“We knew we were not liberated and were never going to be liberated. But we knew what liberation was. It was to feel centered in yourself. To feel you were the agent of your life—you were not sitting by the telephone waiting for something to happen.”
Born in 1935 in the Bronx to Jewish leftwingers, Vivian Gornick grew up torn between the simplicity of radical politics and the complexity of literature. “One day,” she writes in her 2008 collection of critical essays, The Men in My Life, “It was exciting to say to myself, ‘the only reality is the system.’ The next, I’d pick up Anna Karenina, and the sole reality of the system would do a slow dissolve.”
Over the course of her long career, she has managed to capture—in eleven books and countless essays and articles—both the grandness of political ideals with the complexities of inner life. As a reporter for the Village Voice in the 1970s, she chronicled the politics of the feminist movement through her own conversion to the cause. In her essays, she pushed herself to understand how her commitment to the movement had changed her daily life. Her 1987 account of her relationship with her mother, Fierce Attachments, brought analytic insight to bear on the struggle to assert oneself. Readers of the contemporary memoir boom may find many of its hallmarks—biting observation, bare and casual honesty—drawn from Gornick’s work. Recently, Gornick has turned her attention to the radicalism of others. Her two biographies, of Emma Goldman and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, both ask a question to which she has turned throughout her work: what does it mean to live a life informed by difficult ideas?
I visited Gornick twice in her Greenwich Village apartment, where she has lived for several decades. Cats lounged among the bookshelves. In conversation, she was challenging (“I always thought the interview was a lazy form of journalism”) and punctuated many of her statements with a sharp, aggressive laugh. Her face—tight and closed when she was bored—opened with excitement when she touched upon an idea that grabbed her. The first time we met she wore bright blue eye shadow; the second, baby blue.
I. AN UNANSWERABLE QUESTION
THE BELIEVER: I wanted to start with a moment you often return to in your writing: your involvement in the feminist movement. How did it come about?
VIVIAN GORNICK: I guess what happened was: it must have been 1970. I wasn’t in the New Left, but I was alive and feeling its consequences. And suddenly I saw the same thing that everyone else saw. I went to work for the Village Voice. One of the first assignments [the paper] gave me was to go out and investigate these “liberationist chicks” who were gathering on Bleecker Street. So I went out to investigate these liberationist chicks, and I came back a feminist.
We all saw something slightly different. The thing I saw was that we had been raised not to take our brains seriously. That was the single sentence in my head. Here I am forty years later, and I don’t think very much differently than that. [Laughs] That became the mother lode: We had been raised not to take our brains seriously. And from that all else followed. I was never an activist, in the sense that I didn’t really join a lot of organizations. I wasn’t out in the streets. But what I did become was a writer. My activism was in writing.
BLVR: Did feminism give you a new language?
VG: Feminism gave me a way to see myself in culture, in society, in history, and that was very important. Then psychoanalysis showed me that I might be neurotic because I was a girl but, as Chekhov might have put it, I alone had to squeeze the slave out of myself, drop by drop. So between Freud and women’s rights—to use those two brilliant perspectives was to gain a vantage point from which, as we used to say, I could see myself both personally and politically. And yes, that gave me language.
BLVR: You write often about the “clarity of inner being” that radicals and artists gain through their work. Was clarity something that you gleaned from feminism?
VG: What feminism did was make clear for me how much I longed for clarity. I got married twice, each time in a fog. I had so many complicated feelings I couldn’t understand. I hated being “Mrs.” from the first second each time. I didn’t know why. All I knew was how uncomfortable it felt. I hated being one half of a couple, without understanding that it wasn’t the husband or the man I hated, it was situation, the identity. It was just: I didn’t know who I was, so how could I be one half of something else?
That’s, I guess, how I use the word clarity. What is it all about? What am I really thinking and feeling? What should I really be thinking and feeling? What’s good to really think and feel? That’s what writing is for me, as I’m sure it is for everybody who writes. Robert Frost once said that a poem is a “stay against confusion,” and I guess that says it about as well as anything. What you feel when you’re writing is the relief of thinking: if you write the sentence correctly, you’re clarifying. If you write the right sentence, nothing feels as good.
