Reading the Bird for Filth

a queer tries to educate her straight professor about Gore Vidal's essay on Tennessee Williams

(this essay heavily refers to a book review by Gore Vidal, which covers Tennessee Williams’ memoir, but which is actually more of a sly counter-narrative to the memoir’s events. i wrote this in response to a class discussion in which our professor referred to this as a cruel essay… and i disagreed, because it felt like a congenial “read” rather than a reactive piece.)


Reading the Bird for Filth

“Now queens, we all know that reading is fundamental! The library is open!” says RuPaul to her lineup of contestants on Drag Race, a popular reality TV show that portrays drag queens working to outdo each other in competitions that display their “charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.” The “reading” exercise on Drag Race is a regular show favorite, a “mini” challenge where the contestants each take turns roasting their fellow competitors, taking swings at their looks, their insecurities, their latest competition flop. A well-executed read is often referred to as “read for filth” -- as in, the read was gloves off, the content below the belt, dirty. The jokes are usually all zingers, occasionally inside jokes, but consistently show a level of respect for the other person’s game while also good-naturedly making fun of them. It’s an act of intimacy, a bonding exercise that shows how well the queens have gotten to know each other in their time on the show, and how well they’re able to take friendly fire when a weakness is visible.

The history of the read as a foundational element of queer culture is badly documented, but shows up in the documentary Paris Is Burning, released in 1991 but filmed throughout the early 80s in the New York City drag ball scene at the peak of the AIDs crisis. It’s been a staple of gay drag culture ever since, a traditional roasting of fellow queens who share the stage with each other on a given night.

“Selected Memories of the Glorious Bird and the Golden Age” by Gore Vidal was published by The New York Review of Books in early 1976, and in it, Vidal takes his friend Tennessee Williams’ book of memoirs to task. Given the context of gay culture in New York City and how deeply immersed in it both these men were, I believe that this book review is not so much a true review, but more of a read. The text supports this, as Vidal barely reviews the book itself, but focuses much more closely on Williams as a person, as a friend, and as a professional contemporary, and reflecting much more on his own interpretation of events and himself as a participant or witness to them, than on the text of the memoirs itself.

Vidal uses the text of the memoirs as a launching-point for his reflections, which are at times acerbic and at others generous. “His paranoia always has some basis in reality,” and “Tennessee tells us a great deal about his sex life, which is one way of saying nothing about oneself,” and “Tennessee is the sort of writer who does not develop; he simply continues. … he plays and replays the same small but brilliant set of cards” are some of these zingers which span the tonal gamut in this essay. By using the familiarity of their long friendship as the fertile ground from which to pull his read, Vidal allows himself to provide for the reader a nuanced, intimate, and ultimately empathetic portrait of Williams as a human through the mode of this read.

By reading this essay as simply a book review, or as an indulgent act of critical nostalgia on the part of Vidal, I believe that the intimate generosity at the heart of this piece can get lost, which is why I believe it’s important to contextualize this essay within gay culture in New York City and with the act of a read as a comparative counterpoint for interpretation. When read as a read, this piece becomes a public act of tenderness dressed up in acerbic humor, an act of writing that requires sufficient respect and knowledge of the subject to take liberties, and a tribute to a friendship borne out of a shared sense of being up against a homophobic world that wanted to devour them alive, a world which they instead charmed and thrived in. This is the same fraternal energy as seen among the queens on Drag Race and in drag shows across the country--they are each other’s competition, but they are also aware that they are unable to thrive without the existence of the others in their community, so they have developed a familial closeness: we can read each other, but you can’t read my sister.

This is perhaps what Vidal is getting at in the close of the review: “As for life? Well, that is a hard matter. But it was always a hard matter for those of us born with a sense of the transiency of these borrowed atoms that make up our corporeal being. ‘I need,’ Tennessee writes with sudden poignancy, ‘somebody to laugh with.’ Well, don’t we all, Bird?” They share the same fears and interests, and they have come up together and become successful, and here in this read, Vidal is letting Williams know he does not laugh alone.