Vivian Gornick Essays Of Elia

What happened on April 25, 2004


  • How a royal changed the game Jennifer Shahade, Jennifer Shahade, a chess master and 2002 U.S. Women's champion, is the author of a forthcoming book on women in the male-dominated world of chess.

  • Confessions of a Slacker Mom Muffy Mead-Ferro... Susan Salter Reynolds

  • Genius still undocumented Richard Schickel, Richard Schickel is a contributing writer to Book Review and the author of many books. He is making a film about Martin Scorsese and supervising the reconstruction of Samuel Fuller's "The Big Red One," which will premiere at Cannes next month.

  • Imagination goes beyond 'The Code' Nicholas A. Basbanes, Nicholas A. Basbanes is the author of several books about books, including "Patience & Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture" and "A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World."

  • Bestsellers Rankings are based on a Times poll of Southland bookstores.

  • Bestsellers

  • Hiding in plain sight Anthony Lewis, Anthony Lewis is a former New York Times columnist and author of "Gideon's Trumpet" and "Make No Law."

  • A ride down Los Angeles' backstreets Michael Harris, Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

  • Reading between the lines, with friends Vivian Gornick, Vivian Gornick is a contributing writer to Book Review.

  • Without a doubt Robert Scheer, Robert Scheer writes a weekly column for The Times and is coauthor of "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq."

  • Bars are gone, not the prison Francie Lin, Francie Lin is a contributing editor at the Threepenny Review.

  • Charging into Afghanistan Karl E. Meyer, Karl E. Meyer is the author of "The Dust of Empire" and coauthor, with Shareen Blair Brysac, of "Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia."

  • Hitler, close up John Lukacs, John Lukacs is a historian and the author of many books, including "The Hitler of History."

  • Music in the marrow of life Tom Nolan, Tom Nolan is the author of "Ross Macdonald: A Biography" and has written on popular music for several publications, including Rolling Stone.

  • A statesman for all seasons Richard Brookhiser, Richard Brookhiser is the author of several books, including "Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington" and "Alexander Hamilton, American."

  • Death in the air Frank Clifford, Frank Clifford edits environmental news for The Times and is the author of "The Backbone of the World: A Portrait of the Vanishing West Along the Continental Divide."

  • poems for the young and tough Charles Bukowski

  • A poetic dialogue Adrienne Rich, Adrienne Rich is the author of more than 16 volumes of poetry and four nonfiction prose books. She is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including the 1999 Lannan Foundation lifetime achievement award and the 2003 Bollingen Prize. She is the editor, most recently, of a volume of Muriel Rukeyser's poetry for the Library of America. "The School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004" will be published in September.