BLVR: Why is that feeling more important for some people than for others?
VG: How can I answer that? That’s an unanswerable question. You can see that it is. I once wrote a book on women in science. I realized when I was interviewing them that they were the equivalent of writers, or anyone else who tries to make art out of life. Through science they had reached the expressive.
One of my subjects had grown up in the suburbs. When she was a little girl, her mother took her constantly to a shopping mall. And you know how around every shopping mall there’s a strip of lawn, with trees, on a curb around it? She said that was there in her childhood. And she found herself, as she was going through the door, wondering why three leaves turn this way and the one turned that way. And she found herself longing to go the mall so that she could see that again and again and again. She grew up and became a geneticist, and she said nothing in her entire life thrilled her as much as the moment when she thought she understood why three leaves were turning this way and one leaf the other way. That’s the equivalent of what I feel as an imaginative writer.
I wrote a book on Emma Goldman, and she had the same feeling about anarchism. Nothing thrilled her as much as the moment when she saw radicalism as expressive. Everyone longs for expressiveness. That’s why love carries so much weight. Because so many lives are without other means of expressiveness. So love is a thrill in that sense. People feel transformed by it. They’re not, but they feel it—for a moment.
BLVR: What’s the difference between love and the thrill—
VG: Of writing? Or politics? Or research? You know what that is! It lasts a lot longer! [Laughs] It’s a lot more reliable. It won’t go on you. I don’t mean that cynically. The life of the senses, eroticism, sexual love, it just doesn’t… If two people fall in love on that basis, it just doesn’t seem to last. It’s not rich enough to last. People who fall in love with each other’s mind and spirit have a lot better shot at it—but not [people who fall in love with] the senses. However, if these senses are applied to something like writing, or moral philosophy, or science—in other words, something that has real content—you become addicted to it. Because nothing feels as good.
II. A DISTINCTION
BLVR: How do you distinguish the Vivian Gornick in your work from the Vivian Gornick here, in front of me?
VG: Vivian Gornick in actuality is (like everyone else) messy, mercurial, changeable; inconsistent. A lot of people don’t recognize me in the flesh after they’ve read me, because what I do on the page is create a persona out of a part of me that is telling a story. The story is everything. For instance, I’m writing a book now—a kind of meditation on me and New York City and friendship. The person in me who is going to integrate all those concerns is, in the end, a kind of essence of the me who presents herself to the world at large. The difference between me in my work and the me who is here in front of you is that on the page I create a consistency, a voice that must sound really reliable; whereas in person I am free—obviously!—to sound every which way.
BLVR: And this consistency is distinct from the person you are.
VG: I wrote Fierce Attachments many years ago, and after it was published I was at a dinner party and a woman actually accused me of not being the person she was expecting to meet. She thought the “I” in Fierce Attachments was going to have dinner with her. But the “I” at dinner was a lot brasher, a lot more confrontational, a lot less thoughtful, a lot more reckless in her certainties. She thought, What! Who are you? [Laughs]
That’s thing about nonfiction writing that came as such an astonishment. In fiction writing, you’re creating characters who bear the brunt of the world you create, and they all argue and dramatize each other. In memoir, you have only yourself to dramatize the whole thing. And that’s hard, hard work. To pull out of yourself something that resembles both consistency and drama. People think, Oh, its just me, I know me. But there’s nothing more seriously difficult than the familiar: to take control of it, understand it, shape it, make it mean something to the disinterested reader.
BLVR: Sometimes when I tell a story over and over, I forget which is true: the story I told or what really happened.
VG: I embellish stories all the time. I do it even when I’m supposedly telling the unvarnished truth. Things happen, and I realize that what actually happens is only partly a story, and I have to make the story. So I lie. I mean, essentially—others would think I’m lying. But you understand. It’s irresistible to tell the story. And I don’t owe anybody the actuality. What is the actuality? I mean, whose business is it?
