Author's inimitable voice present throughout decades of writing
By Anthony Madrid - Guest Column
Feb. 14, 2017 at 10:36 p.m.
Thursday's speaker in the University of Houston-Victoria/American Book Review Reading Series is author Vivian Gornick. She will be reading from her book "The Odd Woman and the City," which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award last year. We are excited and proud to welcome this superb writer, renowned coast to coast as a memoirist, essayist and raconteur.
Gornick's career is like a throwback to the 19th century. She spent her youth working the beat as a freelance journalist, supporting herself through various colorful phases of New York City history. She lived cheap, had no luxuries and taught herself to write.
Her models were the most serious and intelligent of the classic novelists and essayists: Charlotte Brontë, Henry James, George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf - writers operating at a very high level of integrity and insight. She did nothing to promote herself, paid court to no one, but instead simply faced down the blank page, day in and day out. Throughout the course of 20 years and six or seven books, she built a reputation, brick by brick.
Her first books are all bound up in her experience as a vital part of 1970s feminism, and Gornick's inimitable voice is present from the very beginning. This, too, is a throwback to a previous century, when biting wit and a taste for hard truths were more current. In today's world, Gornick's marked tendency to coin memorable formulations and striking epigrams is rare - and the more precious for being so. She has always been the kind of writer who gives the reader "power tools for the mind."
Persons attending her talk Thursday will find themselves helplessly quoting her Friday.
Gornick's fame took a major uptick upon publication of her 1987 memoir "Fierce Attachments." She went back to the roots of her politics and personality, describing in novelistic detail her childhood in the Bronx, and her stormy relations with her sometimes brilliant, sometimes infantile, always fascinating mother.
V.S. Naipaul once said he liked the kind of novel that provides a "disturbing vision, told from a position of strength." "Fierce Attachments" was the memoir version of that for many people. Still in print 30 years later, it is taught in college courses across the country and held up as a model of clarity and insight.
By the 1990s, Gornick had started taking teaching positions at various universities and found herself having to articulate her writing methods to young people in various Master of Fine Arts programs. Another book that became a big hit on college campuses, "The Situation and the Story," came of these endeavors. Gornick's exposition of her craft was found so useful it was translated into several foreign languages.
The same decade that provided the groundwork for that book also saw the publication of two major books of literary essays, "Approaching Eye Level" and "The End of the Novel of Love." It also happens I met and befriended Vivian Gornick during this interval. She was my teacher. I have known her 22 years.
My doctorate from the University of Chicago was bound up in 18th Century Studies, focused on prose master stylists. I remember thinking that the nearest equivalent to Vivian Gornick, as a talker, was Samuel Johnson, generally considered one of the greatest talkers of all time. Like his, her casual conversation "teems with imagery and point." She also is the shrewdest person with whom I have ever had a conversation.
I know for a fact the book she will read from Thursday, "The Odd Woman and the City," was schemed, planned and drafted for many years. She told me she thinks it's her best work, and indeed the reviewers agreed that the work is an "instant classic." Its great theme is friendship: the ethics of friendship, the consolation of friendship, the deep difficulties.
On behalf of American Book Review and UHV, I invite all who are interested in listening to a modern master at the top of her game to visit Alcorn Auditorium, on the second floor of UHV's University West, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St., at noon this Thursday. You might want to come early.
Anthony Madrid is a visiting lecturer at UHV and author of a new book of poetry, "Try Never," whose title, incidentally, was taken straight out of Vivian Gornick's mouth. He may be reached at email@example.com.