Cynthia Ozick Wants to Make a Few Pointed Distinctions About Writing, Feminism, and Politics

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Literary immortality, or the lack of it, is one of the central themes of Cynthia Ozick’s seventh essay collection, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays. Now 88, Ozick is convinced that what she calls “lastingness” will elude her. Not everyone is quite so sure. Her six novels and seven story collections contain some of the best sentences of the last half-century, and her often surprising plots meld such influences as Kafka, Henry James, and the Kabbalah into something unique in her generation (or in any). Ozick the critic is sharply discerning and often fierce, erudite but never obscure. In person, she’s self-effacing and kind. On a recent visit to her home in New Rochelle, not far from where her Russian Jewish parents raised her in the northern Bronx, I was treated to bottomless mint ice tea and brownies she insisted I take home in a plastic bag. I was also told, very firmly, just how “screwy” the world has become.

Would you ever think of retiring, like Philip Roth?
I did have a funny exchange with him about it. He announced that immediately after Benedict XVI announced his retirement and shocked the world  — a pope can retire?! And so I asked Roth, ‘Did you get the idea from the pope?’ And he said, ‘No, the pope got the idea from me.’ And Alice Munro is retired. It’s appalling. How can a writer retire? You have to have an extreme disability, or lose your mind. What the hell else are you going to do? It’s a drive that never dries up. Kafka used to say to his fiancée, “I am made of literature and nothing else.” That’s how writers are. If you’re not made of literature then what are you? A dabbler? I don’t know.

Maybe Roth and Munro already feel their immortality is secure.
Well, one the most interesting things about longevity is that if you outlive people, the whole thing comes into perspective. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, when the glamour and the clamor around those who’ve become celebrities is no more because the living body is no more, the silence that follows leaves nothing but a shrunken image. I found Norman Mailer to be the salient example of this. Where is Norman Mailer? Who reads Norman Mailer? Who thinks about Norman Mailer? People who have been celebrity writers, they become societal documents of their era. In that way Kerouac, Mailer, Ginsberg —

Gore Vidal?
Gore Vidal, he’s so forgotten that I’ve forgotten him in my list of forgettables. These people will have this kind of future as a sort of sociological future, but not a literary future.

You’ve often talked about how you wanted to be famous by 25. Instead you spent 14 years working on two long novels, one unpublished and the other …
was Trust. I’ve said this again and again, that I will have struck a medal for everyone who can testify to my satisfaction that they have actually read that book.

Right. But there are times when early fame can become a burden, and some writers who didn’t get it early feel that they’ve dodged a bullet.
No, I think early recognition is so nurturing that it lasts forever, and it feeds ... not ambition, but aspiration. There’s a difference. Ambition is kind of selfish and coarse. And I don’t mean vast fame, I mean just simple recognition. It would have helped me. It’s like when the teacher gives you an A and you want to get an A on the next paper. To get that early on creates a mind-set of, “I can do it, I will do it, I am worthy of doing it.” The mind-set that you acquire early on defines you forever. It’s a question of confidence. So I haven’t dodged any bullets.

The first essay in your collection laments the decline of a vibrant critical conversation. The figures you write about — Bellow, Malamud, Lionel Trilling — are mostly giants from a previous era. Would you be offended if I said the collection had a nostalgic cast?
Well, nostalgia is a kind of sappy emotion. You feel that the sensibility belongs to, let’s say, 50 years ago. But these are the lasting ones, that’s the point. I guess every generation has its own golden age. But beyond that there is a winnowing, and after the winnowing of the past generation you have to look at the present generation and you can’t help but evaluate. You obviously can’t see who is the Tolstoy in embryo.

Any guesses about those embryonic Tolstoys who will survive the future winnowing?
Of your generation? I don’t see any. I don’t see Updike, I don’t see Bellow, and I mourn that Malamud is in eclipse, because that lack of cynicism that he had is obsolete. I read a review by Cathleen Schine in the New York Review of Books. She’s done about ten novels and I haven’t read any of them. I was so struck by her mind in that review that I said, “Oh, I’m missing something. I have to read this writer.” And now I will. But it came from an essay, and I’m looking for fiction with a mind behind it. I’m looking for a fiction of ideas. And that’s what I don’t see.

Your essay on the great critic Lionel Trilling’s failure to write great fiction was interesting in light of your ability to go back and forth. Which is more important to you?
I’m more like Trilling: “The novel or nothing.”

So if you were remembered more for your essays than fiction, that would upset you?
I don’t think I’ll be remembered, so it’s moot. I’ll give you a name: Stanley Elkin. Really an iconic writer and a skilled writer, but people don’t even know his name now, and that’s normal. But when I say, “The hell with it, yes, call it nostalgia, old fogey, call it antiquarian,” the thing behind it is lastingness. Of course, in the larger view the sun’s gonna burn out and there’s no Shakespeare. Most everything is ephemeral. Am I gonna have an afterlife as a writer? No, there’s no possibility. I absolutely believe that.

Well, do you feel satisfied with what you’ve written so far?
No, no no no no. I’ve been so thwarted, especially lately. I want to write a bunch of short stories. And my dream is one more novel. But then I need ideas.

In the essay, “Transcending the Kafkaesque,” you call Kafka a “fevered midnight writer.” Why do you keep a nocturnal schedule yourself?
The essential reason is it’s quiet, there are no interruptions, and you own the night. But my current domestic circumstance doesn’t permit writing every day, and that’s the big difference — not having the old absolute leisure and freedom, the freedom to dream, really. Now I don’t sleep at all. I haven’t slept in six years.

