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An Interview with Vivian Gornick

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Growing up in the Bronx amongst communists and socialists, Gornick became a legendary writer for Village Voice, chronicling the emergence of the feminist movement in the 1970s. For nearly fifty years, her essays, written with her characteristic clarity of perception and vibrant prose, have explored feminism and writing, literature and culture, politics and personal experience. Her new work, Taking A Long Look: Essays on Culture, Literature, and Feminism in Our Time, embodies all of this, and more. Earlier this year she sat down to discuss this new book with her Verso editor, Jessie Kindig.

V: I was interviewed by someone who asked me why the book is structured so that the oldest essays are last and the newest are first, and I didn't really know how to answer that question. I made up an answer which of course you will hate. I said, ‘the writing at the end is the worst and I didn’t want to put people off’.

J: I do hate that answer!

V: I didn’t exactly say that but it was close. I said ‘I don’t see why a reader should be submitted to a writer’s apprenticeship, rather than let them come to it as they wish’. If you deliver the writing that you think is your best, then you’re off the hook. You’ve given what you’re supposed to give, and then they can go on to the end or not, as they wish, to see how this at the beginning came about. Here’s the achieved writer, you keep going through [the book] and you get to, more or less, how she came about.

J: I was reading the introduction to Taking a Long Look again when I was on the subway, and in it you chronicle your apprenticeship as a writer and learning to write. And that is again so much of what the book does itself, even if it does it in reverse chronology. It also has all the different kinds of writing that you’ve done throughout your career, from what you would call polemic to short personal essays to criticism et cetera. I wondered if you could talk more about how you learned to write? Why would you call polemics an apprenticeship?

V: Oh, well I did write about that in the introduction but I learned to write because that's what polemics can do for you. Mainly, as I’ve said many times, it taught me the value of a point of view. My point of view, then, was like a tool. I made my way into a subject through that polemical point of view. In other words, I walked out into the street and I saw sexism everywhere, like it was standing in the air. So in everything I did I was seeing sexism. It’s funny, I promised to blurb a book by an old old friend, Jonathan Katz, who has been writing about the history of homosexuality forever. And he’s writing a book about a Jewish lesbian anarchist who was a contemporary of Emma Goldman’s, and who was one of the crowd around Mother Earth, whom I’d never heard of. She was a Jewish immigrant, like them, she was an immigrant from the Russian empire, like them. She had a Polish name, but in America she became a woman named Eve Adams, of all things. But the point is, Jonathan is writing this biography of this lost, discovered soul. But completely from within the point of view of the acceptability of homosexual relations. So that’s his tool. He's not writing it in any one of ten different ways in which you might approach a biography. He’s writing from the point of view of making this life exemplify his interest in the difficulty of achieving acceptance for homosexual life. 

So I’m reading it, and it’s remarkable for how much I’m learning about the exactness of the way homosexual life was encountered and recieved among these sexually ignorant bohemian radicals. Really, people as innocent as the day is long. They fucked a lot but they were utterly… you know these long discussions about inversion and perversion...

J: Yeah.

V: So anyway, when I started writing, I, like every other young writer, asked myself “What will I write about?”, “What should I write about?”, “I know I should write, but what should I write about?” Well, polemics gave me something to write about. And what it taught me was, here I had this established perspective from which my interest was going to develop, but I had to pay respect to the actual subject. So I was learning how to hold onto a point of view from which I was interested in things, but the thing itself had to be served. So that’s what I meant by having a point of view. Then, having a point of view from which there was always going to be the question of ‘why am I writing this piece, and from what perspective?’

Every novelist does the same thing. A novelist has a moment of emotional insight, and that insight is the driving force. And then the question is how to organise a piece of writing so that it serves that insight at the same time that the insight is not ruling the whole thing.

J: Which is what a polemic would be, right?

V: A polemic rules, yes. 

J: And so what can’t a polemic teach you?

