The things that pass between serious writers and their editors usually are intensely private.
Like any process involving genuine intimacy, literary editing presumes both parties' discretion. Its absence is what makes this week's unusual publishing event--the reissuing of Gore Vidal's historical novel "Creation"--more interesting still.
The occasion is the latest installment in a 20-year-old quarrel that ended the long and storied friendship between Gore Vidal and Jason Epstein, then-editor in chief of Random House.
Twenty-one years ago, Random House published "Creation." Set in the 5th century BC, its protagonist, Cyrus Spitama, is the prophet Zoroaster's grandson. During his education at the Persian court, Cyrus befriends the future king Xerxes and later becomes his emissary. While traveling on the king's behalf, the book's hero-narrator meets Buddha, goes fishing with Confucius and has his wall repaired by a young Athenian stonemason, Socrates.
The original "Creation" was more than 500 pages long and became a bestseller. The new version, reissued this week by Doubleday, contains an extraordinary author's note:
"For 21 years 'Creation' has been read by many people in many languages; simultaneously, for 21 years, I have regretted that the original book had been seriously damaged by an overly busy editor...." Vidal writes. "Through various intricate but relentless stratagems he managed to cut a number of key scenes.... Now, for a new century, what was lost has been restored...."
That "overly busy editor" was Epstein, who remains--as the admiring head of another New York house described him this week --"a God of publishing."
Doubleday's executive editor, Gerald Howard, agreed that "Gore writes the world's most unusual author's notes. I've been his editor for three years, and I have pretty much learned not to try to tell him what to say or do. But Jason is a pretty tough cookie, and I think he can handle it."
In fact, Epstein dismissed the note as "typical, vintage Gore. I didn't think particularly much of the book at the time. I found it hard to read. I thought the book would benefit if there were less of it. I could have cut anything and it would have been an improvement."
Vidal was traveling in Europe and unavailable for comment. But in his memoir, "Palimpsest," he recalls the years when he and Epstein were close friends.
The editing of "Creation" signaled an end to all that, current and former Random House editors recall. Epstein had a long-standing interest in antiquity, particularly the passage from paganism to Christianity. He found Vidal's novel to be a stew of historical inaccuracies, filled with impermissible exaggerations and assertions.
Cuts were made. When the finished manuscript was circulated to other Random House editors, however, the reaction was so negative that Epstein gave the book to a young editor and instructed him to trim it further. Vidal reluctantly accepted the redactions as the price of publication. Later, when similar problems arose over the editing of his novel "Live From Golgotha," he left Random House for good.
Doubleday's Howard said the reissue of "Creation" is unusual but said he believes Vidal's "novels of classical history are just about as good as those books get. He doesn't have too many peers in this field, perhaps only Mary Renault."
The decision to republish a hard-bound edition, the editor said, resulted from an unexpected discovery. A scholar named Stephen Abbott was doing some archival work on Gore's manuscripts at the University of Wisconsin and found the sections that Random House had cut. He brought them to Gore's attention. And, said Howard, "we thought, why not do it as its creator intended?"
Epstein remains unconvinced. "I think Gore is a better essayist than he is a novelist. He can't really get inside the characters or their lives. 'Creation' was a clever idea, since the main characters' lives did overlap. But they didn't communicate, so the narrative didn't make sense. Gore is touchy, and he loves being No. 1 and making money. I urged him to write the historical novels, but the work began to get rather strange. After a time, I couldn't do much for him as publisher, and I thought myself that it was time to part."
Howard said he is "sympathetic to both parties. I can very easily put myself in Jason's position at the time, really feeling the need to get the book down to cruiserweight size and deciding that certain material was dispensable. I can also put myself in Gore's position. It is an epic book and a long story. Now, circumstances have changed and we are bringing it back to the public in the form Gore intended."
One publishing executive, who asked not to be identified, chuckled that "Gore holds to some of the most durable grudges in American literature. With him, once you're out, you're out forever."
Epstein seems to feel otherwise. "I still think of him as a friend, even though we haven't spoken in 20 years," he said. "There was no way to deal with him. He's impossible. But he is a fine fellow--generous, decent, intelligent and talented. He is entitled to write any preface he wants."