Vivian Gornick on ‘Political Activism as a Path Toward a Coherent Self’

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In The Cut‘s profile on Vivian Gornick, Nora Caplan-Bricker speaks with the incisive author about how her views on feminism and politics have evolved over her 84 years, and of her ongoing “quest for ‘expressiveness’ — a word that, in her work, connotes both inner clarity and the ability to translate that insight outward.”

Gornick, likewise, does not seek the spotlight. Though she deserves as much credit as any writer alive for codifying the current form of the personal essay — The Paris Review has credited her with pioneering the genre of “personal criticism” now associated with essayists such as Leslie Jamison, Maggie Nelson, and Jia Tolentino — her influence as a writer has always outstripped her exposure. Other authors have long valued her writing about writing — its unyielding frustrations and the battle for selfhood it encompasses. Perhaps most beloved among her 12 books are a pair of memoirs: Fierce Attachments, from 1987, and The Odd Woman and the City, from 2015, both of which consider her struggle to forge an unconventional life. A 13th book, Unfinished Business, a reflection on rereading done in her signature hybrid of memoir and criticism, comes out in February. Over the years, a certain romance has accrued to the person of Gornick herself, a born-and-bred New Yorker, radical second-wave feminist, and archetypal staffer for the late, great downtown alt-weekly The Village Voice. Though she says she has always felt like an outsider in literary circles, her work sits at the heart of an alternative canon in which art grows from the politics of being oneself.

Her lasting political awakening came with her introduction to feminism in 1970, when she was assigned to cover a meeting of what her editor termed “women’s libbers” on Bleecker Street for the Voice, which had by then hired her as a staff writer. “Overnight, my inner life was galvanized,” she later wrote. “It was as though the kaleidoscope of experience had been shaken and when the pieces settled into place an entirely new design had been formed.”

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