Vivian Gornick in Reverse

Vivian Gornick in Reverse

A conversation with the writer about her life and work.


Vivian Gornick’s writing has often given me the sensation of finding myself in the same place but much changed. This is as true of her criticism and journalism as it is of her memoirs—a straightforward and piercing desire for rediscovery conquers the text, no matter its voice. Perhaps this can help account for why a writing career that has persisted across five decades has in the past couple years been enthusiastically reexamined and reissued by ascendant generations of feminists, and Gornick herself. A collection of essays on rereading released last year, Unfinished Business, was also an exercise in rewriting previously published material, inducing dialectical déjà vu in anyone keeping up with her work. In her second book, 1977’s The Romance of American Communism, reissued last year by Verso with a new, somewhat regretful introduction, Gornick interviewed dozens of former Communist Party members, choosing to organize their lives into the periods before, during, and after membership. Her subjects wander across the fulcrum of political realization and tip over as they sit in their homes and talk to her.

Gornick, born 85 years ago to leftist working-class Jews in the Bronx, has never strayed far from home, at least not for long. She received her undergraduate degree from City College and her master’s from New York University. Her writing career began in the 1970s at The Village Voice, where she was free to chase down what interested her and became irrevocably involved with the women’s movement, which she covered extensively and credits with radically altering her political subjectivity. In memoirs about her youth (Fierce Attachments) and her mature adulthood (The Odd Woman and the City) she never stopped writing about New York City as a crucible, a romance, a teeming mesh of stories.

Her new collection, Taking A Long Look, spans Gornick’s entire career, beginning with her reporting on the feminist movement and concluding with book reviews—written in the past couple decades for outlets like Bookforum, The Nation, and the Boston Review—with sketches of New York City life and cultural criticism sandwiched between. The collection goes backward in time rather than chronologically, opening with essays from the early aughts on Lore Segal, Herman Melville, Alfred Kazin, among others. Why backwards? “It didn’t occur to me for a minute that it would be interesting for the reader to encounter me at my worst rhetorical beginnings,” Gornick told me, “I thought, well see me at my best and then maybe you’ll take me at my worst. It was what I could live with.”

Home is where I reached her and where she reached me. While we were introducing ourselves over the phone from Manhattan and Brooklyn, Gornick asked if I was going into the Nation offices, and I told her I was doing the assignment freelance but imagined nobody on staff was going in much these days. What I didn’t mention is that the very first time I read Gornick’s writing I was at the Nation office, an old version of it that doesn’t exist anymore. I read the piece because, as an intern, I’d been assigned to fact-check it. It didn’t go perfectly. I don’t remember exactly how (I don’t remember any facts); what stays with me is the feeling of being fastidious in some of the wrong ways, pedantic, annoying. Rereading the piece—which appears in this collection—without any anxiety, was rewarding in quite another way. When I was 22 I could certify every word of what I read as truth. At 29, I can see some of my own mistakes, changes, and ever faithful suggestions show up in other people’s lives. This, too, I learned from reading Vivian.

—Hannah Gold

Hannah Gold: You get pretty personal in several of your book reviews, staying close to the text but also allowing space in your essays to examine the lives—the foibles, intimacies, obsessions, politics—of the artists and academics you write about. How close can, or should, one get to an author’s life through the act of literary analysis?

Vivian Gornick: I think it was Baudelaire who was the first literary person that I know of to describe criticism as autobiography. The first time I ever saw that sentence I understood how true it was. In other words, what any writer does is essentially give the reader a view of how the writer sees the world. Randall Jarrell wrote two long, marvelous pieces on Robert Frost, whom he regarded more highly than almost any other poet that he knew of, because, he said, Robert Frost’s poetry gives you the very long view of how a single man has lived in the world. I realized a long time ago that this is true for the critic too. After all, the idea that the critic is omniscient, is committing in ironclad terms the right and the wrong, the good and the bad, as if coming from above, is ridiculous. It’s just not true. This is the way I see the world; there is no other way for me to approach literature, or anything else.

Now, the trick in criticism, which of course is true in the making of imaginative literature too, is how to be persuasive that the way I see the world is worthwhile. To know exactly how much of yourself to openly put into it so that you don’t sound neurotic and self-absorbed, to sound like what you have to say is worthwhile because you are aligning it, or comparing it, or using your own experience as a litmus test as well as can be done. Now, there are lots of critics who don’t employ it as directly as I do, but they’re all doing the same thing. Since we live in a therapeutic culture, it’s always seemed natural to me to associate my own experience to what I was writing about. The trick throughout my years has been how to find the right formula. When I was starting out, I discovered that my style was that of the personal journalist. I went out into the world; this, this, and this happened; and this, this, and this is how I saw it. I began with feminism, I was on the barricades for radical feminism, and that taught me how to have a point of view and how to employ a point of view, and then how to learn how to control it.