I fell on the street ten years ago. I fell right here on Seventh Avenue on a subway grating and I really hurt my knee, and all these people gathered around. And I wrote a story about what happened. But actually the story I told was only part of what happened. [Laughs] I thought, Whom do I owe? To whom do I owe the actuality? I owe the story!
BLVR: What about writing about other people? You may need to make someone a character, but you don’t want to reduce them to something they’re not.
VG: You can’t reduce an actual human being; you’re just writing! You’re not doing anything to another person. They may recognize themselves in what you’re writing, and then they have to say, “Well, she doesn’t see me as I see myself.” Look, all a writer has is her own experience, and that experience comes out of human relationships. That I don’t agree with, that is something I’ve never subscribed to, that I’m making use of other people. I may cause someone to feel badly, not because I’m doing something to them, but because the way in which I see might cause pain. But I am not doing the hurting.
When I was a young journalist, working at the Voice, I did write a story once based on—well, what happened was I ran into an old college schoolmate, a man whom I had known years back at City College. He and another schoolmate had married, very young, upon graduation. And then, you know, we all sort of kept track of each other, and then we lost track of each other. So here I was, ten years later, writing for the Voice, and I’m on my high horse for radical feminism, and he and I sit down and have a cup of coffee and he tells me about his marriage. Now, you know what’s coming. They had three children. She fell into a deep depression.
And he’s telling me, “I don’t know what’s wrong with her. She doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning.” So—I knew what was wrong with her! I go home and I write this up. I just barely disguise them. I told too much of what I just told you now. I changed their names; I changed their occupations. But she read it. He called me up a week later, after the paper came out, and he said, “I want you to know, she read your story and she came into the kitchen and she said to me, ‘Did you tell her all this?’ And I said, ‘No’”—he lied and said no. And she said to him, “If I thought you had told her all this, I’d divorce you.”
So that scared the shit out of me, and I took a lot more care after that, so that the people I was writing about, as a journalist, would not be offended. Now, I don’t write fiction but I do write narrative; I write memoirs that I treat like stories, so whenever I’m using somebody I actually know as a model, I am submitting them to the agenda of a storyteller, and I feel free to do what I want. These people are not going to be themselves so much as serve something in the story. They serve something else in journalism, too, but not as much. It’s a tricky business. You know—they say writers sell everybody out? What can you do? You know only the people you know.
III. “CRAFT, CRAFT, CRAFT; IT’S A JOKE; IT’S REALLY A BAD JOKE.”
BLVR: In The Situation and the Story you wrote, “Thirty years ago people who thought they had a story to tell sat down to write a novel. Today they sit down to write a memoir.” Can memoir do something that fiction cannot?
VG: That seems to be the case. It seems that fiction no longer produces work that makes one feel the human condition deeply. I don’t know whether memoirs do or do not. However, I do know that more excellent or more penetrating or more interesting work seems to be coming out of nonfiction. For instance, W. G. Sebald, in recent years, is the only writer, I think, in the Western world who has been seen and felt as a major literary talent—he’s a nonfiction writer. They call his books novels, but that’s bullshit, they’re nonfiction. This is an extraordinary sensibility—looking at the bleakness of the world, and beyond. Instead of ending in realism, he does something amazing. I don’t think there’s a novelist writing now who gives readers that same feeling. When you read Sebald, you feel like you’re in the presence of a major literary sensibility.
BLVR: What accounts for this problem in fiction?
VG: I think that modernism went so far in bringing ordinary narration to an end. But the desire for narration keeps on reasserting itself, so that since modernism and fiction brought narration to an end, it is sought in memoirs. I don’t really have a theory. It’s just a question of looking at what is. I don’t know if memoirs can produce literary work of the first order—I don’t. But I do know that novels are doing it only rarely.
BLVR: When you read contemporary novels, many of them seem so conservative.
VG: It’s awful! Family life! Marriage! Love! It’s not where it is! I don’t know where it is, but I know this is not it. I know it from my own responses and those of [others]. I don’t think that art in general is in a good way in this century, this half century.
