Vivian Gornick on Feminism, Friendship, and Her New Memoir 'The Odd Woman and the City'

Plus loneliness, cultural decline, and all the other fun stuff that comes from a life in letters in New York City.

by Anna Wiener
May 22 2015, 6:45pm

On a recent afternoon this month, I stood in the lobby of a large building in the West Village, doing my best to convince a doorman to let me up to the writer Vivian Gornick's apartment.

"There's no Gornick here," he said.

"Are you sure?" I asked. "I think there is. G, O, R—"

He flipped open a binder and trailed his finger down a list of residents.

"Nope," he said, tapping the binder. "No Gornick here."

I went back outside and wondered what to do. I made a phone call, and then another. Shortly thereafter, I was allowed upstairs.

"What do they mean I'm not on the list?" Vivian Gornick said, opening her apartment door. "I've lived here 30 years."

The Odd Woman and the City , Gornick's latest memoir, gives a gleam to these everyday moments—the fleeting misunderstandings, collisions, hostilities and camaraderies that compose quotidian urban life. The book is a collection of encounters, observations, and eavesdroppings from Gornick's daily walks through Manhattan; it is studded with meditations on literature and loneliness, work and love. A friend of Gornick's—a man she calls Leonard—moves through these pages as well. The two meet weekly to walk, chat, and commiserate. He is, at times, both foil and mirror.

Gornick is a native New Yorker, born and raised in the Bronx. Growing up in the Jewish ghetto, she writes, "Manhattan was Araby." As a journalist in 1970s New York, she covered—and embraced—radical feminism, which continues to drive much of her criticism, which is characterized by its sharp and uncompromising nature. Gornick is also a teacher, having taught and worked in writing programs at Harvard and the University of Iowa, as well as the author of an invaluable book on personal narrative, The Situation and the Story . Her world is both political and literary, and her writing—memoir and criticism alike—is imbued with a clear-headed kindness, a genuine engagement with the human condition. The Odd Woman and the City is colorful and gutting, full of dark humor, insight, and heartbreak; the reader is never held at arm's length. It is a deeply human book.

In person Gornick was knowledgeable, curious, and generous, disinterested in small talk or frippery, and had a Bronx accent that made me homesick (I left the city for San Francisco two years ago). At a certain point, she schooled me briefly on the history of women's rights; I deserved it. Though I intended to ask primarily about the new book, our conversation meandered, detouring through feminism, cultural decline, hookup culture, and publishing-industry economics. As we spoke, her two small cats fought zealously on the floor.

VICE: Some have positioned The Odd Woman and the City as a companion piece to Fierce Attachments. Do you see it that way?
Vivian Gornick: It wasn't intentional. To some degree it's true, in that the narrator of Fierce Attachments is indeed me, 25 years ago, and to some extent the narrator of this book is me, 25 years later. The end of Fierce Attachments is a scene in which my mother says to me, "Why don't you go already? I'm not holding you." I realize in a flash that I'm half in, half out. I can't really leave: I can't stay, and I can't go. And that is the person who writes that book.

Now, here she is, 25 years later. For better or for worse, this is where she stands. And you can see that many of the strands that make up this collage are there in Fierce Attachments: walking the streets of the city, work, friendship. So to some degree it's true.

It started, actually, as an essay about the city. It started, really, with this character Leonard, a very good old friend. I've always wanted to write a book about the two of us. I thought that our friendship was paradigmatic of our time and of our place. I'm the odd woman, he's gay, we're in New York City. We've both been involved in feminist and gay politics for 25, 30 years. We each live alone. And that, especially—living alone—was central to our lives and to our situation. Never before in history have so many people like us been living alone. In other words, as I say in the book, we lived out our conflicts rather than our fantasies. And this is where those conflicts have taken thousands of us. I wanted to develop that.

"The thing about friendships is that they're really just like marriages—they bring out in you all that is neurotic, all that is strong. Every trait and characteristic that you're capable of is there in a friendship."

There's a common language—however insufficient it may be—for talking about familial relationships. There isn't a common language for friendship. Did that surface for you in the process of writing this book?
I feel very close to the recognition that a friendship is as deeply psychologically engaging as anything else. It draws from us our best and our worst. And I couldn't agree more—there is no language for it.

The thing that does stay central to me is the recognition of what urban friendship is now. I go to a party and somebody comes at me: "Oh, we were so tight two years ago." Somebody else comes over: "Oh, I miss you"—she lives two blocks away from me. And that has been on my mind for many, many years. What is that all about? How does that happen? Why does that happen? It probably has been true in every phase of life, but in the city it feels really vicious. And very, very central. It doesn't feel vicious to me now, but that has been something to really think about: the circumstantial nature of so many friendships. And the inability to achieve stability in these relationships. It is as much an indicator of the world we live in as anything else.