HG: The Diana Trilling and Mary McCarthy essays in this collection seem like companion pieces in that Trilling, as you depict her, is a writer who becomes totally absorbed in her husband’s life, his circle, his ambitions, whereas you write about McCarthy, who traveled in similar circles, “What fools McCarthy made of her men! Not knaves, fools. Just to see them so portrayed, lowered into a bath of scorn, was to see ourselves raised up.” Can you speak a bit about how these women writers handle foolish men, as artists?

VG: In the 1950s, when I was young, every woman writer essentially wrote about—the favorite phrase was “the war between the sexes,” “the battle between the sexes,” that kind of thing. And the only way in which women could write about themselves as women up against men was to hold them up to scorn. Clare Boothe Luce, Eve Merriam, they all wrote ironically and with scorn. And McCarthy was the best of all of them. She was the most talented, and she was ruthless. When I was in college we were reading all of this—we didn’t recognize ourselves as who we were and the world that we were going into, but we must have felt it, because me and my friends just adored all this stuff.

Then with the women’s movement you gave up irony. Irony went overboard, and it was sobering and it was like, “Screw the irony, this is terrible! This is who we are, this is what the world is, this is what history is, no more fun and games, no more nice girls.” In the 1970s and ’80s women like me were waking up in shock, and our shock is what gave birth to all the writing that comes out of those feminist years, like, “Gee whiz, can you believe it? This is what we are, where we are, what we’ve been living through—it isn’t funny.” Now I’m laughing!

HG: Maybe irony is back a little bit then.

VG: Maybe! But for many years I had absolutely no sense of humor about men and women, about feminism. You know, men and women—but mostly men, in those years, the 1980s, and then the ’90s too—would make fun of our sobriety, our earnestness, our anger, and I would stare stony-faced at every one of them! I never had a laugh in me. And that was the change from Mary McCarthy to my generation. She didn’t know how else to do it except, as you say I say, “hold them up to scorn.” Therefore to read her today the writing feels very arch, very overdrawn, and the shrewdness is fun but not terrifically admirable anymore. You know Clare Boothe Luce’s famous The Women—you know that movie?

HG: I haven’t seen it.

VG: Well see it—it is the absolute synthesis of everything I’m saying now. You’ll see how old-fashioned it seems; it is not able to outlast its social environment. A great work lasts beyond the social context in which it’s written. But an inferior one, a second-rate one, doesn’t. You feel it’s time-bound. And in a way McCarthy feels like that.

HG: I really admire your essay on James Salter, which kicks off with a perfect lede. In the last sentence of the lede you come straight out and ask, “Who is this man, and what is he actually talking about?” It feels like the kind of question you write in all caps above the essay while drafting it and delete later.

VG: I was waiting to write that for 20 years! That came straight out and I knew that was the beginning. Who the hell is he? What is he talking about? Nobody ever talks about what he’s talking about. It gave me great satisfaction also to say he has a lot to answer for. But anyway I’m very proud of that piece because it practically came out whole as written.

HG: I also loved your essay “The Reading Group,” about a small group you joined in the ’90s that read and discussed memoir together, where you write, “Every book has its poetic respondent among us, the one for whom the book, whatever its shortcomings or eccentricities, delivers an inner clarity that resonates in that part of the expressive self where intelligence serves sensibility,” and you propose that at times in the group a conversation is taking place “between a book and its one true reader.” This sounds very romantic. Are there any books so personal to you that you wouldn’t want to share your thoughts on them in a reading group or an essay?

VG: Yes, there are, no doubt. I can’t think right this second, but I’ll give you an analogy. One of us in the group was in love with a book called—I think it was called Intimacy by Hanif Kureishi; you know, that British Pakistani writer, who himself is one of the worst sexists, in this book. She adored this book and with great trepidation asked us all to read it, and her trepidation was well placed because we all hated it, and it gave her great pain. I remember thinking to myself, If I have a book that I feel tender about for exactly these reasons, I’m not gonna bring it here. There are books that you feel about as if they were a friend, or a child. They’re not lovable but you love them, and you don’t want to hear them criticized. That’s a very good question, and it goes to the heart of relations between the reader and the writing and the books that we read, that you can feel about them as if they were your intimates, even if they are hapless, or eccentric, or immature.

