A coked-up Capote, a torn-apart Tartt, a bellowing Bellow: longtime Vanity Fair editor Carter assembles shimmering pieces on the literary life.
Founded in 1913, Vanity Fair, writes Carter, was “immediately a hothouse for literary talent.” Eleven decades later, it continues to draw some of the most prominent names in literature, who here offer a kind of informal genealogy of contemporary American letters, looking at shared influences and inspirations. For instance, when One Hundred Years of Solitude burst on the scene in the 1960s, Toni Morrison, then an acquisitions editor, had an early look and decided to jump ship and dedicate herself to writing. “I got permission from García Márquez,” she says by way of Paul Elie’s lively history of the book, to write Song of Solomon. Junot Díaz, Salman Rushdie, and John Irving also took their own cues from the Colombian writer’s pages. Less influential figures pop up in the anthology as well, including the now unjustly forgotten Ward Just, who arrived in Washington, D.C., and, by David Halberstam’s account, made the Atlantic Seaboard into “Just Country”: “he was struck,” writes Halberstam, “by the contrast between the Kennedy people, so coolly arrogant and eager to rule not just America but also the world, and the seemingly doddering Eisenhower people, most of them older businessmen, who could hardly wait to return to the bland comforts of the Midwest.” Like Just, some of the writers will seem like figures from ancient history at first, but their later contemporaries at Vanity Fair bring them back to life. Dorothy Parker, writes the late Christopher Hitchens, “did not forsake her habit of stretching like a feline and then whipping out with a murderous paw.” All, subjects and writers alike, are people whose company a literary-minded reader will seek, and all are richly present here.
You’ll be forgiven for thinking that a place in national politics or pro hockey would be a more restful and attainable aspiration, but this collection is essential to anyone thinking of taking up the writer’s trade.