Do you think that people collect other people in the city to build a fortress against what would otherwise be relentless loneliness?
Oh, of course. Since we're all in so much crisis about marriage, and family—committing ourselves to marriage, or being married, or staying married—friendship is absolutely vital. The loneliness is generic; it's crude. All people living alone suffer horrendously from loneliness. The thing about friendships coming and going, I think that is true everywhere, at all times. But in the city, it feels existential.

The thing about friendships is that they're really just like marriages—they bring out in you all that is neurotic, all that is strong. Every trait and characteristic that you're capable of is there in a friendship. You're the same people. You're not a better friend than you are a love partner, or a daughter, or a parent, or any of those things. I think you can learn as much about yourself in the world through a single friendship as anything else.

But in the city, where everything is moving fast and there are thousands of ways to distract yourself, it becomes apparent that friendships are either central or contingent. And mainly they're contingent.

"We live in a world that has made endless use, in every way—culturally, politically, socially—of women's subordinate position."

In your writing about the neighborhood where you grew up, there are many friendships between people who might not necessarily find each other under other circumstances. Friendship becomes a mode of survival and self-preservation.
The Bronx was just like that: It was a ghetto. It was like a small town, and everybody knew everybody else—which was often comforting, and often extremely confining, imprisoning. There were so many people who had to know each other. There was no way not to. You were glad, finally, to not have to know them when you moved to Manhattan. And that is the trade-off. You move here and then you experience a loneliness: crude, gross loneliness that you never experience when you're living in a beehive, whether you like it or not. I know many people who began to lead the life that I lead, and they just ran right back.

There's a conversation happening now, around women who choose not to have children, who choose not to get married. This collection by Meghan Daum just came out called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed

I reviewed that, in Bookforum. [The collection] was refreshingly clear-headed. Forty years ago, any woman who said, "I don't want children" would have been branded unnatural, instantly. But it is true that there have always been women who knew that they don't want children, who knew that they'd be lousy mothers, and just never had a way to pursue.

In this case, all these people are writers, so they have the advantage of knowing that they are true, solid, serious workers. And that becomes a metaphor, in a life, for devotion to the experience of oneself as a worker, rather than as a mother and a wife. If they were just ordinary people with no particular passion for any particular work, it would be harder to put a name to it. In this case, these writers have the excuse of saying, "I realized one way or another that I couldn't work flat-out if I had children, and this is what I really choose to do."

And the proof is on the page.
Absolutely. Wonderfully written.

On the one hand, there's a book like Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, which points to people having passions and interests that have nothing to do with family life and everything to do with work. Simultaneously we have [Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg's] Lean In and the pursuit of "having it all." The latter conversation seems to me like an appropriation of the former, in some way.
You think it's manipulative on the part of capitalism? Is that what you mean? Well, all these things are manipulations. Anything that becomes prescriptive is a manipulation. Anything that becomes an ideology is a manipulation. When we started in the 1970s, all we were saying, essentially, was, "We have been described as creatures who are happy to be mothers and wives and nothing else. This is not who we are." We live in a world that has made endless use, in every way—culturally, politically, socially—of women's subordinate position.

Every two minutes, there's another prescription: Lean in, lean out, do this, do that, you can't have it all, you must have it all—I don't know what the hell it all means. You know, it's an illusion, "have it all." Now one of the reasons you can't have it all is because there is, as yet, no achievement of those early goals. It's generational work; it's work of a thousand years.

That's what you're living through—you're in the eye of the storm, and you will be as long as you live. I never hope to see much more than I see now in my life. The question of equality for men and women is so unbelievably fraught it brings to the surface anxieties that are absolutely existential in nature. Metaphysical. Really the heart of things. So people come up with prescriptions every two minutes. And that's the journalistic need, to make news. Every five years the New York Times announces we're post-feminism.

"[The] culture of people showing each other their best selves was 100 years ago. It was a romantic notion."

They'll be the last to know.
They will be the last to know. That's right. You'll be the first, they'll be the last.

You're living in a world whose rules we helped reduce without replacing them. So everything's up in the air, and you're all on your own. But! There's so much more room for you to struggle in an open field, to find your way. You're freer than ever before to ask: What makes me feel exiled within myself? What doesn't? What feels good? What doesn't? What's exhilarating, what's depressing? That's all that you have. And it is true that people on the left, for instance—all my life—have been looking on women's rights as an instrument of capitalist manipulations. And I can't see it that way anymore. What we want is not revolutionary. On the contrary, what we want is a more perfect democracy. We want what the democracy promised. An equal shot at being equally miserable. An equal shot at being just as unhappy as anybody else, but not because of race, or sex, or whatever.