BLVR: A friend of mine often says that the past decade was the most culturally conservative one since the 1950s.
VG: I agree. Certainly in literature it was. I don’t know about the other arts. There’s more and more excellence of technique, and less and less some penetrating sense of the way life feels.
BLVR: Does that have to do with the MFA, the emphasis on craft?
VG: I don’t think the MFA programs are causal; they’re symptomatic. All the years that I taught in MFA programs—and it was a lot of years; I could still be teaching—I hated all these craft courses. I thought I would die from them. And I was always saying to my students: “Fuck craft! What are you writing about? What is this all about?” Craft, craft, craft; it’s a joke; it’s really a bad joke. Because they all come out thirty thousand dollars in debt, at least, probably more, thinking about craft.
IV. “IT ISN’T OVER TILL IT’S OVER.”
BLVR: You’ve written a number of reviews of novels by heterosexual male authors from the midcentury: James Salter, Raymond Carver.
VG: Salter—poor Salter. I am the only person who has written that kind of review of this new book of his, All that Is, writing as I do from a feminist perspective. The rest were written by his standard adorers. Nevertheless, the review received a great deal of attention. As I went about my business in the weeks following its publication the most amazing number of people went out of their way to thank me for it. Everywhere I went someone would find his or her way to me and say, “Gee, I really appreciated that review.” So what does that mean? Here I am, the one with the politics who can put her finger on the fault line in this sort of sentimental Hemingwayesque writing, only to discover by now what I see is what a great many others also see, even if I am still in the minority of those who call the shots as they see them… But with the Salter review I thought, Gee, I’m an organizer at large again, reminding people, It isn’t over till it’s over.
BLVR: Were you trying to lower his place in the canon?
VG: Yes. Definitely. I sort of feel for Salter. I don’t think he’s a bad person or anything. And it hurts me, because he’s eighty-seven. I feel I should be more respectful. And I can see he must be full of anxiety. He’s a romantic type who would be full of anxiety in this world if he let himself think at all about what’s been really happening. This book is so—I don’t know if you’ve read it—so outrageously retrograde. It’s just unbelievable.
BLVR: What kind of hope is there for someone like Salter?
VG: Hope? He’s eighty-seven—what kind of hope does he need? For what? For him seeing the world differently?
BLVR: Do you think that the aimlessness of fiction these days has something to do with changes caused by the feminist movement?
VG: That may very well be. These are generations of transition. You can’t make a real strike against a whole culture as we have and not have adverse effects. It’s like—what do they call it when you take a drug that helps you, but it has side effects? That’s what this is. It’s a side effect. No doubt it’s true that a great deal of the self-confidence of men has been chipped away, but all these young men who write these terribly depressed books about being themselves—“I’m so depressed I turn on the email six times a day, or ten times a day,” or that kind of thing—they’re ridiculous. But it’ll change. It’ll change in your lifetime for sure. But you may have to live twenty-five years before [it happens]. When your bunch are in their forties, or fifties, let’s hope for something better. It’s going to be different. Who knows.
V. “WE ARE ALL SUCH ANTAGONISTS.”
BLVR: It’s so hard to know what to do with romance in writing. On the one hand, narratives of romance read as so stilted now. But love is such a big part of people’s lives.
VG: Absolutely. It just that love can’t be a metaphor anymore. If you try to make literature out of it, it doesn’t work. Of course it’s a force in life. People will go on falling in love forever. And more important, sexual infatuation will enrapture everyone. Otherwise, no babies!
That’s part of life. But just as once upon a time you could make the experience of religion or nature a great metaphor, so now it is with love. It’s just not the kind of thing you can put at the center of a work of literature and have it really reveal us to ourselves.
BLVR: So what do you do with it?
VG: You look for new metaphors. Most writing these days is about how hard it is to find a metaphor. [Laughs]
BLVR: It seems a number of writers have taken on the subject of friendship. Is that an adequate replacement?