V: It can only go so far. It can teach you how to understand all the parts that have to be in play. It can teach you that you have the right to start from the point of view of serving a cultural or political perception. For example, you want to show how terrible capitalism is at all times in all places so you walk out into the street, you go to a grocery store, and you see an argument between a clerk and a customer. And then the boss gets involved and then the manager gets involved. Now at the same time, there’s a human situation here. So you are not going to write “the boss, who exemplified capitalism, then said to the customer who…” You’re not going to do that.

J: Unless you're writing for the Daily Worker.

V: Unless you're writing for the Daily Worker, exactly, then that’s exactly what you write! In fact, my niece was listening to a group of feminist academics the other day and she said to me  “I only thank god that you weren’t there. The amount of jargon that came out of their mouths in three sentences… you would’ve just died”. And what are they all doing? I remember once many years ago in a similar situation listening to a sociologist deliver a long winded jargon ridden paper. And I'm sitting there, puzzling, puzzling. And my niece is sitting next to me, who is familiar with all this, and I said ‘what is she talking about?’ She says to me ‘she’s saying women notice playgrounds more than men do’.

So, okay, if I was writing that, if I wanted to show that women notice playgrounds more than men, and I have an ulterior motive to this because I'm on the barricades of radical feminism, it’s my job as a writer to put the pieces together brilliantly. To put them all together so that they serve so well that I feel acutely the humanness of the situation as well as the politicalness of it. I’m tired of being a stranger in other people’s lives, which is what writing for The Village Voice began to feel like.  

J: Because there was no self involved?

V: I got tired of serving the cultural and political. I wanted to look inward, not outward. And that, there’s no explaining, other than I was becoming who I was becoming. I was close to 50 and that’s when I began writing Fierce Attachments. It taught me that I had to have a real point of view to dramatise the story I thought I was telling. It took a long time for me to actually isolate that story and then it was one sentence “I could not leave my mother because I had become my mother”. Once I had that in my head, that sufficed for a point of view. It clarified everything. I went back and rewrote everything from that perspective. I knew that the whole book had to serve that sentence.

J: And that’s something you could never get to with polemic. You’re a very rigorous writer and a very thoughtful writer in my opinion…

V: I want to dramatise it not moralise over it. I didn't want to lecture or keep pointing things out to the reader, which is what a polemic does. I think it's in the situation of the story. Here’s an example of what I'm talking about. I took a trip down the Rio Grande river with my brother many years ago. On one side there’s Texas and the other side was Mexico. And there were cliffs and all kinds of things to think about if you're middle aged and overweight and can't swim. All of which I was. This guy says to me “Lady, we haven't lost one yet” so I agreed to go. What was interesting was it was on this trip that my brother and I discovered how much we didn't like each other. 

J: Oh no.

V: Yes, it was like a litmus test the whole little trip. There were a couple other people and it could have held twelve, this boat, but it held five or six. And these guys were the kind who had been around forever. Guys with the beards and the cigars and the rough talk and the...

J: I'm from Washington, I know.

V: You know the whole thing. They're your relatives, right? And everybody who was on the trip saw what was happening differently, everyone had a different source of anxiety. And then my brother and I were really not liking each other more and more. He was very laid back so we never got into a fight there. But it left me realising how if every one of these people had written about this trip, how different it all would have been. Then, a week after we were on this boat, snipers from Mexico shot and killed tourists like ourselves. So I wrote this little piece in which I said I would have written it this way, my brother would- I didn't say my brother, in fact, I said my husband because I didn't want my brother to be the persona- but I was able to write this little thing about how I would have written it this way, he would have written it that way, another person on the boat would have written it a third way. And I gave each of them a writing persona. One of them would have written like a social worker. One of them would have written like a racist, which he was. I would have written only from the psychological point of view of the people on the boat. And I enjoyed it immensely, and I immediately thought, if I hadn't worked at The Village Voice I would never have been able to figure this out so fast. 

J: So what was it about polemic, actually? It was the training in point of view that taught you how to inhabit a persona?