So there's an increased freedom. But once you go to exercise that freedom, you still haven't set the terms of the world you live in.
Well, you may, eventually. It depends on which way a critical mass develops out of all this. First that has to happen. That's why it's incumbent upon each of you to become the best person you can be, as whole a human being as you can be. It's the only thing you've really got, but you do have that. I believe firmly that that is how you change the world. And as old as I am, I take that as my responsibility. And I will take that until I die.

In The Odd Woman and the City , you write about the performance, in a friendship, of one's best self. What is the relationship between writing and performance of this best self?
What I want is to create a character who will tell the story that needs to be told. In writing, what you must be devoted to is the writing. In other words, you are devoted here to making the writing be the best it can be. I don't want or need to be a virtuous self through the narrator that I create. That narrator has to be able to serve the story. And by the way, in the book I say that that's not our culture anymore: That culture of people showing each other their best selves was 100 years ago. It was a romantic notion.

Friendship has become more confessional.
Now we share our worst selves. We're in the therapeutic culture. We share our angers, our hungers, our jealousies, our humiliations—that's the nature of friendship, now. You know, two women can run into each other after not having seen each other in 30 years, and sit down for a cup of coffee. In 20 minutes, they're telling each other all.

I think it's a mode of protection. Sharing an intimacy is a way to give someone what appears to be part of yourself but actually obscures what you hold dear.
You can sit down with somebody and they can reveal in 20 minutes how bad they feel about this, that, or the other, and it makes you assume that because this person has told you how bad they can feel, they made themselves vulnerable to you, and therefore, out of that you can expect a certain kind of behavior. And that is not true. But it was the same when people only showed each other their virtue. That wasn't true either.

Vivian Gornick at the Tenement Museum in New York earlier this month

You've been writing about New York for a long time. Do you ever feel a desire to resist or acquiesce to other narratives of the city?
No, I don't. When I read something that moves me, that I recognize as true, I appreciate it. I feel like I have a comrade. When I don't, I just ignore it.

I know many, many people who spend their lives bemoaning the loss of New York. I never felt that. For me the city is unchanging. What I appreciate in New York is watching the 50 different ways in which people survive. By survive, I mean try to remain human beings . I love that. I see that all the time, everywhere. My mother died at 94—she never stopped having adventures on the street. She'd walk up to the box office at the New York City Ballet, and she'd put her hand down on the grille and say to some young person behind the grille in the middle of the day, "I'm 85 years old, and I live on Social Security, and I love ballet. Do something for me." And they would.

That's what's great about New York: People do.
It's amazing. It changes, and it never changes. The people doing it are changed perhaps, but the essence doesn't change.

There have been a number of books published recently that turn inward, emphasizing narratorial interiority and realism. Daily life is documented, analyzed: Not much happens, but there's a lot of internal processing, a lot of anxiety. People seem very excited about these books right now, myself included, but I don't know why, or why now.
It's in the wind. All these young literary men, all they write about is how depressed they are, how nothing feels real, how they can't experience anything.

I think this happens when a culture's falling apart. I really do.

What do you mean?
Well, I think this has happened, no doubt, in the past: [Goethe's] The Sorrows of Young Werther, or something like that. I think that the more a culture stops giving satisfaction, the more people start navel-gazing. There are so many young men writing literary books, all about how depressed they are, and how they read email all day long, right? Isn't that right? Every time I feel lousy, I go back to look at the email? And they're praised to the skies. The reviews write about them as if it's first-rate literature.

But that's been forever.
That's right, it's been forever.

I'm sure this story is apocryphal, but it is said that when Sparta and Athens were involved in the Peloponnesian War and Athens was going under, philosophers proliferated in the streets. All Athens had been—its great contribution to the world, to life, to history—was its philosophers. And as the culture was dying, there were more and more third-rate versions of what had once been great.

Somehow it feels like that now, as the book-publishing world is dying and print is dying, there's all this incredible visual noise created by technology. There's mass culture like never before in history—such a mass culture. Which means culture that's sinking to the lowest common denominator. And all of that is quite depressing. And I think it's out of that, that this kind of literature is why people are turning so interior.

That's why we're all writing memoirs instead of novels. Novel-writing is not so promising anymore. But the need for narrative persists. It will persist as long as human beings are alive. That need to tell a story—that need to create order out of the chaos of experience—will never stop. It's like air and light, food.

Vivian Gornick's The Odd Woman and the City is out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Anna Wiener is a writer from Brooklyn who lives in San Francisco. Talk to her on Twitter here.