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Why Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote All Failed to Write the Great American Novel

They attacked one another, mocked one another, sued one another. Each was always aware of – and felt threatened by – the other two. (How absurd all the jealousy, the competition, seems now!) All three proclaimed their brilliance unashamedly – and repeatedly. All three were motivated by the now quaint-sounding goal of writing the Great American Novel. All three, indeed, were desperate to be proclaimed immortal masters of the novel. But though Capote's novella Breakfast at Tiffany's was unquestionably brilliant, arguably perfect of its own kind (even Mailer admitted as much), neither Vidal nor Mailer ever produced a fictional work anywhere near approaching the first rank, and even Breakfast at Tiffany's, when you got right down to it, was a short work – hardly War and Peace.

All three were far better at non-fiction – Vidal in his innumerable, and inimitable, literary essays (neither of the other two, curiously, seems to have been particularly interested in, or perhaps even capable of, writing serious book reviews); Capote in what he called the “non-fiction novel,” as exemplified by In Cold Blood, as well as in a series of juicy (if highly unreliable) accounts of such things as his friendship with Marilyn Monroe; and Mailer in his engaging early miscellany Advertisements for Myself and in The Armies of the Night, his award-winning account of an anti-Vietnam march in Washington, D.C., in which he co-starred with the poet Robert Lowell. (Some would also include among Mailer's most impressive works The Executioner's Song, his attempt – unreadable, in my view – to outdo In Cold Blood.)