Vivian Gornick

The acclaimed essayist looks back on her career

Meghan O’Rourke

The memoirist, essayist, and critic Vivian Gornick has written some of the most remarkable journalism of our time. Her career got its start in the heady days of second-wave feminism, which she wrote about for the alternative weekly The Village Voice. In her work, she cultivated a fierce and unapologetic intellectual voice that could also be intensely personal. Another way to put it: she made powerful, no-holds-barred arguments, but she was also a gifted storyteller. In her 1970 essay “On the Progress of Feminism,” for example, she briskly lays out the state of the movement, but then pivots to say, “I have a story to tell, a story that contains all the dramatic elements involved in this significant play of life.” No wonder, then, that ultimately she would become best known for a pair of memoirs, Fierce Attachments and The Odd Woman in the City, in which she charts her life as a daughter, a writer, and an intellectual, a peripatetic thinker walking the streets of New York City.

Gornick’s writing meant a lot to me as a young woman trying to become a writer: in some ways she was my lodestar. Her work—its range, its forthrightness, its formal restlessness—made me feel like it was possible to write autobiographically but be taken seriously as a critic. In the early 2000s, this wasn’t in fact very common. In a sense, Gornick’s personal journalism anticipated much of the early twenty-first-century writing from a new generation of feminists who used their personal stories to illuminate larger social issues. In this interview, she discusses becoming a writer, #MeToo, and the struggle to be oneself.

—meghan o’rourke, editor

meghan o’rourke When did you first know you wanted to write criticism? Was there a writer—or set of writers—whose work spoke to you?

vivian gornick I’d been writing criticism, of course, since college (every paper I wrote in an English class was a piece of criticism), but it was only in 1964, when Susan Sontag published “Notes on Camp” and I sat down to write a rebuttal to her argument, that I was consciously writing criticism—and it felt right, real, and natural. Sontag had written about Camp (the gay send-up of bourgeois society) as though its motivating force could be traced to the delicious wickedness of Oscar Wilde; I, on the other hand, thought it came from the rather more vicious temperament of Wilde’s lover, Bosie Douglas. No matter now, about these differing viewpoints.

It matters only that, in writing this piece, I had found a joy in arranging my thoughts on the subject that I’d not known before; a joy I feel to this day. Yet, somehow, paradoxically it is also true that I feel closer to memoir than to criticism by far, and am happiest when a clear, storytelling subject for some sort of memoir suggests itself to me.

mor You write what is often called “personal journalism.” And in fact I think of your work as bracingly and importantly revealing the organic relationship between criticism and memoir, genres that are often thought of as distinct. Why do you think you write both? Do you see a connection between them?

I sat down and wrote what seemed to come naturally: criticism, and always in the first person.

vg The rise of personal journalism and the existence of The Village Voice—which really drew their power from the Counterculture— gave me the chutzpah to write as I did. If the paper hadn’t welcomed me with open arms, I don’t know what would have happened. The time and the place—New York City in the 1970s—were propitious: it was a moment when “everyone” seemed to be writing in the first person. By “everyone,” I mean people like Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer. These were the greats of the style, and rightly so. It was liberating to own up to the fact that when you were writing criticism, all you were really doing was reporting on the way things looked to you. Under this influence, I sat down and wrote what seemed to come naturally: criticism, and always in the first person. What these talented personal journalists showed me, however, was that I had to teach myself how to bring the “I” and the “it” into the right proportion so that my feelings did not become the subject; my feelings were what I would use to explore the subject. That was the great learning curve in this sort of writing. It would be a long time before I felt entitled to call what I did “personal narrative,” a literary approach that works for both criticism and outright memoir and essay writing. This simply turned out to be my natural bent. Why, I cannot really say.

