The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading
Reading is a hobby that never grows stale—and an unpunished vice.
Edmund White was a pioneer author of gay lit and of memoirs, writing his partly fictitious, partly autobiographical A Boy’s Own Story, and its three sequels, which chronicle the AIDs era, in a time when “nobodies,” as he says, did not write memoirs. He also co-wrote The Joy of Gay Sex. His work predated and helped make room for the popularization of autofiction, m/m romance, and the acceptance of certain LGBT works in the Big 5 publishing world. He has firmly earned his place in the queer canon, if such a thing exists.
The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading is a fun hodgepodge of anecdotes from his life; where he was when he was reading certain books and writing others; where his favorite writers were when they were writing theirs; what they were reading, and eating, and with whom they were sleeping; recounts of plots and a smidgen of literary interpretation and text analysis; some spare thoughts on his husband and students. Nearly everyone gets a mention, from Sigmund Freud to Susan Sontag to Ocean Vuong.
I liked his old fuddy-duddy thoughts, which I found quite funny, such as this description of his 21st century students: “If they’re not chaste, wearing ‘purity rings,’ or part of the nightly ‘hookup culture,’ they’re sort of unisex pals, dressed alike, not coquettish nor seductive but just ‘good guys’ trudging about wearing matching jeans and haircuts, some 60 percent claiming (in theory if not in gritty practice) they’re ‘bisexual.’”
My Kindle note for this was: “omg he’s so old.” Although he’s close-minded in certain generational ways, I like that he is such an open and unrepentant pervert that the youth seems to be utterly dull in his eyes; you get the impression that nothing could scandalize him.
I also like some of his very wise thoughts. He talks about how texts become sometimes unreadably problematic when we are older, but when you are young you can somehow “plunder a text and find what you want in the margins.” It was very touching when he talked about growing up gay in the Midwest. After he was nonconsensually outed to his father by his mother, a psychologist who referred to his sexual preferences as “object choice difficulties,” his father subjected him to “the yard work cure.” He was meant to be turned straight by hours of meaningless physical labor at his father’s house, saying, “My only consolation was that I somehow got my hands on Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which I’d read in my bedroom for hours at night.”
He also mentioned the gay writing scene of the 70s, which in some ways reminds me of the queerlit Internet scene of today:
“I belonged to a gay writers’ group, which for awhile we considered calling the All-Praise Club. We were attempting to get gay lit off the ground in spite of great resistance from editors. We need affirmation, not hostile criticism.”
“Gay readers felt on intimate terms with gay writers.”
“It was thrilling to be a gay writer in the late 1970s … I remember saying to someone at the time, ‘I may never be so well known as John Updike, but to my few readers I’m indispensable.’”
He discussed how reading changed him from “a Cincinnatian” to an “earthling.” I too feel as thought reading has made me a citizen of the world, and this has also been reflected in my travels. Like White, I lived in Paris, although for significantly less time than him; today I am an expat in Japan.
His spare thoughts on Japanese literature were subsequently quite funny to me, such as when he goes on and on about Pound being a wonderful translator (Pound did not know Chinese or Japanese; his “translations” were not translations at all, and we have outgrown them). Also when he pats himself on the back for learning to look up Chinese characters in a dictionary while he was in school; I guess this is an accomplishment if your life is as thoroughly Western as White’s. It was funny because he is perhaps intimidating in certain regards, as well-read as he is, so when he admitted to these vast ignorances, it seemed like such a discrepancy.
Of course, this is not to say that Edmund White is braggy or narrow-minded; he is refreshingly humble, writing, “just by dint of reading (no matter how slowly and without discipline) for many decades, I give the illusion of being well-read.” Of Anna Karenina he writes, “I’ve read it ten times, though I’m none the wiser for it.”
His relationships to intelligence, elitism, and classism are interesting to me. He never shuns genre fiction without self-consciousness and an awareness of his own ignorance regarding the subject, but he still shuns it. He admits that literature today is fresh and full of diverse voices, but he scarcely discusses them. He says, “People interested in putting together a very restrictive canon of great books don’t really like reading; true readers … are always sniffing out more and more titles.” Even so, his book choices felt stiflingly white to me, although I don’t think he was at all unaware of it, bringing up writers of color whenever contemporary literature was mentioned. He seems very aware that writers of color now dominate the scene; when he discusses how strikingly original fiction continues to be, and how we are revolutionizing the craft of writing over and over again, it is obvious that that is whom he refers to. I wish he had discussed it at more length.
Edmund White had a heart attack in 2014, and it was unclear whether he would ever write again. He writes in this memoir of becoming uninterested in reading or writing for the first time in his life, although he eventually recovered enough to write Our Young Man, a book I detested and could not finish. So I was glad to be reading this new memoir, something I thoroughly enjoyed, proving that White has not lost his stuff.