VG: People who are old enough and really have absorbed the weariness of love have been for a long time now turning to friendship—not as an ideal, but as another way to embrace the subject of human connection. Which is always the subject of literature.
BLVR: Why do you think that friendships last and romances don’t?
VG: I’m not sure that’s true. One thing we know: sex is the killer. Sexual love makes you feel more vulnerable than any other kind of love. That’s one reason that people are so thorny and so vulnerable and so easily wounded when in love. But people are just as neurotic in friendship as they are in love. People hurt and wound each other, and don’t understand, and betray, and all those things. And also emotional sympathies just dry up and die as we change, and they are as mysterious in friendship as in love. I mean, it’s a relationship like any other. The fact is, the older I grow, the more I realize how unfit we are for relationships. We are all such antagonists. It’s part of the human condition to be deeply unfaithful to constancy. I do believe that.
BLVR: Some of the feminists of the second wave seem so afraid of love, so angry about it.
VG: We all grew up so utterly vulnerable, enthralled by romantic love as we knew it. First of all, it was pounded into you every which way that you’ve got to get married and you’ve got to have babies. That you’re not a natural woman if you don’t. So that led to a lot of sitting by the telephone and waiting for a call. And that led you into a culture in which you were always in a subordinate position without realizing it; hamstrung, not able to take action. That was the most important thing: you were always waiting to be desired.
So that’s why they’re all like that. They’ve never purged themselves of those feelings. Most people my age—we never called ourselves liberated women. We knew we were not and were never going to be liberated. But we knew what liberation was. It was to feel centered in yourself. To feel you were the agent of your life—you were not sitting by the telephone waiting for something to happen. You were acting. Acting! That became the most important thing. More important than love.
BLVR: Do you remember the point where you felt yourself as human without needing to be desired?
VG: Yes, I do. But it came with a price. And the price, of course, was to feel separated from men. Not closer to them. Not hating them, just separated. To realize that we were all growing up with antagonistic cultures. The culture inside me was not the culture inside him, and the one inside him didn’t wish me well. We did not wish each other well. We were all instrumental to one another.
When I was first married I was twenty-five years old. My husband was an artist and I was a graduate student. He’d been to art school and he was graduating. Then we sat down and we said to ourselves, “What will our life be?”
When I became a feminist, one of the first things I remembered was that time when we said, “What will our life be?” what we really meant was “What will his life be?” Because we sat down and decided that we would try for a fellowship for him wherever it was possible for him to get one. That became our life: applying to a fellowship for him. What was I thinking about myself? Nothing! That was one of the first realizations in 1970 for me. When it was all over, I was long divorced from that person. And only recently divorced from the second person.
BLVR: Do you ever think what you would have been like without feminism?
VG: I would have been the worst. The worst bitch in the world. I knew many women when I was growing up who were just as smart as me and could talk as good as me, and hadn’t known how to be anything other than secretaries or social workers. They were often married to men who adored them but did not have the wherewithal to provide them with a good life; that is, the life only they would have been able to provide themselves with. They were the women who—out of an unholy dissatisfaction with themselves--abused their husbands, sneered at them, were full of contempt, arrogance. I am sure I would have been one of them.
Mine was a life constructed around all these dissolving truisms. Lots of us have ended up living alone not because we want to live alone but because it has been the consequence of all these years of having found ourselves in the amazing position being able to say yes to this, and no to that.
BLVR: It’s strange how some things seem like choices in the moment, but they are not really choices.
VG: They’re not really choices. They’re responses. At a certain point in life, you do realize what your situation is, and you do take steps to ameliorate it or live with it.
But for the most part it’s more I can live with this, I can’t live with that. In our case, was a fantastic thing that happened, that we could even say those things to ourselves. Because before, growing up, every woman I knew and lived with and was raised by said, “I have no choices. The necessities of life have all been laid out for me. I don’t have any free will.” So the fact that I could suddenly say, “No, I am not going to live with this,” that was tremendous progress. Is that a choice? No. It’s a miracle, though, that you’re at a place where you can say such a thing.