Feminist icon Vivian Gornick, still in the fight: A conversation with Jonathan Lethem

A longtime fan sits down with Gornick to discuss her much-anticipated new memoir, "The Odd Woman and the City"

Published May 21, 2015 10:58PM (EDT)

Vivian Gornick, Jonathan Lethem    (Macmillan/Mitchell Bach/Wikimedia/David Shankbone)
Vivian Gornick, Jonathan Lethem (Macmillan/Mitchell Bach/Wikimedia/David Shankbone)

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

Vivian Gornick is one of the leading figures in American nonfiction. Her 1987 memoir, "Fierce Attachments," is a touchstone for readers of memoir, a seminal account of coming-of-age in New York City in the 20th century, and a child’s portrait of a parent to place alongside Edmund Gosse’s and Philip Roth’s. Her "The Situation and the Story" is one of the key texts for the burgeoning field of “creative nonfiction.” Gornick’s also a crucial feminist thinker, literary critic, and something of an oral historian. (Her "The Romance of American Communism" was of unique importance for me in planning my novel "Dissident Gardens.")

Her new book, "The Odd Woman and the City," is a memoir of the life of an intellectual in the metropolis: isolated, yet surrounded by humanity. Gornick, as you meet her in the book, marvels at how she is nourished both by solitude and by human contact, and at the incommensurability of these rival needs in the life of the artist. The book operates by an uncanny series of free associations, between anecdotal accounts of street life, portrayals of a tricky but necessary friendship and of a series of erotic misalliances, and brief and blazing critical portraits of other thinkers, including George Gissing, whose "The Odd Women" helps provide Gornick’s title. Her language, as always, is keenly aphoristic, with a rich undertow of implicit passion.

Because of a teaching semester in Iowa, when I visited Gornick in her native Manhattan, she was actually a houseguest – nice luck for me! -- at the West Side apartment of Lore Segal, one the great elder statespersons of American letters, still active and ardent at 87. I brought along a couple of Segal’s novels for her to sign, and she made us coffee and consented to sit with us while I turned on the tape recorder. At a couple of points, she even joined in.

The new book is such a satisfying totality. It seems impossible to say what all the elements are doing in the same place, but they seem to vibrate, one against the other.

That makes me happy. I certainly I tortured myself over that.

This book, if anything, seems to inch a tiny bit closer to fiction. In the way you’ve employed your friend “Leonard” – you renamed him – as a character. His presence patterns the book and his voice is that of a gentle antagonist, pushing against yours.

The odd thing about my career is that it took me a while to realize that I looked upon nonfiction as storytelling. I was always told I told good stories and I always loved hearing that I told good stories. I worked as a journalist when I was much younger, writing about politics and culture for the Village Voice, but I was always waiting to get to this. Yet the reason I knew I was a nonfiction writer, rather than a novelist, was that it was clear from the beginning that the I – the narrator – was always going to be me. The reader would always know that the narrator is the writer, that reliably un-surrogated creature.

Still, I never identified anybody in anything I ever wrote by their real names or their real occupations. I was always at pains to disguise them for all the obvious reasons, and I always felt I had the right to do so.  After all, I’m  writing personally but I’m not transcribing, I’m composing. My allegiance is to the narrative. It always surprises me when this is not understood. Some years ago, at a public lecture, I casually said that in an episode in my memoir “Fierce Attachments” my mother hadn’t actually spoken the words I’d written for her and someone in the audience ran off, absurdly, to tell the world that I was lying. That represents a total misunderstanding of what this work does.

I’d say it is a total misunderstanding, yes. That sort of accusation is a terrific waste of time!

I came upon the phrase personal narrative with much relief and pleasure, and that’s the one that I employ. I generally like to describe what I do as personal narrative. It was with "Fierce Attachments" that I realized—yes, with hunger—that I’d hit my stride. And then I didn’t do it again for 20 years.

Well, you’re overlooking the wonderful essays in that mode, many of them collected in "Approaching Eye Level." Still, "Fierce Attachments" is a favorite for me and for many of your readers. Your publisher is billing this new book as the "long-awaited follow-up" to that one. It does create a marvelous echo. What’s remarkable is that in that book, in 1987, you’re already writing from such a long vantage on your past self. Yet now we get another layer of retrospect – you’re able to tell us about "that girl" – the one who wrote "Fierce Attachments."

You showed me a few scraps of what became this book, quite early on. Maybe you were just being cagey, but at the time you posed it as a puzzle: I’ve written these four or five descriptions of encounters with strangers on the city streets, and I don’t know what to do with them. They seemed to exist in a vacuum.