mor In your collection The End of the Novel of Love (1997), you argue in the title essay that love had lost its power to elevate a novel or story to the realm of grand stakes. As you write, for Cheever in the 1950s, an affair could bring with it a sense of tragedy that spoke to the wounds of a “changing…but not yet changed” world. Then, soon after, as you put it, “suddenly there was divorce. And psychotherapy. And sex and feminism and drugs.” As a result, love no longer seemed able to be, as it had been in Western literature for 150 years, “emblematic of the search for self-understanding.” That is, it was no longer the primary lens through which writers could authentically convey crucial truths about how we see ourselves in the world—an idea that resonated with many. I want to go back in time to when you began thinking about the questions and argument in this essay and book. What started you on this project? And, more broadly, how does a subject suggest itself to you—when do you know that a tickling in your mind has become or can become a book?

vg You’re right: a tickling in the mind is as good a way of putting it as any. With me, it happens almost errantly: a flash of insight, an unexpected response, a peripheral thought that moves to the center, and suddenly I feel a tightening of the throat and a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach, and then, presto, “I can write about this!” And in an instant a book or an essay is forming itself in my mind.

But actually, with The End of the Novel of Love, it was a clever editor (Deb Chasman, now editor of Boston Review, then an editor at Beacon) who came up with the idea for this book. I had brought her a mass of work—essays, articles, reviews—from which I thought a book could be culled. It was she who pulled the pieces in the book together, found the phrase “The End of the Novel of Love,” and told me to write a title essay to go with it—and we had a book. It was only when I saw what Deb had done that I realized how much and for how long I’d been thinking of the demise of romantic love as a useful metaphor for contemporary fiction.

mor Some of your interest in the subject of love, it would seem, derives from your parents’ relationship: as you describe it in Fierce Attachments, your mother was deeply in love with your father, or at least very attached to the idea of her romantic love for him. Your father died when you were a teenager. But reading your work, one has the sense that the primary relationship for you was always the mother-daughter one. Is that true?

vg Absolutely. My father was a warm, intelligent, sensual man whom I never saw as an authority figure—he certainly never took a hand in disciplining or instructing me. Mama did it all: it was her wishes, her values, her instructions that were there for me to identify with or rebel against. In the goodness of time I, of course, did both.

mor In The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (2002), you explain that the story of Fierce Attachments is that you “could not leave my mother because I’d become my mother.” But, as most daughters know, becoming one’s mother is complicated: one both is and is not one’s mother. A scene that springs to mind in Fierce Attachments is a conversation you and your mother had in which you realize that your mother likes to think but doesn’t know it—never knew it. You, too, like to think; but unlike your mother, you know it. How do you think about that difference and its role in shaping you as a writer? Where does that effort (to become oneself ) take us?

vg Fierce Attachments, the book itself, is meant to be a dramatization of my lifelong effort to shake off the mother within and become myself. I often think that realization—that one’s whole struggle in life is to become oneself—is central to my work as a writer. One way or another, I think I am always circling back on some new sense of where that effort takes us.

And yet, now that I’m old, I can see that my mother was key in my development as a writer. For one thing, my psychological embroilment with her was central to the raw material out of which my need to write emerged. It was her many self-divisions that ruled our lives…and it was these that taught me how to think about human behavior. Then again, she was a drama queen of the first order with a gift for storytelling; whatever ability I have in that direction comes directly from her.

That realization—that one's whole struggle in life is becoming oneself—is central to my work as a writer.

mor Did writing about your mother change your relationship with her? Virginia Woolf talked about certain matters or relationships that troubled her until she addressed them on the page, at which point she could forget about them. Did that happen to you? Did your relationship grow any less volatile or vexed after Fierce Attachments?

vg Yes, I’ve seen that quote of Woolf ’s too…but I don’t believe it. I believe that she had already achieved the distance necessary to write about her parents, not that writing about them gave her distance. So it was with me and Mama. To whatever degree I achieved the right distance in writing about her, I had it when I began the book. Although I’m not angry or accusatory in the book, I don’t think any reader comes away thinking we’re at peace with one another. We’re not at war with one another, but neither are we amiable. And so it was in actuality, to the very end.

mor You describe your parents’ left-wing politics vividly in Fierce Attachments. Was this a generative reality for you—did your parents’ politics shape you, or did you have to break from them? Or did they shape you and you had to break from them?

vg As I grew older and Freud and literature began to complicate simplistic class struggle for me, and then women’s rights overwhelmed it, I came to realize that my parents’ politics had given me a lasting sense of the politicalness of life itself. That has stayed with me to this day. So in that sense, growing up with the working-class left was foundational. It isn’t so much that I broke with it as I used it to discover myself more fully.