  • Leonard Little Arrested for Drunk Driving Associated Press

  • Dodge Is Riding a Revival Shav Glick, Times Staff Writer

  • Sheehan Moves Into Tie for Lead From Times Staff and Wire Reports

  • Champion Sure Looks Like a Keeper for L.A. Bill Plaschke

  • Cutting It Close Tim Brown, Times Staff Writer

  • Ortiz Seeks a Simple Solution Ben Bolch, Times Staff Writer

  • Valenzuela Hearing Set Bob Mieszerski, Times Staff Writer

  • Escobar Is Tough as Nails in Win Ben Bolch, Times Staff Writer

  • In the East, Creampuffs Rising Mark Heisler

  • He's Looking for Luck in All the Wrong Places T.J. Simers

  • This Problem Is More Than Skin Deep Ross Newhan

  • It's Another Red Sox Win Over Yankees From Associated Press

  • Lakers Need Quick Results for Credibility J.A. Adande

  • Sparks Want to Look Deep Mike Terry, Times Staff Writer

  • An Attitude Adjustment Is in Order for Lakers Lonnie White, Times Staff Writer

  • Walks Aren't Popular Bill Shaikin, Times Staff Writer

  • Ruiz Makes Most of Chances Grahame L. Jones, Times Staff Writer

  • Other Giants Pick Up Bonds Bill Shaikin, Times Staff Writer

  • Jackson Delivers Message Tim Brown, Times Staff Writer

  • Dimitrova Seeks Repeat BOB MIESZERSKI

  • Wambach's Goals, Hamm's Assists Lead U.S. From Times Staff and Wire Reports

  • Almost Blue Bill Shaikin, Times Staff Writer

  • Longer Race Might Be Fit for Kings Whisper BOB MIESZERSKI

  • Cubs Win Again Behind Wood, 3-0 From Associated Press

  • The Gut Feeling Is, Phillies and Bowa Are in Trouble ROSS NEWHAN

  • Running This One Isn't Such a Hot Idea Rob Fernas, Times Staff Writer

  • Homer Appeal Knocks Bunting Out of the Park Eric Sondheimer

  • Trade of Manning Is a Real Capper Sam Farmer, Times Staff Writer

  • Trout Opener Heats Up Pete Thomas, Times Staff Writer

  • Depth Wins at Orange County John Ortega; Martin Henderson; Lauren Peterson; Dan Arritt

  • Klitschko Punches Ticket to Big Time Steve Springer, Times Staff Writer

  • A Sweet Spot for Success Elia Powers, Times Staff Writer

  • AVENGERS TODAY at Chicago, Noon, Ch. 4 Gary Klein

  • Report Says Jones Got Steroids From BALCO From Associated Press

  • Derby Field Is Still in Flux Bill Christine, Times Staff Writer

  • Rockets Hang In, Lakers Unfazed Fran Blinebury, Houston Chronicle

  • Navarro Gives Strong Effort Paul Gutierrez, Times Staff Writer

  • It's All About Timing for Udeze and Vikings Gary Klein, Times Staff Writer

  • Special Teamer Chris Dufresne, Times Staff Writer

  • Tillman Hailed at NFL Draft Sam Farmer

  • Pin Your Hopes on This Student-Athlete Dave Kindred, Sporting News

  • Nuggets, Mavericks Win Easily at Home From Associated Press

  • Spurs Try to Make Sweeping Statement Above the Noise Jerry Crowe, Times Staff Writer

  • An Eagle Scout Joins the Rogues' Gallery Sam Farmer, Times Staff Writer

  • Criticism Follows Francis J.A. Adande, Times Staff Writer

  • Nfl Draft Sam Farmer

  • An Unlikely Cast of Characters From Associated Press

  • Querrey Outlasts Van't Hof PETER YOON, Times Staff Writer

  • Sharks Defeat Avalanche Again From Associated Press

  • Cheiron Gets By in a Pinch in Stretch of Snow Chief BOB MIESZERSKI, Times Staff Writer

  • NCAA Reforms Could Define Brand's Presidency From Associated Press


  • Prince Weds, Gives Up Any Claim to Throne From Times Wire Reports

  • Arafat Is Undaunted by Israeli Threat on His Life Laura King, Times Staff Writer

  • Security Is Tightened Before Kashmir Vote From Times Wire Reports

  • Spanish Prime Minister Meets With Leaders From Times Wire Reports

  • Georgian Threatens Use of Force From Reuters

  • Suicide Boats Attack Iraqi Oil Installations in Gulf Patrick J. McDonnell, Times Staff Writer

  • Nun Moves Up at Vatican From Reuters

  • Greek Cypriots Quash Plan to Reunify Island Amberin Zaman and Philip Mark, Special to The Times

  • Victims in Nigeria Included 2 Americans From Times Wire Services

  • N. Koreans Feared Blast Was Nuclear Bomb Barbara Demick and Mark Magnier, Times Staff Writers

  • Venezuela's President Stymying Recall Attempt Carol J. Williams, Times Staff Writer

  • Conservatives Critical of Plan for Iraqi Government Sonni Efron and Paul Richter, Times Staff Writers

  • Fallouja Defies Simple Solution Patrick J. McDonnell and Tony Perry, Times Staff Writers

  • Landslide Buries Bus in Indonesia; 44 Die From Reuters

  • Absolutes and Ambiguity in the Land of Black and White Scott Kraft, Times Staff Writer

  • Amnesty Granted in Pakistan Zulfiqar Ali, Special to The Times

  • Australian Leader Visits Iraq Troops From Associated Press

  • Jihad Hits Home in Saudi Arabia Megan K. Stack, Times Staff Writer

  • Keeping Spirits Up While They Hunker Down Tony Perry, Times Staff Writer

  • Rwanda Troops Entered Burundi, Officials Say From Reuters

  • Absolutes and Ambiguity in the Land of Black and White Scott Kraft, Times Staff Writer


