, which is so ravishing. The immense contribution far outweighs his personal peccadillos. When political judgments are passed on writers who should be judged primarily in artistic terms, it makes your blood boil.
F.V.: Maybe it’s a problem between the two poles you cited – truth and beauty.
E.W.: Well, I want a beauty that comes up from the dirt. Baudelaire is very important in this respect. Beauty that ignores truth is shallow. I want a difficult beauty.
WICE is sponsoring a reading by Edmund White at 7:30 pm on Wednesday, September 25th. He will read from his work in progress, a biography of Jean Genet, and will discuss “The Uses and Misuses of Memory in Fiction.” A book sale and signing will take place during the reception to be held following the reading. 20, bd. du Montparnasse, 15e. Tel: 18.104.22.168. Reservations: members 50F, non-members 60F, at the door 65F.