The first thing one notices about Vivian Gornick’s apartment is how spare it is. The walls are lined with tall bookshelves but there is little other element there by way of decoration other than some cat paraphernalia for her pair of tabbies. I have come prepared for the sight; towards the beginning of her typically lucid new memoir, The Odd Woman and the City, Gornick writes that her friends tease her about her “indifference to acquisition”.
It’s not really the result of anti-materialism, though Gornick is very aware of class and labour issues. “All my life I’ve made do with less,” she writes, “because ‘stuff’ makes me anxious.” Another thing this memoir records Gornick as failing to acquire is a live-in partner, but that is treated as a secondary question to her working life and to the city – New York – where she has lived this whole time. The whole book then serves as an implicit clarion call to her fellow “Odd Women”, a term she borrows from the George Gissing novel to describe her condition.
The confession of anxiety in the text is startling. Not much about the smooth, self-critical persona Gornick has built in her writing hints at it. And there is no trace of any kind of anxiety throughout our conversation. In person Gornick is affable and warm and has a wonderful thick laugh, but she speaks in perfect, resolute sentences. She is 79, but for most of our interview I feel pressed to keep up with her as she repeatedly prods and pokes at the basis of my questions.
I start out by asking her about memoir, the form in which she has worked for more than a quarter-century. Though she wrote books before it, it was the publication in 1987 of her highly regarded memoir of her mother, Fierce Attachments, that made Gornick’s literary reputation.
Though her books have never sold exceptionally well, Gornick since became a kind of sage of the form in literary America. She wrote a well-regarded guide to the writing of personal narrative called The Situation and the Story, which has moved onto many an MFA syllabus across the country. She also gave an interview to the Paris Review on the subject. Google Vivian Gornick and you’ll find her quoted on innumerable aspiring memoirists blogs. And since memoir is the genre of the moment, that’s a lot of blogs. (Gornick doesn’t spend much time online; she is pleased, but disbelieving, when I tell her she’s “big on the internet”.)
She confidently bats away my question about the critics of the genre. “It’s quite a long time now, that the memoir has had such cachet. And a large part of it is because fiction writing has been for many years now, proven unsatisfying,” she said. “Modernism itself, the whole movement of modernism, has sort of run its course.” It’s not that she doesn’t believe there are bad memoirs; on the contrary, she readily admits it. “Just as you have thousands of novels that are not good, that did not achieve literature,” she said, “so in the same way you have a small number of memoirs that have a rich life and that achieve literature.
“If a memoir is to achieve literature, it has to have an organizing principle, it has to have an idea, it has to have something that will be of value to the disinterested reader,” she said. “And that doesn’t happen so often, because most people who are writing memoirs are not writers.” The books that these other people – celebrities, crime victims – create she calls “testament”, a genre she traces back to the second world war and credits with creating the appetite for memoir in America. But she’s very clear on the nature of the skill involved in elevating the book to literature: “The ability to turn yourself into a persona who is able to generate drama, narrative drive, conflict, all the things that are required, is very hard,” she told me. “And not too many people achieve it.” (She did once get herself into a controversy about the use of composite characters in her work, which she defended by writing: “What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters.”)
Gornick’s own persona on the page is successful, in large part because of her great ability to enact her ambivalence without making the tone of her memoir tentative. In The Odd Woman and the City, we hear about many of Gornick’s failures. One phrase early in the book recurs to me as I’m talking to her: “I began to write but nobody read me above Fourteenth Street.” The admission of wanting a wider audience strikes me as a very vulnerable thing for a writer to put in print. But when I mention it to her I get only a warm smile. “People always say to me, ‘You reveal so much,’” she says a bit later. She doesn’t think so: “I never write when I am vulnerable.”
Gornick was not always a memoirist. Initially, she was a journalist. She worked for the Village Voice in its heyday, the early 1970s, where she was known as a feminist polemicist. She’s a bit bashful about that writing now: “Many people have gone and looked back at the files of the Village Voice, which was a passionate subculture,” she said, “And you know, it’s all very dated.” She quit the newspaper, she has said in several interviews throughout the years, because eventually being a polemicist became exhausting. “We were a lot of testifiers in those years,” she smiles, “and only a few of us turned out to be writers, is really how it comes down.”
But Gornick doesn’t quite repudiate her feminist past as a force in her writing; in fact she credits the 1970s practice of consciousness-raising as leading her to a desire to delve into her own experience. Talking about the after-effects of 1970s feminism’s discovery that women were “second-class citizens”, she adds: “The neurosis that that helped create in each of us couldn’t be cured in the repetition of our claim on the world, it could only be cured psychologically. As Chekhov said: ‘Others may be a slave, but I must squeeze the slave out of myself drop by drop.’”
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