  • Kalamazoo River Is Freshening Up James Prichard, Associated Press Writer

  • Family Lives in Shadow of Lou Gehrig's Disease Carolyn Thompson, Associated Press Writer

  • 'Trading Spaces' is building on its success Kate O'Hare, Special to The Times

  • Schools Learning to Offer More to Communities John Hanna, Associated Press Writer

  • It's April, and Paris Worries of August Jamey Keaten, Associated Press Writer

  • Doctors See HDLs as Path to Healthy Hearts Daniel Q. Haney, Associated Press Writer

  • Doctors Cure Insurance Woes Rebecca Cook, Associated Press Writer

  • Drive-Ins Catch Fancy of China's Upwardly Mobile Families Stephanie Hoo, Associated Press Writer

  • Historic Maryland Site Awaits Recycling Into Housing Stephen Manning, Associated Press Writer

  • Jobless Find Future in Fortunes Margaret Wong, Associated Press Writer

  • Fine in Looting Case Is Upheld Martin Griffith, Associated Press Writer

  • Latest Beijing Knockoff: Noted Manhattan Landmarks Ted Anthony, Associated Press Writer

  • Shrapnel Remains in Kerry's Thigh Nedra Pickler, Associated Press Writer


  • Bill Brundige, 89; Sportscaster for Southland Teams From a Times Staff Writer

  • Tsunamis May Have Rocked Lake Tahoe Kenneth Reich, Times Staff Writer

  • Rosemary Anastos, 97; UCLA Executive Had a Stellar Career Mary Rourke, Times Staff Writer

  • Thomas Barrett III, 75; Was Authority on Classic Automobiles From Times Staff and Wire Reports

  • Marine Capt. Richard Gannon, 31, Escondido; Killed in Firefight Hector Becerra, Times Staff Writer

  • Sexual Harassment Suit Settled for $640,000 From Times Wire Reports

  • Art Devlin, 81; Former Olympic Ski Jumper and Sports Broadcaster From Times Staff and Wire Reports

  • Army Sgt. Brian M. Wood, 21, Torrance; Vehicle Hits Land Mine Jose Cardenas, Times Staff Writer

  • Marine Cpl. Christopher Gibson, 23, Simi Valley; Dies in Ambush Holly J. Wolcott, Times Staff Writer

  • A Mother With a Will as Strong as Her Love Steve Lopez

  • No Compromise Found in Development Talks From Times Wire Reports

  • Mayor Prays for City's Ills Stephanie Chavez, Times Staff Writer

  • Our D.A. Had No Case, but Goodwin Sure Does Dana Parsons

  • Most in State Expect Some Tax Increases Michael Finnegan, Times Staff Writer

  • Community Unveiled in Mural Daren Briscoe, Times Staff Writer

  • Sex Offender With AIDS Faces Possible Life Term From Times Wire Reports

  • Teen Drivers Could Face Ban on Use of Cellphones Jordan Rau, Times Staff Writer

  • Other Deaths

  • Sheriff Apologizes to Laotian Farmers From Times Wire Reports

  • Free-Spirited 'Klondike Kate' Mined Life to Its Fullest Cecilia Rasmussen, Times Staff Writer

  • Seeking Peace, and a Lawsuit Daniel Yi, Times Staff Writer

  • Claim Is Filed Over Girl Being Ruled Dead From Times Wire Services

  • Budget Ax Imperils Contest Erika Hayasaki, Times Staff Writer

  • Something Precious in the Sand Regine Labossiere, Times Staff Writer

  • Suspect Arrested in Ambush Attacks on Deputies in Watts; 5 Others Sought From a Times Staff Writer

  • Museum Hopes to Shed More Light on History Lynne Barnes, Times Staff Writer

  • 2 Die, 5 Injured in Freeway Accidents From a Times Staff Writer

  • L.A. Times Honors 10 Authors at Book Fest Kristina Lindgren, Times Staff Writer

  • Episcopal Church Wants to Bring Generosity Home Jocelyn Y. Stewart, Times Staff Writer

