And Philip Roth’s biographer responds to his interviewer’s quotation from Gornick in exactly the right way:

I think that says more about Vivian Gornick’s social circle than it does about women collectively.

I mean. Jesus. Let’s keep ’em away from Henry Miller, James Joyce, Hemingway, and Don DeLillo too. Wouldn’t want to expose them to great fiction!

And let’s hope Hadley Freeman’s social circle is a lot larger than Gornick’s.

[E]njoying a novel is not dependent on approving of the deliberately flawed characters, or its similarly imperfect author. There are many things that make a book good – elegant writing, emotional truth, narrative voice – besides its morality.

And of course there are plenty of great novels – Lolita, Notes from Underground, Journey to the End of the Night – whose immorality intrigues us.

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4 Responses to ““There was a Vivian Gornick interview in Bookforum recently in which she was asked about some of the mid-century American writers that were considered great. She said she doesn’t ‘know one young person who reads Roth, or Bellow, or Mailer — not one young woman anyway.'””

  1. University Diaries » Paul Theroux on the Truth of Art. Says:

    […] post continues the theme in this one, where a propagandist is quoted glorying in the fact that (as she tells it) many young women today […]

  2. JKW Says:

    Oh god, not Vivian Gornick again. I say again because when I was a wee lad in the graduate program in English at Columbia, a chapter from one of Gornick’s memoir-ish books was a reading for the composition course we were all compelled to teach. It was a senseless, meandering piece about wandering around New York on foot; the style of it suited the subject matter, in that sense. I still think, often, with irritation, about that piece of writing. Since I do often think of it, though, I suppose that suggests that it has some power, even if that power is an irritant.

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    JKW: Most English profs compelled to teach from a set reading list know the special hell of trying to say something good, or at least intellectually valuable, about second-rate stuff. It’s not quite as bad as having to gather each day at The Dear Leader’s statue and thank him on your knees for his miraculous leadership of the Progressive Korean Peoples, but it’s definitely humiliating and insanely inauthentic.

    Not that all set reading lists are bad. St John’s College has figured out how to make reading lists instructors respect.

  4. JKW Says:

    Believe it or not, the Gornick piece was far from the worst offering. We were allowed to choose half of about thirty readings, many (but not all) of which were much, much shittier than the Gornick article. Only one or two, by Joan Didion and Mark Edmunson, stand out as having been good. But that left another ten or so assignments that demanded readings, and there was a bank of a dozen or so mediocrities–as opposed to atrocities–from which to choose. The atrocities, ten or so, were so awful and unintelligible that they would have made the course unteachable.

    Another article I had to teach, at least somewhat intelligible one, was by André Aciman, who is inoffensive and even somewhat charming in person, but whose prose makes me want to vomit. That piece was so ridiculous that when I had to write a “lesson plan” as part of the dreaded Teaching Practicum all graduate students had to endure I made up the silliest lesson I could conceive of. (Perhaps needless to say, this course was pass/fail.) I included something called a “fishbowl exercise” and even incorporated a field trip into my lesson. The field trip struck me as maybe too much, and for a moment I feared that perhaps my higher-ups would realize that I was not taking their course as seriously as they repeatedly demanded. But I need not have feared. I was told that the lesson plan was fantastic, phenomenal, really great, and I passed the course with ease.

    And yet some set reading lists, as you say, are perfectly respectable. The set list for the actual literature course that all Columbia freshmen take, Literature Humanities, is a real joy to read and to teach. Alas, the composition course, which is crappy enough on its own, suffers greatly and inevitably by comparison.

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