Lore Segal: How long ago was this?

Gornick: A couple of years ago.

Did the rest of the book develop as the answer to the riddle that those street-encounter pieces posed?

What happened was, when I had more of it – about 25 pages of it, I think, and I thought it was an essay but I wasn’t sure – I sent it to our friend Lorin Stein. He’s a very old friend and he’s always been my dearest editor. It never dawned on me that he would want this for Paris Review because he’s always told me that he only wanted to publish fiction and poetry and not essays. That’s not really true anymore, and I didn’t think of it, but I just thought of him as my natural reader.

So I said, Lorin, would you tell me how this sits? What this looks like? He wrote back immediately and said I love it. I want to publish it. And I said, you do? OK. Great. And then he said, Let me put it in a better shape than I think it’s in now. I said, be my guest. And he released the piece from certain limitations. But I never thought beyond it. Then, to my amazement, Ileene Smith at Farrar Straus, approached me and said, This is a book. Sit down and write it. So I did.

Lorin said another very smart thing to me when I told him these pages were going to be a book. He said you have one decision to make. Do you want it to go from light to dark or dark to light? Brilliant. He’s got a real gift. I said, oh thank you. I still didn’t exactly know what dark was and what light was, but that was the major opening for me to start thinking in a systematic way about how to put all this together.

So what did you decide? Light to dark or dark to light?

Oh. I think dark to light. It doesn’t end dark does it?

Lore Segal: Vivian, it seems to me that when you and I became friends some years ago, you talked about writing a book about “Leonard” [a leading character in the book].

Gornick: Yes, I had this friendship which I thought was paradigmatic. We were what we were—he gay, me the odd woman—in a world that was changing, and that we ourselves were helping change.

You describe it so lucidly. The uses you have for one another, and the places where that use breaks down. Has he read it?

He’s read some. A little bit. I wrote the first few pages many years ago. I wrote about the form that our friendship had assumed …. how important we’d become to one another, and why we never saw each other more than once a week. One year we shared a house in the Hamptons for a month, and we didn’t talk afterwards for six weeks, we got so badly on each other’s nerves. 24/7 is a whole different number. But I’ve been here with Lore for 10 days and we’ve been unbelievably successful. A few rough moments, but otherwise … (laughs).

Anyway, I showed these pages to him with some trepidation but he read them and laughed and said I don’t see myself here at all. I thought: home free! So, yes, at that point I was going to write a book about our friendship. Then I discovered that I had a situation and not a story. I just didn’t really know what to do with it. But it was only when I put us together with the city that I was able to release myself, and the friendship became an excellent framework for a book.

In the way that these sequences, these brief pieces accumulate, I thought of other books with a very particular form. Elizabeth Hardwick’s "Sleepless Nights," and the recently republished Renata Adler books, "Speedboat" and "Pitch Dark." Do you admire those?

Yes! Adler’s, not Hardwick’s.

Did they come to mind when –?

No. Never. And I didn’t like "Sleepless Nights" at all. I thought it was mannered and false. Hardwick’s writing is something we all admire – there are many writers who are good writers  sentence for sentence but in the end you don’t believe what they’re saying. Adler’s book “Speedboat” I do admire. She was experiencing the city also and she used that marvelous style of hers to bring it to us. She has a German Jewish Upper West Side therapist who keeps saying “terapy.” You must go into “terapy.”

There’s a book where Leonard Michaels works in a similar manner, windows opening up and closing and you're left to make the associations between the different segments.

Right. It's called collage. It was a natural for "Fierce Attachments."

Was that because the image of your mother structured the shape of the story for you?

Oh yes, absolutely. I knew the ending from the beginning. That last scene, where she says to me, Why don’t you go already? I’m not stopping you. It actually happened, almost exactly as I wrote it. For both of us, the moment was surreal. Having an argument about something else completely and then all of a sudden she says to me, Why don’t you go already? I’m not stopping you. It was so shocking for me to realize: It was me that was holding me. Of course it took me almost a year of writing to understand that I had to write to earn that ending. And it was the first time I ever used that phrase, which is a cliché among us: Earn.

But it’s a cliché because--

It’s so true.

You’re given the gift of a thing you have to earn to accept.

Yes, and that was after a year of writing and stumbling along and not really knowing what I was doing, just accumulating pages.  But once I had that, I went back and rewrote everything. I wrote with that end in mind constantly, and that was responsible for all those transitions that seemed to come like magic, but they  didn’t.