  • 70,000 Navigate Crowds at 9th Festival of Books Cara Mia DiMassa, Times Staff Writer

  • When a House Is Not Quite a Legal Home Stanley Allison and Daniel Yi, Times Staff Writers

  • Armenians Mark Genocide David Pierson, Times Staff Writer

  • Finally, Sharing Manzanar's Bitter Tale Steve Hymon, Times Staff Writer

  • Watts Raid Reveals Split Solomon Moore and Hector Becerra, Times Staff Writers

  • Frances Rafferty, 81; Acted in B Movies and TV's 'December Bride' From a Times Staff Writer

  • National Chavez Center Dedicated From Associated Press

  • Army Pfc. Leroy Harris-Kelly III, 20, Azusa; Convoy Truck Overturns Karima A. Haynes, Times Staff Writer

  • Closure of Oil Wells Raises Issue of Safety Cynthia Daniels, Times Staff Writer


  • Kaleidoscope Eye Barbara Thornburg

  • He's Gotta Fight the Powers That Be Greg Braxton, Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer.

  • Writing for Godot Nancy Shepherdson, Nancy Shepherdson is a freelance writer in Barrington, Ill.

  • Splendor in the Glass MICHAEL T. JARVIS

  • Scioscia and Moreno: A Team Made in Heaven

  • Clean Cuisine CHRIS RUBIN, Chris Rubin last wrote for the magazine about Grand Marnier.

  • Badges of Honor

  • No Room for Forgiveness

  • A Good Man Gone Candice Reed, Candice Reed is a freelance writer based in Vista, Calif.

  • More on Courtroom Credibility

  • Jenny B.Goode MARGARET ASTON

  • In With a Ruff Crowd MICHAEL T. JARVIS

  • Fred Boyce Finds a Home Michael D'Antonio, Michael D'Antonio last wrote for the magazine about the declining reputation of journalists. His book "The State Boys Rebellion," about unwanted children warehoused at Massachusetts' Fernald State School for the retarded, will be published in May by Simon & Schuster.



  • Outsourcing Common Sense Stephen A. Marglin, Stephen A. Marglin is Walter S. Barker professor of economics at Harvard University.

  • We Can Beat Terror at Its Own Game Anne-Marie Slaughter, Anne-Marie Slaughter is dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton and author of "A New World Order."

  • You're Gay, You Pay Drew Limsky, Drew Limsky is a New York City journalist who teaches English at Hunter College and Pace University.

  • Resist the Lure of a Draft

  • The Power of Voters Is Curbed by Term Limits

  • Diplomatic Dust-Up

  • Algeria Unbound Walter Russell Mead, Walter Russell Mead, contributing editor to Opinion, is the Kissinger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the forthcoming book "Power, Terror, Peace and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk."

  • Swinging Toward a Landslide? Tony Quinn, Tony Quinn is co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of legislative and congressional elections.

  • A Whistle-Blower's Unintended Result

  • Cleanup for Clean Air Plan

  • A Peace That Gave Dollars to Diplomats

  • Why John Kerry Needs the Needy David K. Shipler

  • Sorry, Wasn't Listening

  • As South Koreans Look Ahead, U.S. Policy Is Stuck in the Past Frank Gibney, Frank Gibney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute, is professor of politics at Pomona College and the author of "The Pacific Century" and other books on Asia and foreign policy.

  • Calling a War Profiteer by Any Other Name

  • Behind the 'Rights' Wall, Hysterical Activists Heather Mac Donald

  • Gold Line Complaints Are Way Off Track

  • Bin Laden May Be Fishing for Allies on Europe's Secular Left Brian Michael Jenkins, Brian Michael Jenkins is a terrorism expert at Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization.

  • Sell It Softly Joseph S. Nye Jr., Joseph S. Nye Jr. is dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and author of "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics."

