Vivian Gornick’s latest collection of essays on literature, culture and feminism demonstrates the power of the voice in personal journalism.
Vivian Gornick is one of those writers whose name has flitted across my reading for years. I’ve seen her work quoted and referenced so many times that it lulled me into feeling like I’d already read her books when, in fact, I didn’t have a single one on the bookshelf. She is most famous, of course, for her criticism, but there is also memoir (Fierce Attachments, and more recently The Odd Woman and the City), writing on reading (Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader), writing on writing (The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative), and writing on feminism (almost everything). So I was keen to read this latest volume, Taking a Long Look, which brings together a collection of her essays from the 1970s to today, on those topics in which she is most at home: culture, literature, and feminism.
One thing becomes clear very quickly: Gornick is sharp. Her essays on literature are the most recent, are placed first in the book, and cover a diverse set of well-known, mostly American literary figures. But no matter the reputation of the writer concerned, her critique can be like a whip crack with words. That isn’t to say it’s not justified. James Salter, she says, was obsessed with ‘wartime glory, money, and class distinction, and sex, sex, sex’, and probably most people who have read any of his work in recent years would agree, no matter how lush and emotional the prose might have seemed in the 1960s when it was first published. Alfred Kazin was ‘haunted by the conviction that somewhere a marvellous party was going on to which he had not been invited’, while Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift is, for Gornick, ‘a supremely unrealised novel…a work soaked through with the self-absorption of the writer.’ Women writers tend to come off better. Mary McCarthy, one of Gornick’s favourite writers, is lauded for capturing the essence and spirit of the New Woman a decade or more before the New Woman’s time, while Kathleen Collins’ short stories of love, sex and race from a Black woman’s point of view, ‘strike a note on the one hand oddly original, on the other painfully familiar.’
The second part of the book comprises essays collected under the label ‘Culture’, but could just as easily be ‘Justice’. Here, Gornick turns her attention to racism (an essay written for the 150th anniversary of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), fascism (Hannah Arendt and Primo Levi), the environment (Rachel Carson and her seminal book Silent Spring) and, in a lead-in to the final part of the book, feminism and the fiftieth anniversary of The Second Sex. Here, Gornick makes the assertion that ‘feminism belongs to America…it was impossible for the European intellectuals – from Wollstonecraft to de Beauvoir – to give up their overwhelming longing for acceptance in the world of men…’ – a controversial statement that I hoped would be expanded on in the final section of the book, ‘Feminism’. However, these last essays turned out to be something of a disappointment. They are the oldest, taken from Gornick’s 1978 book Essays on Feminism, and are heavily focused on second wave feminist movements in America in general and in New York specifically. As such they feel somewhat dated; interesting from a historical point of view and, of course, for anyone interested in Gornick’s earliest writings, the time at which she says she was developing her style and discovering that she had something to say, but frustrating for anyone hoping for something fresh.
One of the best sections of the book is, however, not Gornick’s criticism or feminism at all, but the ‘Two New York Stories’. Gornick has a real gift for telling human stories in ways that haunt the reader, drawing them in to people’s lives with acute observations and a sympathetic style. These two stories are true, but read as the best kind of immersive fiction. Gornick admitted in a recent interview that she had always wanted to become a fiction writer but couldn’t get the characters right: ‘They just lay there like a dead dog.’ In contrast, these characters are vividly alive. More than that, they are universal. They are New York stories, but any reader could probably empathise or even relate.
The common thread to all of these essays (and stories), otherwise fairly disparate in subject matter and tone, is the search for the self: the self as writer, the self as part of nature, the self as woman, the self as human. The awareness of the self is, Gornick argues, ‘more acutely at the heart of things than it has ever been before…If we do not genuinely know ourselves, the void will now, at last, surely rise up to meet us.’ The book is also an attempt to trace Gornick’s own self as a writer, from self-confessed polemicist through her own style of personal journalism, learning how to distinguish true writing from ‘spinning wheels and simply putting black marks in a piece of paper.’ And although the introduction to the book is interesting in so far as it outlines her own views on her own writing, it feels as if Gornick missed an opportunity to make more connections, to link the essays more overtly with events and circumstances today – especially in the case of the essays on feminism, where nothing is said at all, for example, about intersectionality or trans inclusion – and take them beyond a re-reading of her career.
Is Gornick’s career enough? For me, yes. Unfamiliar as I was with much of Gornick’s work, the collection is very good as an introduction to the variety and incisiveness of her writing. For those who know her better, it may feel like a rehash. But, as she wrote in Unfinished Business, ‘no one [is] more surprised than me that I turned out to be who I am’. Gornick has followed her journey backwards through all her different selves as a writer, and taken her reader along for the ride in what she claims is the root of all and any feminism: ‘the release of the experiencing self.’ Mostly, it’s an exhilarating trip.
Taking A Long Look: Essays on Culture, Literature and Feminism in Our Time is published by Verso Books, and is available to order online now.
Feature image: Vivian Gornick by Mitch Bach, courtesy of Verso Books.