I discovered, from that book, the meaning of a developed intuition, which—if you sit long enough with it—will tell you what to put next. But even so, with this new book, I was in a constant panic. When Lorin first rearranged things, and lifted a lot of it out of semi-obscurity, I panicked, thinking I can’t do it, I can’t do what he’s done. And then I worried and worried and worried. Took another year sitting there worrying about what to put next.

Lore Segal: Did his arrangements – did he give you a model?

Gornick: He gave me a model which made me nervous. I was grateful for the part that got published in the Paris Review. Then I was left with it to work on my own and I was never sure that I was doing as good a job as he had done. I worried about it constantly and arranged and rearranged the parts 50 times.

Did you try to invite him back into that process? You weren’t tempted by that?

No, I wasn’t.  At one point I said to him, We’re not going to become Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver here.

It’s funny you make that joke because Lorin once cut a story of mine very severely. It was the only time I ever felt, Wait, this might be what Carver experienced. Lorin took a stern tone with me, as if it had been an ethical lapse. He said, "I thought you knew about all the stuff you should take out; here, I’ll show it to you." He lined out half my story. I was in shock, but I looked at it, and it worked. It flowed, and I thought, OK, and I threw it back to him and said, I’ll take every one of your cuts. You win. Forget it. But it’s the only time I’ve had someone just cross out half of the work.

That is remarkable. In your case, it was an anomaly, but in the case of Carver, it was clear that without Lish – it really was like a fairy-tale relationship, because without him, Carver was unremarkable. Later he published what he wrote without Lish and it was no good.

I mentioned to Laura Miller that I was coming up to interview you, and how excited I was about this book, and she pointed out that though you’re a champion of feminism, your own champions are often men: Lorin, and Phillip Lopate – and, I guess, I’d count myself. I was thinking about the way in the new book you handle men – no pun intended.

I’ve never spoken more honestly about myself and men than I have in this book.

Well, that’s it. The writing about relationships in "Fierce Attachments" feels highly exposed, and exposing. But then again, in this new one, you seem to take the cover off even further.

Completely. In "Fierce Attachments" I was wary. I never wanted to write about any men at all, but it was Jonathan Galassi at a certain point, perhaps three-quarters of the way through the book, he said to me, “Now you’ve got to get married” (actually, I was married twice), he was insistent that I say something about my relations with men. I don’t know why the hell I did this but something came up, and I told my mother the book was going to include an account of my marriages. She said, “For god’s sake, one is enough. Two divorces are not necessary.” So I conflated the two, in my description of the one husband. I think it’s the weakest part of that book.

Well, you write differently about men in this new book. It’s exciting and chastening and, honestly, it’s very sexy. There’s a slightly predatory Vivian who emerges in "The Odd Woman." You write about yourself looking at the men and wanting them, and even in that moment where you and your friend are laughing, in the pharmacy –

Two old women talking about lousy lovers.

There’s this implication of having sought and browsed through possible lovers. In "Fierce Attachments" the men seem to come and float in, and you accept them. But in "The Odd Woman and the City," I can hear you hunting, a little bit.

Not really.  But I will say this. When I was young, girls either wanted to be “chicks on the scene,” or they gravitated towards boys and men weaker than themselves with whom they were the stars.  Guess which group I belonged to.

You’ve contended with generations of feminist thinkers for 50 years, tirelessly. I flipped open the new Bookforum and there you are. Right on the front line.

There I am, chastising the young who are not all that I want them to be (laughs).

Chastising and responding and fretting over the bloggers.

Yes, in a sense it’s to say, We’re still on the ground—the feminists of my generation--and we want you to know how we feel about you.

You’re still in the fight.

I surely am! Are you kidding? Without a stop.

Yet in "The Odd Woman and the City," you largely exclude the contemporary scene. You don’t have bloggers in this book and you don’t even really have the feminist movement in this book. You’ve pushed that kind of reference outside, in order to make this book more of an evocation.

It never even occurred to me, that would have been journalistic. Once I hit on myself and the city and friendship – once I hit on those three, and developed the persona of this aging divorced feminist walking the streets of a great city—that became my version of a memoir. But it's certainly clear that a feminist is speaking. And not just any feminist, but a feminist of my generation. For better or for worse, that’s the voice that is speaking.

By Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem, the Roy E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College, is the author of, most recently, and the story collection "Lucky Alan" and the novel "Dissident Gardens."

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Books Feminism Jonathan Lethem Memoir The Odd Woman And The City Vivian Gornick