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Reporter Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow talkes with writer and critic Vivian Gornick about her new book, The Men in My Life. The collection, gathering criticism on a range of writers, won Gornick praise from Library Journal as “a vigorous and sophisticated thinker,” whose essays “explore the inner conflicts of the authors . . . and illustrate how magnificent the literary yield of human frailty can be.”
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Tuhus-Dubrow: In this book, you describe finding the struggle toward inner freedom that you identify with feminism in the work of male authors. Is its presence stronger in the work of male authors than in that of female authors?
Gornick: No. I say in the book that all writers deal with the demon of self-doubt. But when I was a young feminist, I was so concentrated on its power over women that it took me a while to come back to what, of course, I had understood before. By the time my apprenticeship, so to speak, in feminism was over, I read male authors with new ears and eyes. That’s what it means to reread—rediscovering old knowledge.
What drives you to read a particular book?
There are people who feel obliged to read right up to the minute, whatever’s new and talked about. I’m not one of those people. I have never read with an agenda. But I do feel that I have my job as a reader, to engage fully with whatever I’m reading, that’s the only thing that matters.
How do you see your job as a critic?
I feel about writing criticism as I would about writing out of imagination. It has exactly the same responsibilities as any other kind of writing. Criticism is a window through which the writer looks and sees the world. What’s most important is those particular eyes and that particular vision and that particular way of seeing. Which, if you’re lucky, grows more and more coherent as you grow older. It’s a way of looking at things that I’ve found myself applying, not mechanically, not by virtue of agenda. So that there are all kinds of things I don’t feel obliged to read because I don’t feel they will deepen my way of seeing the world.
In your criticism, you often analyze the authors as people, as well as the work itself. Do you draw any distinction between the two?
I only analyze people in relation to the work. The people that I have written about are very autobiographical. H.G. Wells, for example. I don’t write about him in relation to his fiction, or even his nonfiction, but in relation to his memoir. I hope I analyze the authors as people when it’s truly relevant and truly contributes.
One thing I’ve noticed that recurs in your work—you describe writers who are able to be alone with themselves and the reader. For example, you referred to Wells as being alone with himself.
That is the aim, isn’t it—to be alone with yourself. We live in a world, in a culture that has misused the word loneliness. Our culture seems to be explaining itself in terms of a flight from loneliness. The question that interests me and many others is an old one: who is there in the room when you’re alone? What is it you’re fleeing when you’re fleeing loneliness? Are you fleeing the fact that you can’t deal with yourself? You’re not able to occupy your own skin? The writers in these essays all raise these questions for me.
In the essay on Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, you write about the relationship between Jewishness and misogyny. Could you elaborate?
These Jewish American writers, they have written more virulently, more violently, more angrily about women than have their gentile counterparts. There are very few gentile writers of their age—John Updike, for example—who can write about women the way Roth and Bellow write. They’re too sure of themselves. Roth and Bellow suffer from feeling like such outsiders in gentile culture that savaging women seems justified. So in that sense there’s a connection between Jewishness and misogyny. I don’t think Jews are more misogynistic than gentiles. We’re talking about these writers.
I’m not sure I understand. You note that their misogyny increased as they became more renowned.
When people feel suppressed—take feminists, for instance. Women woke up realizing they’d been second-class citizens, and they did not wake up feeling mild and gentle and happy to be getting any crumbs of equality. They woke up in a rage. The movement did not emerge until the time had come when society at large was able to respond to it. So we were closer to being equalized or liberated or heard. And the closer we got, oddly enough, the angrier we were. It’s the same with them. But they’re Jewish. They hated having to be polite Jews. When the time came and they felt they could open their mouths and write as they would wish to, they were closer, society was actually closer to accepting assimilation. The irony is that the closer they got, the more enraged they got.
And why do you think it gets translated into hating women rather than gentiles?
It’s an old, old story. Look at how badly people treat each other in family life. If you feel powerless, it is an unhappy truth that you turn on the one closest to you, instead of turning on the true source of the problem. It’s displaced anger.
When you gave a recent speech on Roth and Bellow, I understand that some of the audience members had a contentious reaction.
Roth and Bellow are titanic figures, they’re beyond criticism. But really, what I am saying in this piece is that Jewish writing is over. That is the point of contention.
Jewish Americans did something in American literature that no other culture has done—they created world-class literature out of the immigrant experience. And that’s the only thing that mattered in Jewish American writing. Had Roth and Bellow not been major talents, you wouldn’t have Jewish American writing. It wouldn’t mean anything. It would just be parochial, local.
But we cannot have major talent writing this stuff anymore because there’s nothing to write about. What made them major was their gripe, the chip on their shoulders. The rage that they felt at the world for keeping them out. That experience became a great metaphor. There is no hyphenated Jewish experience anymore. I have two nieces who are both Ivy League babies and they’re in the ruling class. There’s nothing they can’t do. Nothing.
So there’s nothing to talk about. There’s really nothing to write about. Yet you have young people who keep on doing it. All I’m saying is, it doesn’t count. Take Michael Chabon, or Jonathan Safran Foer. They’re cashing in on a world that’s long gone and they’re writing with open nostalgia. They’re making things out of it that belong to their grandfathers. It’s a habit to go on assuming that this is legitimate writing. But I truly feel it is not.
What are your thoughts about the fate of feminism?
The fate of feminism as a force, as a philosophy, as an action, as a vision, as a yearning will go on spreading its way through until it accomplishes its goals. My generation was very lucky to be alive in a time when it reawakened with visionary force.
A struggle for equality just doesn’t complete itself. Every fifty years it reawakens with new force, and it makes this much progress, and then it stops. But it never goes back to where it was before. It’s the longest and the oldest struggle in history. There’s more fear and anxiety attached to equality between men and women than anything else. Everyone’s afraid of it, men and women alike. That’s our problem.
And it’s such a contrast to what you’re saying about the progress of Jewish Americans.
Absolutely. There isn’t a black person in the world today who wants to remain a slave, who wants to remain at the wrong end of the racist dynamic. But there are lots of women who want to remain as they are.
Vivian Gornick’s books include The Odd Woman and the City, Fierce Attachments, The End of the Novel of Love, The Men In My Life, and Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life. She teaches writing at The New School.
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow has written for Slate, The New York Times, and The Nation. @BeccaTuDu
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