Some of that discovery took place at City College. There I remember finding the joy of thinking for myself. Nothing in my life has ever topped the excitement of that experience. And it was at City College that I first encountered it.

mor You write quite penetratingly about your two marriages in your memoirs. In The Odd Woman and the City, you also write— in a scene I’ll not easily forget—about an encounter with a persistent man to whom you finally say no, at which point he responds, viciously, “What an unnatural woman you are!” Having so long written unsentimentally and with clear eyes about the power exchanges between supposedly progressive men and women, I wonder about how you see the #MeToo movement?

vg Every fifty years or so, since Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the longing for equality for women—cultural, social, political—produces another uprising, makes some headway, then exhausts itself and falls back into the shadows of history. In our moment, the privilege of taking part in the newest reawakening fell in the 1970s and ’80s to the second wave of American feminism. Now we live in the interim before the next great push comes along, and it has been up to our daughters and granddaughters to keep alive an insistence on the gains that have been made. That is what the #MeToo movement represents: renewed attention to “the struggle.” Every time around, such an occurrence makes the feminist cause come alive for a few thousand more women and men alike…and that is how social change occurs: one by one by one. Right now, our issues feel very alive to me.

mor Were there any surprises for you in the #MeToo movement? You have, after all, seen movements come and go, waves of progress and setback. I wonder if, how, the long view has brought new insights (or sorrows)?

vg What did shock me about the #MeToo movement was the level of rage that it sparked: way beyond anything my generation had expressed. I mean, “Off with their heads” everywhere. This told me that nowhere near enough change had occurred over these past forty years in relation, especially, to sexual harassment in the workplace. Although quite a few men received punishment in excess of the crime they’d committed—and this I did find appalling—I was nonetheless immensely gratified to see that particular grievance command the territory so spectacularly.

mor You have written a lot about rage as a generative force in your life: you and your mother discuss the “sexual rage” of many of the women in the Bronx tenement you grew up in. Has the way you think about female rage changed over the years? Do you think of rage as a driving force?

vg I think of rage as an expression of how bad it feels to have no agency. The women of my mother’s generation were the most obvious example of the condition. I have never thought that extreme anger served my generation well because we were in motion; we weren’t living those stagnant lives; we were living lives of active agitation. I always thought that it was only if you weren’t taking part in the action that you remained hobbled by that intractable anger whose merits were overrated.

mor In the essay published in this issue, you discuss the idea that witness can be more powerful than invention; that it is almost a form of action. Can you say more about why that is?

vg I think I’m safe in saying that most psychological wounds are self-inflicted: that is, the divided psyche causes all the trouble, in which case language of an imaginative kind is required to put the feel of the experience on the page. But when the wound is caused by social injustice, or barbarous treatment, or institutional cruelty, nothing is more powerful than letting the facts alone speak for themselves.

mor For a time you wrote regularly for The Village Voice about the feminist movement in the 1970s. You had an intellectual awakening as a feminist in the heady days of the second wave. In Approaching Eye Level, your 1996 collection of personal essays, you wrote of this awakening, “It remains one of life’s great mysteries—in politics as well as in love—readiness: that moment when the elements are sufficiently fused to galvanize inner change. If you are one who responds to the moment you can never really explain it.” The question of how to account for this mystery of “readiness” is related in some sense to the essay you wrote for this issue. I wonder, now, how do you account for it, looking back?

vg I can’t, any more now than I could then. How to account for that moment when a movement for social justice explodes after years, decades of somnolence—impossible! Of course, historians and social psychologists and cultural critics all go instantly to work “explaining” it, but none, to my mind, ever does it justice. It can only be described, not ever really accounted for.

mor You told The Paris Review that “the hardest thing in the world to do—[is] to stay with a sentence until it has said what it should say, and then to know when that has been accomplished.” Did you know that from the start, or was it something you learned over time: is it a skill one can acquire?

vg To stay with a sentence until it has said what it should say and then to know… This is the task of a lifetime. As Isaac Babel suggested, to know where to put the period is everything. If you’re a good writer, the skill develops through steady practice. But even at that, only over long, long years.

mor In that interview you spoke about clarity as a goal of writing. What does clarity mean to you?