V: Absolutely. As I said to you, everywhere I went and everything I did, if I went to the movies, if I read a book, if I was at a theatre, or if I was having an encounter in the grocery store, it was all sexism. Now I had to make that persuasive. A lot of that stuff that I wrote then still holds up because I had it so solidly based in actual human encounters. It was my interpretation of the encounter that was based in my struggle over sexism. I was suddenly seeing the world anew out of old experience. That was the key. I use that image of the kaleidoscope and that's what I meant. I still mean it. You shake the kaleidoscope, it's the same piece with a new design. I was always applying that design to everything. So I knew there was so much personal journalism being written that was so bad because people’s version of personal journalism was their own feelings, “what am I feeling now?” So that was the worst. The best was stuff like Mailer, Didion, Thomas Wolfe. Especially Didion, anxiety was her schtick. She applies her anxiety to everything. And when she’s got it in balance it's brilliant. And when she doesn’t, when her anxiety becomes the subject, it’s lousy. It was the same with my polemical writing. I became one of the best of them because I paid attention to the human actuality in front of me. But essentially it was, I learned, that you always have to have a position from which you were writing. And of course as time went on it became more and more psychological. More and more I wanted to serve rather than use.

J: Serve the insight?

V: Serve the story.

J: Serve the story. Let's talk about criticism, if you don't mind, and turn to literature. Because you talk about the human insight, and the kind of flash of insight that a novel gets built around, or that a novel falters on. Like at the end of the novel Love, there’s the essay that brings everything together about the James Smiley book The Age of Grief. It’s this beautifully written, nicely plotted book et cetera but it doesn't quite work because the central gambit of the story is that we believe wholeheartedly that love is transformative, and that that's not just a character’s belief but that our reading of the novel hinges on it. And that falters, so there is no kind of larger insight. There's not that human insight to build the book around, so the book becomes merely a story rather than a larger kind of work from which we can draw things. And I was wondering if you could talk more about how you started writing about literature. We talked about what polemic taught you as a writer. I’m wondering if you could talk about what writing about literature taught you.

V: The matter of writing about literature was the matter of putting some things together that had not been put together, which I isolated in the piece on D H Lawrence, in which I said I've been reading my whole life, reading for the pleasure of the story. And it was only when I was about 20 when I was given Sons and Lovers to read that I realised I was reading literature. And what that meant was, I’d come to see that the story had larger reverberations than I ever could have identified when I was just thrilling to the story. And that those reverberations turned on large insights about human life. So, I don't remember when I felt that I had the right to write about [literature]. I guess it was The Village Voice, it gave everybody that worked there the feeling that they could write about anything under the sun. It was unbelievable. That’s why a lot of its junk today, because anybody could write about anything. Once they took on a writer they just let you do whatever the hell you wanted. 

J: But that’s why we remember it too. That's why it was so alive, it seems to me. That's why we’re so sad that it's gone even though it was a shadow of what it was. 

V: Well, and the time is gone that felt brash rather than stupid.

J: But still, it was living rather than static and curatorial.

V: Absolutely. It was the counterculture. Those were the years in which the fact that anything went had both its virtues and its vices. 

Anyway, one of the first things I wrote was about Grace Paley. I think it must have been the second book. I already loved her, I was a graduate student at Berkeley for a minute and I'm standing in a bookstore and I see this book. I pick it up, it’s late in the afternoon. I think I'm just going to turn the pages like you do with a half a dozen other books. And I suddenly stood there, riveted. I read the whole first story, and it was dark when I looked up. So she meant, easily, a lot to me. And the second book, I was surprised to find myself feeling critical, rather than just head over heels in love. I began to see certain repetitions, and I had a hunger to make sense of that. The Voice invited me to do it so I applied myself to it, it didn’t occur to me. But then I took forever to write the piece, weeks when it should have taken days, at the end of which I felt incredible satisfaction. Love! I felt more love for what I had written than what she had written. That’s a common experience among critics.

J: What did it do for you? Why’d you love it so much? Why were you so happy?