  • Verbal 'Spice' Doesn't Conceal Rotten Writing



  • How he documents rage into rhyme Robert Hilburn, Times Staff Writer

  • A man-horse dialogue that's above a whisper Louise Roug, Times Staff Writer

  • Em's show, but what a crew Dean Kuipers; Steve Hochman; Agustin Gurza; Richard Cromelin

  • Love and theft via Altman Susan King

  • The $50 Guide

  • Theater, fans both in expansive mood Nancy Rommelmann, Special to The Times

  • Critics Circle's name is mud Don Shirley

  • Kracker's country comfort Steve Hochman, Special to The Times

  • Will this 'Mass' play in L.A.? Chris Pasles

  • What did Bush know? Let's ask, 'What's he doing now?' DAVID SHAW

  • Hall's sound off

  • Time to consider the alternative Nancy Rommelmann, Special to The Times

  • Doomed too soon

  • Shorts' supply of the risque Christine N. Ziemba

  • Tynan's diaries subject of show Don Shirley

  • Downloads getting a global beat Michael T. Jarvis

  • Uniting the Americas Suzanne Muchnic, Times Staff Writer

  • Recalling Cahn's way with words Ann Conway, Times Staff Writer

  • Left with no funny

  • Revamping the runway? Booth Moore, Times Staff Writer

  • Lohan's image

  • Purer, but better?

  • Excavating the stories of lives Marc Weingarten

  • He's not holding back

  • An 'Idol' hand helps tune up contestants Susan King

  • Pop making sense -- of opera Scott Timberg, Times Staff Writer

  • Booking a 'Bombay' trip Patrick Pacheco, Special to The Times

  • Director can call -- and film -- the shots Mark Olsen

  • Deborah Voigt plays to the balcony Mark Swed, Times Staff Writer

  • Hardly happy meals John Clark, Special to The Times

  • Dissecting the 'Friends' phenom Carina Chocano, Times Staff Writer

  • More than just smarts Barbara Isenberg, Special to The Times

  • Recalling the view, such as it was Eric Idle, Special to The Times

  • It's Pat, a robo-tortoise that takes direction well Barbara Isenberg

  • When gay lost its outre Mary McNamara, Times Staff Writer

  • Clouzot: life in the shadows Susan King, Times Staff Writer

  • A 'Spotless' reminder about the power of emotion KENNETH TURAN


  • 'Best rate' is often not, so take advantage of that guarantee James Gilden, Special to The Times

  • Deal of the week

  • Travel Log Jane Engle

  • Disgusted by writers' disrespect

  • Add culture to Hawaii beaches

  • A freewheeling holiday ahead Jane Engle, Times Staff Writer

  • Readers recommend

  • Can't import from Myanmar

  • Tours & Cruises Rosemary McClure, Times Staff Writer

  • You may not get first-class treatment, but your car can Jane Engle, Times Staff Writer

  • Charm, change in a culture capital Susan Spano, Times Staff Writer

  • Guarantee might mean cruise upgrade Arthur Frommer, Special to The Times

  • Frugal Brit fare beyond fish 'n' chips Vani Rangachar, Times Staff Writer

  • All hands on deck for a film

  • California Adventure in a more golden state Matt Lait, Times Staff Writer

  • Style and substance in France Susan Spano, Times Staff Writer

  • Italian fare like a warm embrace Jerry V. Haines, Special to The Times

  • A writer's tour of Prague's murky past Christopher Reynolds, Times Staff Writer


  • Catholic Priest Charged in 1980 Slaying of Nun From Times Wire Reports

  • Kerry Still Unknown to Many Matea Gold, Times Staff Writer

  • MTV to Plug Political Essay Winners

  • Radio Station Fined for Crank Call to Castro From Times Wire Reports

  • Mother Nature Picks 6 in Icy Guessing Game From Times Wire Reports

  • Kerry Is Given Communion Despite Stand on Abortion James Rainey, Times Staff Writer

  • Mind Over Subject Matter Elizabeth Mehren, Times Staff Writer

  • At IMF Meeting, Optimism Inside, Outrage Outside Warren Vieth and Jon Marino, Times Staff Writers

  • Foreigners Fighting Orders to Leave U.S. May Face Jail Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Times Staff Writer

  • Renewed Focus on Scalia Trip Richard A. Serrano and David G. savage, Times Staff Writers

  • Politics of Patriot Act Turn Right for Bush Peter Wallsten, Times Staff Writer

  • Four Workers Die in Explosions, Fire at Plastics Plant From Staff and Wire Reports

“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.

—Madeleine Schwartz


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.


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.


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.


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: Yes.

VG: None.

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.


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.


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