To stay with a sentence until it has said what it should say and then to know: this is the task of a lifetime.

vg Everything. I spend my life trying to produce sentences, as a pair of academics once put it, as “clear and simple as the truth.” The emotional truth, that is. For me, only the accumulation of lucid sentences will deliver on that. Now every writer—poet, novelist, essayist—is aiming for the same thing, putting emotional truth on the page, only each does it using language differently. In the end, I believe, all are aiming for what I am calling clarity.

mor I wanted to quote a passage I love in an essay you wrote about academic life in Approaching Eye Level:

Marriage promises intimacy; when it fails to deliver the bond is destroyed.

Community promises friendship; when it fails to deliver the enterprise is dissolved.

The life of the mind promises conversation; when it fails to deliver its disciples grow eccentric.

It’s easier actually to be alone than to be in the presence of that which arouses the need but fails to address it. For then we are in the presence of an absence and that, somehow, is not to be borne. The absence reminds us, in the worst way, that we are indeed alone: it suppresses fantasy, chokes off hope. The liveliness we start out with is stifled. We become demoralized and grow inert.… Either one breaks out, or one becomes inured. To become inured is to fall into grief.

At what point does one break the bond, dissolve the enterprise, choose to be alone, call it quits? At what point do we “break out”? What kind of resources or willpower or awareness or character does that take, in your view?

vg There is no prescription for this turn of events. I remember once, in the 1980s I believe, a cartoon in The New Yorker showed a husband sitting in a chair with a newspaper in his hands and in the doorway is a wife walking out with a suitcase in her hand. The caption read, “But I’ve always been impossible. Why are you leaving now?” Who goes and who stays, and after how long or short a time, is entirely a matter of the individual psyche. You go when the grievance is making you ill. You stay when you’ve become inured. I think it by far worse to become inured to feeling ill than to face down the fear and insecurity that accompany a domestic break.

mor In Fierce Attachments, you write, “To be saved from meaninglessness, I knew, was everything. Largeness of meaning was redemption.” Do you still feel this way? Where do you find largeness of meaning? Politics? Art? Experience?

vg Let’s put it this way: when I find myself—almost always through writing—making larger sense of some bit of human business that has come my way, either through personal experience or through politics, art, or history, I feel saved from meaninglessness. To make larger sense of things is life’s fundamental pleasure as well as obligation.

mor New York City—from the Bronx to the West Village—is a character in your writing. Near the end of The Odd Woman and the City you quote a friend saying that you romanticize the street, without reckoning with the reality that the middle class is fleeing New York. Now, in the era of the pandemic, has anything changed for you in your relationship to New York City?

vg No, COVID brought about no change in my relation to the city. If anything, I felt proud of New York for its instant mass compliance with the recommended precautions—mask wearing, hand-washing, etc.—and my heart often swelled with tenderness toward “my people” (New Yorkers). Concomitantly, I discovered that the shutdown of all public social life—restaurants, movies, theaters— impinged a lot less on me than I had thought it would. It is now clear to me that whatever happens, no matter what crises develop, I go on walking, and the streets, which at the worst of times fail to make life at eye level evaporate, continue to make me feel connected. In other words: New York and I are bonded, through thick and thin, in it for the long haul, no matter what happens.

mor Your memoirs are full of incredibly vivid characters. Have you ever written short stories or a novel?

vg As a matter of fact, I, like all of my generation, expected to write fiction; what else did you do if you thought you were a writer but write a novel? However, whenever I sat down to write a fictional story the prose lay there like a dead dog on the page. The act of invention paralyzed me. It was only when I used my own self as the unsurrogated narrator that the writing came to life…and I could tell a story, complete with characters who lived.

mor Do you think it has gotten harder to make a life as an independent writer? What are the virtues and drawbacks of this life?

vg No, I don’t think it’s any harder to make that life than it has ever been. Whatever the need is that drives people to it, it is inborn and it has exerted its influence forever. That, I think, is never going to change. There will always be writers who do whatever is necessary, given the constraints of their time, to pursue that life, however singular it might turn out to be.

