We Can’t Bookend Vivian Gornick

Vivian Gornick’s brilliant half-century writing career can’t be captured in a single essay or volume. To engage with her writing is to be left wanting more of her writing.

Vivian Gornick at a book signing in 2016. (Christchurch City Libraries / Flickr)

In the 1970s, a housewife in Iowa wrote a letter to her cousin in New York: “Although I think I am a typical suburban housewife, I don’t think any of my friends would call me typical.”

She went on to explain that she volunteered for George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, adopted a black child, and “at dinner parties I challenge some of the ‘male chauvinist attitudes.’” She wrote that she had not joined any groups but was in sympathy with the women’s movement. She described her recent realization that at her homeowners’ association meetings,

I’m the only woman who ever says anything…. It honestly never dawned on me before, but I suddenly saw the truth: nobody expects the women to talk. It bothers them all — especially the men — when a woman talks.

Feminist writer Vivian Gornick observed of this letter a year later:

There is in this letter clear evidence of a developing self that already has a life of its own. We, the organized movement, helped bring this power of independent thought into the world…. [T]he shared consciousness … is the strength and meaning of feminism today; it is what puts feminism on the map of social revolution and makes it a thrilling part of the great egalitarian thrust of this century.

How do we become people who can tell stories? What conditions permit the emergence of a thinking, truth-telling self? Gornick, as a memoirist, critic, and essayist, has been preoccupied throughout her long writing life with the contingency of that self, and what collectivities cause that self to burst into being.

Growing up among socialists and communists, Gornick first found her voice as a journalist in the 1970s covering the emergence of second-wave feminism for the Village Voice. She describes that work as “polemical”; later, she honed her craft as a memoirist and critic.

Cover of Vivian Gornick’s Taking a Long Look: Essays on Culture, Literature, and Feminism in Our Time (Verso, 2021).

Gornick is the author of The Romance of American Communism, originally published in 1977, reissued by Verso last year and the best book written on the crucial chapter of left history from roughly the 1930s to the 1950s when the Communist Party was at the height of its influence; Fierce Attachments, a memoir first published in 1987 and named by the New York Times in 2019 as the best memoir of the last fifty years; and The Situation and the Story, a 2001 classic text on writing that I teach every year; and many other books.

Her reflections on that lowa housewife appear in an essay called “The Women’s Movement in Crisis,” appearing in her new collection of essays and criticism, Taking a Long Look: Essays on Culture, Literature, and Feminism in Our Time. The new book features wide-ranging highlights from her stunningly sharp, nearly fifty-year body of work.

For Gornick, social movements help to bring into being the writer — or rather, out of that writer, an articulate persona — who can tell the truth. She writes in The Situation and the Story of attending a funeral and hearing a powerful eulogist: “Because the narrator knew who was speaking, she knew why she was speaking.” The housewife who wrote that letter knew who and why. As in Gornick’s own work, the women’s movement had brought that narrator – and her story – into being.

“It is the re-creation in women of the experiencing self that is the business of contemporary feminism,” Gornick writes. In The Romance of American Communism, she interviewed people who had come into being through the communist movement; without it, many no longer knew who they were.

By contrast, for Gornick, writers can fall short of greatness when there is no social movement to bring them more fully into being. She opens one essay with Virginia Woolf’s contention that Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot struggled because they were trapped in the writing of “a man’s sentence.”

As a fan of these Victorian lady novelists, I bristled at that characterization at first. But plunging back into Eliot with a more critical eye after reading Gornick’s essay, I found I had new questions: How on earth does a woman writer create a plot twist in which Hetty, the title character’s love interest in Eliot’s first novel Adam Bede, walks hundreds of miles, with rich description of her fatigue and interior state — then give birth to a baby, in a surprise to Hetty herself and to the reader?

The nineteenth century had not yet provided the context or the collective consciousness that could allow Eliot to truthfully describe that journey of Hetty’s: the mysterious and terrifying contractions, the nausea, not to mention the sheer impossibility of the journey by foot, nor how the coach drivers and tavern owners would have looked at her extremely pregnant body.

Writers can also stumble, she argues, when they fail to allow the collective consciousness to expand their own expressive selves. In “Why Do These Men Hate Women?” another essay from the 1970s, Gornick argues that writers like Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow could have been great, but their anti-feminism got worse over time, and then creativity was impossible: their male and female characters are stupid stereotypes, the ideas superficial. She explains,

What we have in the work of these writers is not a vital relation to the forces of our moment but rather an infantile preoccupation with themselves. We have here what is fatal in writers: men who hate and fear the moment in which they are living, men who are in flight from their times, at a profound remove from the inner experience of their time and place, filled with a conservative longing for an inner truth that is no longer the truth.

For women novelists, this is especially important, because otherwise (in writing as in life) they risk being submerged by the love story. This is part of Gornick’s beef with Margaret Drabble’s novels, which Gornick dismissed as “women’s magazine fiction.” Despite Drabble’s writing as the feminist movement was sweeping the globe, despite her hip, contemporary settings, Gornick argued that the romantic resolutions in Drabble’s novels — as well as her sentimentally deterministic attitude toward motherhood — amount to “making a virtue of necessity”: as in so many of the novels of the nineteenth century, Drabble’s heroines don’t find a way to expressive selfhood outside of the marriage plot.

It’s a profound and devastating point, although I’m not always as convinced as Gornick is that the love story has to be antithetical to liberation or to great literature. Couldn’t greater human freedom give us not only better writing, but deeper love, and more transformative and gripping love stories? Perhaps the expressive selves brought into being by feminism, queer liberation, black civil rights, and socialism could reinvent the romance in more profound, uncompromised, and less sentimental form?

At any rate, reading Gornick makes you wonder whether our own political moment will get the great literature it deserves. To make that happen, writers should probably get off Twitter, or at least kill the Twitterati that lurk like beat cops in our minds. Gornick’s work offers such a bracing sense of a woman writing for a patient, deliberative public — not a moralistic, ever-reacting mob.

Vivian Gornick in 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

In Fierce Attachments, her memoir, Gornick has a long-lasting affair with a married man. Sometimes she is unkind to her mother. She doesn’t justify any of this or try to make herself sound better than she was. She is not trying to explain herself: she has a story to tell.

Whether we think Vivian Gornick is a good person is never the point of her writing. But it’s hard not to read that book today – and to imagine one of our own contemporaries trying to write a book like it — without hearing imagined commenters carping about her choices, whining about her harsh judgments and bitchy tone. In short, missing the point utterly.

All the Margaret Drabble stans would have mobilized to condemn Gornick’s “women’s magazine” comment; Gornick would have been labeled misogynist and elitist. Many women writers today are trying to be loved, or at least liked. To seduce us, the reading public, they post hot selfies and hope we will support their Substacks and buy their books. A little bit of controversy is okay and attracts attention, but the primary reaction writers want from their followers is “You go, girl!” Just as feminism allowed Gornick’s writing to come into being, our own historical circumstances might complicate a similarly honest chronicling of our moment and ourselves.

A retrospective is supposed to sum up a writer’s work, with a concluding feel, a kind of bookend in the form of a book. Given Gornick’s accomplishments and range as a writer, it would probably be impossible for a collection of hers to achieve that. Taking a Long Look is brilliant, bracing and inspiring — and leaves us wanting more. Half a century is a good run, and for some writers it would be plenty. But I’m hoping Gornick will keep writing for many more years. We need her.