Vivian Gornick tells romanticists to get real.
By Merrik Bush
The End of the Novel of Love, by Vivian Gornick (Beacon/Ballantine). Cloth, $20.
NOVEMBER 24, 1997: AUTHOR AND CRITIC Vivian Gornick wants one thing clear: She's from New York. In fact, you might say she is New York: Bold, passionate and fiercely independent, her sharp-edged literary persona has been fostered by the dense culture of the Big Apple's gritty urban streetscape. Having survived professionally in a place where even talented writers flourish and die overnight, it should come as no surprise that Gornick, when asked, believes a city like Tucson has no literary community.
To be fair to Tucson's enclave of writers, Gornick's literary yardstick is narrow. It's built on memoir writing, on recounting experience: the kind of compelling experiences that she believes can't be cultivated from the empty, angst-free streets of Tucson, where commerce, rather than culture, reigns supreme.
"Tucson is a small town. (A literary community) just can't develop," she says during a phone interview from her apartment in New York. "I'm sure Tucson is going to get bigger in terms of money and people, but the community is interested in absolutely nothing but condominiums and strip malls...in nothing but consumerism. It's a town made entirely in the image of escaping the anxieties of the world."
In spite of her contrarian sentiments, 62-year-old Gornick admits Tucson's been good to her. She's a tenured professor at the University of Arizona, where each spring for the last seven years she's imparted writerly advice to aspiring memoirists in the creative writing department. And, though Gornick derides Tucson's ability to inspire, she's just published a book of critical essays, The End of the Novel of Love, which she conceived while teaching in Tucson.
It happened during her second year. One of her students, stumbling upon a critical essay of hers in The New York Times--an article that castigated tenderhearted male authors--confronted Gornick with a burning question: "Don't you believe in love?" Surprised, but thoughtful, Gornick answered that, in fact, she didn't believe in love. "(That's) not the same as saying I don't need it," she qualifies, "but I don't believe in it...not as an article of faith. That was the first time I realized this was true, and then I had to think, 'My goodness, why is this true?' So all these years later, I finally came to it (with The End...)."
The author goes on to explain that her collection of essays is not out to deny the existence of love, but rather to dispel the antiquated notion that love is a benign, romantic catalyst for happiness; it isn't in life, and therefore isn't credible in literature. Our experiences here at the end of the 20th century have become much more complex: the rise of the autonomy of the individual; the politicization of homosexual and bi-sexual partnership; the prevalence of divorce. All these things, and more, led Gornick to the conclusion that "the love-metaphor no longer worked in novels."
In this lucid and often persuasive book of 12 essays, she argues that love is not a panacea. With biting intelligence and psychological acumen, she examines the lives and works of a century's worth of authors she admires, in each concluding the fairy-tale happy ending of romantic love is out-dated and irrelevant. Instead, she proffers the confusion, loss of self, and defeat confronted in the face of love as more appropriate literary catalysts for explanation and reflection.
Through the writings of Jean Rhys, Willa Cather, Grace Paley, Kate Chopin, Raymond Carver and Clover Adams, among others, Gornick argues that contemporary authors, to be effective, must question the tired literary premise that love and marriage necessarily lead not only to self-knowledge and personal fulfillment, but to meaningful storytelling.
Whether or not you share Gornick's seemingly hostile take on love in the Western world, her argument is compelling. A single woman herself for the last 40 years, she's observed the evolution from divorce as uncommon and sordid to an expedient, surgical alternative to "bad" (inconvenient, loveless or destructive) marriages. Statistically, happy endings today are found at least as often in a lawyer's office as at the altar. And because literature remains, in part, a reflection of society's collective psyche, Gornick has an insight to be reckoned with.
"Put romantic love at the center of a novel today," writes Gornick, "and who could be persuaded that in its pursuit the characters are going to get to something large--that love is going to throw them up against themselves in such a way that we will all learn something important about how we got to be as we are? No one, it seems to me. Today, I think, romantic love as a metaphor is an act of nostalgia, not of discovery."
Die-hard romantics might be tempted to explain her away as old, divorced and cynical, but her prose is refreshingly cynicism-free. Past works--the acclaimed memoirs Fierce Creatures and Approaching Eye Level--reveal a compassionate, bright, driven woman who wants more than anything to become a more conscious human being in an often harsh and isolating world.
Raised by her mother in the Bronx, she was instructed that the pinnacle of achievement for a woman was to find love and to marry. Paraded as an attainable fantasy by the mostly single, divorced, and lonely women in her neighborhood, Gornick realized early the inherent contradictions of such a broadly espoused conviction. She developed a searching intelligence that garnered her an MA from New York University and attracted her to feminism, psychoanalysis and literature, three areas she says molded her sensibilities.
She's a veteran journalist, having worked for The Village Voice, The Atlantic, Ms., The Nation and The New York Times Book Review, and has penned numerous nonfiction books.
Gornick is a breed apart: She's matured into an intellectual memoirist who sees her writing more as literature than confessional. In beautifully rendered, lyrical prose, she relates her daily struggles against the ever-present specter of loneliness and her drive to connect in meaningful ways with the world and the people around her.
"As artists," says Gornick, "emotional disability empowers imaginative insight. We all have a cross to bear in the ways we cannot experience ourselves. The artist is able to make a virtue out of that. We (as individuals) often have insight, but we're unable to do anything with it. The artist, on the other hand, takes that damage and insight and shapes it, and that's the meaning of writing."
The authors in The End of the Novel of Love, says Gornick, are acutely aware of being trapped inside their own lives, despite or even in spite of love, and it's this realization that propels their writing and gives it power.
In her essay on Willa Cather, for example, Gornick sees Cather's internal struggle over her inability to live out a happy, fulfilled life as a lesbian as the template upon which her characters and their behaviors are molded. Cather's characters do not become actualized, self-fulfilled human beings in the realm of romantic love because for Cather, it's simply not an option.
"Nobody really knows how to put together in literature the life we are truly living today," says Gornick. "I think we are at a time in history where metaphors are not clarified, and that's why we don't have great literature."
One thing is paramount to Gornick: Whether walking the empty streets of Tucson or her celebrated streets of New York, she's on a quest to discover herself in the world around her. As for the end of love, she doesn't claim to have any resolutions; but hers is a spirited voice calling for further debate.
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