That group that I wrote about, in a way I did come to feel romantic about it. I had never been in a reading group before. We were together 15 years, and I never experienced anything like it again. I sort of wanted to memorialize it, because it taught me things I’d never dreamed of before and which I hold dear now. That idea that there’s always one person in the world who can see the poetry in a particular book, this insight came to me years before and it had to do with people—in fact, it had to do with marriage. You know when you look at a married couple and you think, ‘What the hell does he see in her?’ or ‘What does she see in him?’ or ‘Why are these two together?’ I came to understand that it’s a secret, And then it became the same with the books we read in the group. It is a romantic view, but what can I say, it was a romantic experience.

HG: In another piece, “Consciousness,” from the ’70s, you explore the idea of consciousness raising—which you define as “the feminist practice of examining one’s personal experience in the light of sexism”—then go to a meeting where women are practicing that by asking questions of one another in a group setting. It struck me that all the coverage I read of the Me Too movement consisted of individual opinion pieces or pieces where a reporter would go out and talk to subjects, a few women working in the same industry perhaps or who were accusing the same man. I did not see a record of the conversations women were actually having with one another. Can you comment on the form of that essay?

VG: That was the key to our generation. We invented consciousness raising and it spoke for itself, and I hope that piece speaks for itself. I reread it many years after I wrote it and I was amazed at how it captured the whole experience. It was meant to show that, to feminism, conversation was like an apprenticeship. You went in an initiate and you came out a practitioner. Which is exactly how the movement went forward; it was as if we were converting each other, discovering ourselves. Ours was such a political generation. Me Too is not political the way we were. When it’s a political time, that means the world is full of hope. If you’re out there and there are 10,000 people out in the street.

HG: Sticking with the women’s movement, in your early essay “The Women’s Movement in Crisis,” I was interested in this part about the founding of Ms. magazine, where you write, “Steinem and Ms. could do nothing but become themselves. That self, as it turned out, was not my self, or the self of many other feminists. The magazine proved to be slick, conservative, philistine (Ellen Willis hit the nail on the head when she said Ms. was interested in editors, not in writers). Its intellectual level is very low, its sense of the women ‘out there’ patronizing, its feminist politics arrested at the undergraduate level.” Can you explain more about this divide in feminist media at the time as you see it? Do you stand by this assessment?

VG: Oh, absolutely! I still know Gloria Steinem to this day, but we’re not friends. I mean, we’re friendly. I think that she has all these years felt very wounded by the intellectual scorn that’s been heaped on her. But she’s won the day; she’s the most popular and most powerful feminist of our generation. Gloria Steinem is the spokesperson for Thelma and Louis. A couple of years ago we both were at this book fair in Australia, in Sydney. My talks were given in large rooms and I had a full audience, hers were given in, stadium-like auditoriums where thousands of women packed the halls. Now I have to say without any undue immodesty that I’m more of an intellectual than Gloria is. Gloria gives them pep talks on how to become yourself, how to do this and that and the other, and it’s at the level of a pep talk to a football team or something. She’s been delivering the same talk for 30, 40 years.

It’s Feminism 101, and there are thousands of people out there who need to hear what she has to say. When I was younger, when I wrote that piece for instance, I didn’t have enough respect for what that meant. But she talks in a way that reaches people. We were self-styled intellectuals, snotty, and superior, and they were meat and potatoes; they were speaking at levels that thousands, millions of women who were not at all theoretical, not at all intellectual, but certainly felt what we were all talking about, felt the acuteness of their subordination, and they lived terrible, terrible lives. They still do! I mean, after all, they still do. Therefore, Gloria and Ms. still had a role to fulfill. But we were purists, that’s what that was all about. And like any radical movement there was a lot of internecine bickering and a lot of blaming of each other for not being pure and all that.

HG: Are there feminist publications you read now? What kind of feminist publication would you want to read, or see in the world, if you were being totally idealistic?

VG: Well it’s really too late for that. There is nothing. I don’t read anything.

HG: Too late for you or for—?

VG: No, no, not at all; everyone has to keep doing what they’re doing. Every feminist effort, every angry young feminist your age who’s mad about this, that, and the other should go to print and write about it; she should do everything. Yell and scream and work, and do everything. But I’ve heard it all a hundred times already, so it’s hard for me—it doesn’t interest me anymore.

