Vivian Gornick is a born and bred New Yorker, and her relationship to the city features prominently in her memoirs, most notably in the The Odd Woman and the City. After receiving a B.A. from City College in 1957 and an M.A. from New York University in 1960, Gornick began working as a reporter for the Village Voice in 1969, where she soon began cover the feminist movement which would significantly influence her and her work. After publishing Fierce Attachments, a memoir about her childhood in the Bronx and her complex relationship with her mother, in 1987, her reputation as a formidable memoirist, essayist, and critic was cemented. We spoke to her about her love of the city, the female flâneur, odd women, and the state of modern memoir.
The concept of the “flâneur“ is often present in your writing, and you particularly hone in on it in your 2015 memoir The Odd Woman and the City. Do you think the city creates a particular space for these “wandering women?“ Is that something you identify with?
Yes I do, deeply. Consider the times in which we live, and the last forty years of feminist activity in which I and thousands of other women began to feel a sense of freedom to do and act and be as we never did before. I don’t remember as a girl feeling free to walk the streets of the city by myself. When I was a girl I was always walking, but with somebody--with other girls, boyfriends, friends who were boys, my mother and so forth. I hardly ever remember, as a young person, walking alone, which now is my joy, and which is the joy of the flâneur. Once you're alone you begin to see things differently. When you're with other people, you are half with them, and half with whatever you're encountering. When you're alone, you're completely alone. You're there with the city and that has been the experience I've prized the most since I came into my own as a feminist.
Does the process of walking help you in your creative process and in your writing process? Has it in any way informed you as a writer, as a journalist, as a critic?
If I couldn't walk, it would be a very diminished life. One of the great things about New York is that it is continuous; you can walk from one end of the island to the other. There are cities like Chicago, for instance, that are not. It's a great city. Many, many people love it, but neighborhoods come to an end, and then there are just big stretches of no-man’s land everywhere. And San Francisco is also a great city but it's extremely hilly and that's not a pleasure either. But New York is a perfect city for walking. As is Paris, as is London.
In a sense, of course, walking became my material, so a great deal of what I have written is about walking and the city. And New York is such a city full of street theatre that I've had many, many encounters over the years that have made me think about life and writing. So yes, I'd say there's an intimate connection between me as a walker and the city, and what I write, and the way I think.
Can you talk about more about the concept of the “Odd Woman,“ which is clearly related to the female flâneur?
The "Odd Woman" is a phrase that was given originally by the English writer George Gissing. It was one of those phrases given to the women who were struggling to become free, liberated women in the late 19th century. And it always seemed just right to me. We were odd, and I felt, of all the things I could have told myself I was – free, liberated, this or that – I ultimately didn't feel free, I didn’t feel liberated. But I did feel odd, in the sense that we didn't fit in to where we were supposed to fit in. At the end of the day that refers to those women who, for the last two hundred years, didn’t feel they fit in and then became the feminists of the next wave of feminist activity. Every big city is welcoming to the Odd Woman. If you lived in a village or a small town, and were not married or didn’t have children, you would have been considered odd – not so much anymore, but still enough – and you’d have to account for yourself. I've heard that my whole life: “She's unnatural if she's not married and doesn’t have children.“ Or wants to be something other than that. So that’s how I use the word odd.
You’ve often mentioned that during your tenure at the Village Voice, you practiced what you called “personal journalism.“ Can you elaborate a bit more on that term, and how it shaped you as a writer?
Personal journalism was a development of the 1960s and 70s. There were people who went out into the world and took their own experience as a beginning and applied journalistic skills to what you saw or what you experienced. For instance, Joan Didion's famous essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album – that’s all personal journalism. I did the same thing. I was out in the city for the Voice all the time, but I was writing personal journalism. And it turned out that feminism was my way in. Those were days when you saw sexism everywhere. So if I went to a dinner party, and I experienced sexism at the table, which I did all the time, I went home and wrote a piece. And that taught me how to develop a point of view. Personal journalism, for those who practiced it, taught everyone how to write and how to discover the point of view that intersected properly between yourself and a subject, so that you weren't writing about yourself but you were using yourself.
How do you use yourself in your writing?
I'm a writer who, because of my feminism, sees things in a piece of writing that others don't see. Then it's my job to justify what I see, not by reading into, but by reading out. If I read into it, then I'm not doing my job, then I am writing illegitimately. But if I interpret a piece of writing from the feminist perspective, I have to justify that, and that should be more objective than subjective. And I think every journalist and every writer in general finds the place in which you are comfortable as a writer, a place in which you, from the way you see things, find the way to write.
Nonetheless, I learned, as a personal journalist that my feelings were not a subject. So I from the very beginning, I took memoir writing and essay writing as a serious writing task. I never thought I was writing to express myself or to put down my feelings or to complain about life or settle scores. I was teaching myself how to write, and writing those kinds of books. And, incidentally, all my models for great memoir [writers] were male.