V: I was thrilled to feel my mind working. I loved thinking in this way about these things. People often tell me I'm an intellectual. I will never feel I'm an intellectual, never in my entire life. What I call intellection has really to do with making a large sense of abstractions. Whereas I start so completely from specific, on the ground experience, and out of that I do think I have a feeling intelligence. It's not an abstract one, it's not an intellectual one. But I know how to, and want very much, to use my intelligence, to elucidate my feelings in such a way that it brings new life to the work at hand. 

J: That seems very much like feminism 

V: Feminism?

J: Well, to use your words, the flashing insight of feminism, to me, is that the body and the personal is also the sight of the political. And that seems very basic and sounds like a cliche in many ways because it has been said so much but I think it’s so relevant because it doesn’t start from “Okay, here’s this large structure”. It starts from where people are. We talked about this when we published Romance of American Communism, because so much of the argument of that book is that the personal is the entrance to any kind of collective politics. Without a self you can’t be a self among others or advocate for others or yourself 

V: Right, absolutely! Well, it all has to do with a sense of the wholeness of being. The world has been made by those who have assumed a wholeness of being, men. The race of men, the sex of men, are the original human beings who have been permitted to make the world and they’ve made it out of varying levels of amalgamation of all these feelings. There’s me, there’s the world, there’s all these forces, and how do we put them together? We put them together differently but in all cases you see at work a group of people, a sex in this particular instance, a sex rather than a class or a race, a sex that assumes its right and its obligaiton to put things together adhesively. We have had to struggle for that sense of right, for that ability. We as women in particular. I don't think at any other time in my life have I assumed that I not only had the right but the obligation to think hard and fully about something. I can’t remember a time, that is what feminism has done. 

But all the liberationist movements have taken these classes of people, blacks, women, gays, and instructed them now in these years that not only is it your right to act like a whole human being, but it's your obligation. So I’ve watched, for much longer than you, how women have entered all of these professions that they never dreamed they could enter. And it's a thrill to watch people, especially the young, who take their place in the world without any perturbation, without being perturbed in any way about their right, much less their obligation, to occupy a space. And I feel it's our struggle that gave them this. If it wasn’t for what we went through, women forty years younger than me would never have... they go into it without thinking twice, as if there's no question. And it's always like that. Nobody lives historically, everybody lives in the intense present. So whatever we have supplied for their present is [received with] “hasn't it always been like this? Is there any other way to do it?” But it has to do with that assumption that a wholeness of being gives you the right and the obligation to make the largest sense of what you are about in the world no matter what you are. 

J: Let me just ask you one final thing about the book, Taking a Long Look. Did you learn anything in making it? At this long look that you’re taking? It's the only career spanning collection book that you've published. 

V: Yeah definitely. This is going to sound immodest. I learned that a lot of what I wrote was a lot better than I thought.

J: Well good! Because you often think it’s bad.

V: Yeah. I learned to feel more- I sound so silly- I learned to feel more self confident, I really did. I came away feeling more self confident about my life’s work. I read many pieces that I thought ‘jee this is really pretty good’. And I was very happy to be able to feel that. It's funny, it sounds so absolutely personal. I learned so much and I still do and I will forever. People are constantly asking me if I'm happier now, when this happens or that happens. Recently Unfinished Business was longlisted for the prize in essay writing from PEN and for the National Book Critics Circle award.

J: Congratulations! Thats fantastic.

V: Exactly, everybody says to me ‘congratulations, is this making you happy?’

J: I didn't ask that.

V: No, no, you didn’t. But whenever it is asked I have to realise how numb I am to ... Well, I've told you many times that ‘happy’ is a word I'd like to see stricken from the vocabulary. But when I read Taking a Long Look,  I am happy to see that I can respect myself more than I thought I could. Now that, I think, is a woman’s problem. So I felt like I was taking that for my sex as well as myself.

J: I'm delighted about that. I also like that you hate ‘happy’, that's very New York of you.

V: I would like to see ‘merry’ divided from Christmas forever, and ‘happy’ from New Year. I think both words should be stricken from the language.

J: Amazing, great. That's a good place to stop.

V: That's a good ending.

VersoBooks · Vivian Gornick: Taking A Long Look