Patron saint of snark

By Mic Wright on August 1st, 2012

Snark is the predominant currency on the web. The Gawker-effect has spread into almost every corner of online media and it’s hard to find an interesting site that doesn’t crack out a sneer now and then. But Nick Denton is merely a successor to the true king of snark, who died yesterday: Gore Vidal.

In an age in which we oscillate between praising the long read and enjoying the enforced brevity of tweets and status updates, Vidal’s life and work is a model of how to make your point in either format. A preternaturally gifted writer and speaker, he had the ability to write long, gripping the reader’s attention, while also having such a facility with language that he could down an opponent with one sharp quip.

While spats on Twitter draw our attention now, Vidal really knew how to end an argument. Irritated by the regressive attitudes expressed by Norman Mailer in 1971, Vidal wrote in the New York Review Of Books: “There has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression.” Unsurprisingly, the pugilistic Mailer dived head-first into a feud.

The pair memorably clashed on the Dick Cavett Show in December 1971, but the fight didn’t reach its conclusion until a dinner party six years later, when Mailer threw a glass of whiskey in Vidal’s face, head-butted him and threw a punch. Lying prone on the floor, Vidal won the bout with a line: “Lost for words again, Norman?” Vidal 2, Mailer 0.

Vidal was a proponent of openness far before the invention of blogging. His third novel, The City and the Pillar, bravely tackled the topic of homosexuality – Vidal himself was bisexual – causing a storm and leading him to be, he claimed, effectively blacklisted by the New York Times. He recalled: “If you didn’t get a daily review in the New York Times, you didn’t exist as a novelist. It meant that everybody else… would follow suit. You were out.”

That restriction on his visibility as a novelist led Vidal into another modern construction: the portfolio career. He spent the fifties as a screenwriter for television and film as well as penning two Broadway hits (Visit to a Small Planet and The Best Man). He also claimed to have inserted gay subtext into Ben-Hur, though its star, Charlton Heston, denied it.

Vidal later turned his formidable intellect to two unsuccessful politician runs: in 1960, attempting to take a firmly Republican district, and in 1982, fighting Jerry Brown for the gubernatorial nomination in California. Despite his failure in that enterprise, he still produced brilliant work, notably Myra Breckenridge and his stinging reality TV satire, Duluth. He also turned his hand to acting, popping up in productions as varied as Fellini’s Roma to the science fiction flick Gattaca.

Vidal also suffered from the same compulsion as most modern journalists: he could not bear to turn down a media appearance. He said: “I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.” Gratifyingly, he never combined the two. (Certainly, in his famous 1968 clash with William Buckley, he was not the one who ended up looking screwed.)

While, politically, he could never be put in the same basket as the Daily Mail, Vidal had the knack for whipping up a kind of controversy Liz Jones could only dream of. Witness his line on sexual orientation: “There are no homosexual people, only homosexual acts.” He went on to claim that he slept with thousands of men and women but when asked whether his first sexual encounter was gay or straight, he replied: “I was too polite to ask.” Knocks Samantha Brick into a cocked hat, doesn’t it?

His passing is a sad occasion. On the cusp of another American election, when social media sites will vibrate with thousands of pathetic attempts at snark, Vidal’s gift will be missed. Who can sum up the problems of politics more succinctly than he? There is no greater statement on the Presidential pissing contest than this: “Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so.”

Farewell, Gore. You were a good one.