Why was that? And how do you respond to those who consider the memoir a more feminine genre, as I know some have noted?
Men proverbially wrote the great memoirs. And when I teach, it’s almost all male [memoirs]. Women didn’t do these things. They didn’t have the chance to do them, and they didn’t have the chance to do them well. Most of the memoirs that I have taught for twenty years are the works of men who have learned how to take their own experience, run it through the mill of an idea, and produce a work of literature. So no, I never looked upon the memoir as what it has become, popularly, namely a chance to complain. None of that is memoir-writing in terms of making literature. It's testament, it’s people testifying to the unhappiness of their lives. And I never looked upon it as a female venue because I was always thinking about it as the making of literature.
Look at a writer like Joan Didion. When she writes her essays, all those essays of all those years, many of them were astonishingly brilliant. That is her metier. When she writes memoirs, she is less persuasive, it seems to me.
You released a collection of essays in 2008 entitled, The Men in My Life. Can you speak a bit about that?
The Men in My Life is a measure of my own development of sympathy for these men [writers]. Every last one of them is a very depressed man, and they're all great writers. I came to admire and finally understand the way in which they used their depression rather than let it overcome them. Some of the writers I'm not sympathetic with include Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Another piece is on Randall Jarrell, another is on James Baldwin. Then there are VS. Naipaul and George Gissing.
Why did you choose to focus on male writers?
Well, I was trying to make amends for all the terrible things I'd said over all the years! But to be honest I'm not really sure. It was something I wanted to do. I wanted to show depression in men, for one thing, I really did. And [depression] has certainly always been associated with women. I wanted men and women alike to be able to think, gee, your obligation as a writer is to live with it, overcome it, make use of it, turn necessity into a virtue. I mean, it's something I live with all the time. We all do.
I feel that we’re currently in a bit of a memoir renaissance. You have Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Heidi Julavits’ The Folded Clock: A Diary, and some other really powerful books that have been published recently. Why are we seeing this resurgence?
We're seeing it because the novel itself has not been producing work of the deepest order for a long time. And the longing for narrative, the straightforward narrative, I believe is resurfaced in this way. Modernism brought straightforward narrative to an end, and voice was everything for a very, very long time. And it had a lot to say for a long time. The sense of a voice out in space is very real. But it has run its course and we are still alive, and we still hunger for a story. But there’s no way to go back to neo-realistic novel writing. So the memoir, in its own stumbling, inferior way, came to represent the renewal of storytelling. You know, forty years ago, everyone, myself included, every young person wanted to write the great American novel. Now these same people sit down to write a memoir. With the same results. There are thousands of lousy novels, and there are thousands of lousy memoirs. But it's still the hunger for storytelling that’s behind it, and the hunger to make literature is behind it. And whether it can do it or not remains long in the future to be told.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a book about re-reading. We spend our lives re-reading. You see things you never saw before, the book constantly comes to new life, you realize how much you’ve changed and why and how, and you apply your own experience to a re-reading. You often re-read a book when you're in the same position, emotionally or otherwise, as the first time you’ve read it, and you read it again to be soothed. And then all of a sudden you’re re-reading it and you've changed, and you see things you never saw before.
Has there been one book you read that you used to love and are now disappointed by?
When I was young I adored Colette, as many of the girls in my generation did. She and Mary McCarthy were the women we read to tell us how to live. She made love, with a capital L, as important as war and peace. She put a woman in love at the center of her books, and we thought that was great world literature. Well, today it doesn't look so great. I read them now, and love with a capital L does not feel central. It doesn't feel like a central metaphor anymore. We've all had too much experience to believe any longer in the centrality of a grand passion, to believe that we can save our lives or understand our lives better if we experience love with a capital L. And most of that feeling came when people were living under very restrictive circumstances, where bourgeois life really was threatening, where if you really pursued a grand passion and it wasn’t proper or respectable, you’d be out in the cold and living a life of unimaginable isolation. Well, that's certainly not true anymore, so all those changes and all the experience we've all had make us realize that it just doesn’t apply anymore. For men, for instance, the myth of going to war and it making you a man doesn’t prevail anymore, it can't. It's all too horrifying, no. All those things came from a 19th century world that we just don’t occupy any longer.
What are your most re-read books?
I used to come back to Middlemarch a lot, and I used to come back to Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. I used to come back to George Gissing's The Odd Women, and Tolstoy. I re-read War and Peace and Ana Karenina three times… Now I go to bed with Trollope. Trollope goes down like ice cream. You don't have to remember anything he says, it's just a pleasure to go to sleep with.
Interview by Luisa Rollenhagen