The virtue: You are your own boss in almost every respect imaginable, accountable to none but your own moral sense of how to earn the day. It is, as well, a life devoted to work that is generated from within; that alone makes it more than worthwhile. The sheer joy of a sentence, a paragraph, a page well written is incomparable. I mean that literally: nothing compares with it.

The drawback: It is a lonely, boring, financially insecure life— and no one who doesn’t feel compelled should consider undertaking it.

mor How, as one progresses through one’s career as a writer, especially a writer of memoir and criticism, does one avoid the accusation of repeating oneself? Or is it something that can’t be avoided, or is it not even something to want to avoid?

vg Every writer has only a small piece of experience to draw on; from it flows only a small number of real subjects. The obligation is to continually be reviewing that experience so that it yields more and more nuance, going deeper each time around. Something like Cézanne painting that apple for forty years because he was trying to get to the essence of “apple.” Inevitably, the writer repeats herself, but if it’s in the service of trying to understand the material better, self-plagiarism should be forgiven. I know I’ve repeated myself outrageously, and in my mind I’m always begging my reader to cut me some slack—because see how I’m using the stuff differently this time around? Isn’t this interesting? And sometimes the reader does cut me slack, and sometimes she doesn’t. When she doesn’t, I of course blame myself for not having worked harder.

mor The Odd Woman and the City revisits subjects from Fierce Attachments from a different vantage. Were you conscious of that as you wrote? Or do your themes just emerge intuitively?

vg Before Fierce Attachments became a book about me and Mama, I had thought of writing a book about myself and the city. Here I was a divorced, middle-aged feminist walking the streets of a great city, as very few women had done before me, and I thought it would be good to put myself down on those streets and simply describe what happened. So I tried. And I failed. I failed because I didn’t know the narrator of this new project as well as I knew the narrator of Fierce Attachments, and I was unable to bring her to illuminating life. It was only after many years of collecting anecdotes on the street that I hit on the idea of using my friendship with the man I call Leonard as an organizing principle. Presto: I had a book. So I realized that in both instances, I needed a relationship to anchor the narrator, who in turn would anchor the entire enterprise. That was revelation! Which in a way is ridiculous. I mean, how smart do you have to be to know that it is only in relation to others that we discover ourselves?

mor Of course, a key difference between the two books is that you were older when you wrote The Odd Woman and the City, and you write frankly about your personal life not turning out in the way you had always imagined it would. What does solitude mean to you as a thinker and writer?

vg Solitude is good, loneliness is not. In a solitary state one does not have to feel disconnected, much less isolated or abandoned. To the contrary, being alone is nourishing: one has one’s own mind for company—and in that state, thinking and writing are pure pleasure. On the other hand, loneliness is a disease: it saps the energy one needs to feel vital, and in that state, writing and thinking are torture. How to court the one, and stave off the other, remains one of the great mysteries of life.

mor You write tenderly in The Odd Woman and the City about a friendship you have with an older writer friend you call “Alice” who lives in an assisted-living facility that is awful in all the expected ways. Alice, you realize, has no conversation partners in her home. And you say, “It was as though Alice were being found guilty of having stayed alive too long. How strongly I felt the punishment in excess of the crime!” We don’t live in a society that talks openly about aging or reveres its elders; what might it take to change that? Has your perspective on this evolved at all since you wrote the book?

vg No, I have no wise words on this subject. I agree: this is no country in which to grow old. I myself am right up against it: I’m not getting older, I’m old!

And I thank God every day that my health is holding out and my energy—both mentally and physically—is pretty much intact. The most anxiety-provoking thought I have these days is, What will happen when I can no longer take care of myself?

When I get there, I’ll fill you in.

Meghan O’Rourke is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness and The Long Goodbye, as well as three collections of poetry. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, and a Whiting Nonfiction Award, she resides in New Haven, where she teaches at Yale University and is the editor of The Yale Review.
Originally published:
December 1, 2021


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