HG: In your essay “Why Do These Men Hate Women?” about Norman Mailer’s book about Henry Miller, and Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and Philip Roth’s My Life as a Man, you observe that these books illustrate “what is fatal in writers: men who hate and fear the moment in which they are living, men who are in flight from their times, at a profound remove from the inner experience of their time and place, filled with a conservative longing for an inner truth that is no longer the truth.”

VG: Oh, my god, did I write that?!

HG: Yeah, it’s so good.

VG: Oh, it sounds good!

HG: So, I was very interested in this idea you put forth that abandoning one’s times is fatal to writers and was wondering if you can explain more what you meant by that and what it means to you now?

VG: Well, it means the same thing. I have been very gratified over the last many years that young people like you read my work and respond to it, and like my writing. And I’ve often said to myself, “what am I writing that people that young are attracted to what I’m saying?” And I realize, essentially, they must recognize that we’re quote-unquote living in the same time. There’s no other reason why someone 50 years younger than me responds to what I’m writing—except that either I’m childish or they’re mature.

I do feel acutely attached to my time, to this moment which has lasted all my long life. For instance, feminism itself is a mark of the time even the New Left, which is now the old, was filled with men who were horrible as far as sexism was concerned. They recognized that the feminists had hit something that they couldn’t touch, that we were more representative of the liberationist movements, that this was the new politics. I was into it and they were not, and that is what I mean.

The books that men like Roth and Bellow wrote subsequently hated the ’60s; all they saw was death and corruption and everything falling apart. I used to say—and I’ve said it probably throughout my entire life—the times are chaotic, the culture is fracturing all over the place, and you’re either stimulated by it or you’re depressed by it. And if you’re stimulated by it, then you learn more about what you’re actually living through. If you’re depressed by it, then all you do is attack it. So when Roth wrote a book like American Pastoral or Bellow wrote a book like Mr. Sammler’s Planet, these books are horrifying because they hate the time in which they’re living. They hate it, and they attack it. They do not see the reason for all the chaos, and they resent and fear the chaos more than the reasons for it.

It’s the same with political correctness. I hate political correctness. But I can’t attack it, because I understand its roots; I understand there are reasons for it, and the reasons for it stop me from attacking it. But if I don’t understand those reasons and I’m just depressed by the whole thing, then I attack. That’s how I came to understand conservatism versus—not liberalism, but the open-mindedness to be more interested in why this is happening than you are to attack it. That’s essentially what I mean by understanding the time in which you are living.

HG: You write in “Toward a Definition Female Sensibility,” another of your essays from the ’70s, “Rarely, in the work now being written by women, does one feel the presence of writers genuinely penetrating their own experience, risking emotional humiliation and the facing-down of secret facts, unbearable wisdoms.” Then you mention a few writers, like Kate Chopin, who you think did that well. Do you have a sense of who has been doing it well lately. I mean “lately” broadly; there’s no time limit on that.

VG: Who writes well as a feminist—is that what you mean?

HG: I guess women who you admire in that way that you talk about admiring The Awakening or something like that, where women are writing about their experiences—

VG: No, I guess I don’t, really. Actually, I can never answer a question like that because I never come up with a name when I’m asked to name somebody I enjoy reading. Probably if I had a list in front of me I could. But the fact is our movement has not produced great art.

HG: The feminist movement?

VG: The feminist movement. None of the liberationist movements. I think it will take a lot longer before these experiences can become the metaphor for really a great piece of literature. That’s my snotty take.

HG: Do you think some writing men have done is better because they have no movement? That seems hard to believe.

VG: Say that again?

HG: That the writing of men you admire is somehow better, more full, more complete?

VG: You mean now in these last 20, 30 years?

HG: Yeah.

VG: No, no, no, no. No, I don’t think it’s a time of art at all.

HG: Oh, dear. That’s too bad for us, isn’t it?

VG: Yeah. [Laughs] But I’m sure you don’t feel it. I’m sure I’m wrong on this—I mean, I’m positive I’m wrong on this. I just, I don’t—you know, I live a very narrow life, I wouldn’t put myself up by any means as a good arbiter of what is substantial art these days. I really wouldn’t at all, so I really shouldn’t be answering these questions at all. I’m not an arbiter of it. There are all kinds of people who have fully fleshed opinions on it, much more valuable than mine.

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