Are you working on stories right now?
Two of them. I’ve been having trouble with a story for almost two years. Zachary Leader, who is the biographer of Bellow, came to ask me a couple of questions about Bellow. And he came in wearing a hat that looked just like Bellow’s. And the taxi came and he rushed out, and he forgot the hat. He lives near London so he said he’d be back in a few months and pick up the hat. I carefully wrapped it in plastic and put it away and one day he came in and he took the hat, ran out, and disappeared. The whole thing struck me as in some way an astonishment. What is the relation of the biographer to his subject’s hat? It means something, there’s an idea behind it. So the title of course is “The Biographer’s Hat,” but I haven’t figured out what it means. The other thing is, when my husband was in the hospital I met a black man who had a beautiful face, and I spoke to him a good deal, got to know him, and I discovered speaking to him that he was a fanatic of some kind. Fanaticism is an idea, and I do know what fanaticism is and that’s what I’m writing about. I have to be electrified by an idea.

What would you say is the one idea that runs through all of your criticism?
That’s really a hard question. I’m just trying to see if there’s a common trunk of this tree with all the branches.

[Long pause]

I’ve come on the right word: you can call it distinction-making. Now there are two really strong, both very worthy intellectual ways of confronting everything there is. One is seeing how everything is different and the other is seeing how everything has something in common with everything else, and you have to balance those two. But overall in our society, the way it is today, distinction-making is what matters. To say that one thing is not another thing.

Can you give an example of the distinctions we’re not making?
It’s all over the place. It’s maddening. I shouldn’t get into this because I have nothing to do with it, but I’m kind of boggled by the transgender issue. It seems to me so subversive of the aims of classical feminism. It buys into stereotypes, that if you grow your hair long and wear lipstick and earrings and high heels, suddenly this is what a woman is. Where are the feminists complaining about this? Nowhere.

If there’s one thing that separates you most obviously from the famous Jewish writers of your generation, it’s your gender. Do you think it’s held you back?
Other people think so but I never think of it. I remember getting excoriated by a feminist writer because so many of the characters in my stories were male. That’s dogma, that’s not literary thinking. It’s very hard to go against the grain of an overwhelming culture and to say, “I’m not interested in it.” So it goes on, and our present society is screwy. I looked at the syllabus of my grandson who is going into his junior year and is going to be an English major, and I saw: gender class race, gender class race. I thought, what has happened?

It’s been happening for a while now.
It’s been going on, but there’s nothing else now. It’s overridden everything. Look at the gobbledygook that comes out of Judith Butler. It’s beyond jargon. It’s not comprehensible. It’s a wild growth of egomaniacal stupidity.

You called it “moralizing political self-righteousness” in your book. Are you following politics right now?
There’s nobody to vote for. It’s really horrible. I’m a registered Democrat but I won’t vote for the Democrats. It’s very clear to me why not. In 2012, when a very conventional Jerusalem proposal for the platform came up at the convention, I saw an audience going wild with hatred. That was a cut above. If the Democrats are going to abandon Israel, I say the hell with them. Of course it’s not all of them, but as a party, we’ll see. Because I guess they’ll win. Trump is simply inconceivable. But the Republicans are not inconceivable concerning their support of Israel, and that matters to me.

Your Judaism is central to your work. Are you religious?
I am a member of what’s called a Modern Orthodox Synagogue. That defines my membership, but it doesn’t define my Jewish sensibility. I am engaged like mad with its ideas and its history, but not so much about the daily prayer. I am traditionally observant, not out of habit, but out of simple fascination.

Most of the Jewish writers you write about nurtured reputations as rebels — including Isaac Bashevis Singer, who many believe was the subject or your novella Envy, or Yiddish in America.
He thought so!

Were you ever a rebellious Jew?
Never; just the opposite. Why should I rebel against something of value? And to rebel against it is to denigrate the value. In some cases, as in Bellow, it’s not to denigrate but simply the desire to be a wild man. I have that desire also and that’s why I want to write fiction, where I can do anything that’s wicked and blasphemous.

Monsters includes a critical review of Martin Amis’s Zone of Interest, essentially agreeing with a common notion that we shouldn’t fictionalize the Holocaust. You’ve disavowed your own story, “The Shawl,” which depicts the murder of a baby in a concentration camp. Yet it’s probably your most popular piece of fiction.
I’ll tell you why I regret having written that: The experience of writing the first five or seven pages, it was different from any other writing experience I’ve ever had. As people say, it was dictated. I then received a letter from a psychiatrist and he said to me, “I know you are a survivor.” I wrote back and said, “No, I’m not.” And he said, “Many of my patients are survivors and some of them feel they must deny it.” That disturbed me, and then another letter came from a woman who was a survivor excoriating me for writing this. I finally came around to her view. I don’t like Holocaust fiction because the documents are more than enough. Documents can tear your soul. I know “The Shawl” is in many college anthologies, and that’s not for its own sake. That’s for the gender-race-class thing. You have to have Toni Morrison and then some Jew writer, and what is a Jew writer associated with?

So that letter writer converted you. Have you ever taken a negative review to heart?
Yes. I've been told that my fiction is too intellectual — that one can’t love the characters. I guess it’s true and I’m distressed by it. There are so many characters that one never forgets because one is emotionally attached to them, and I’ve never been able to do that. So that is a criticism that I am wounded by, and each time I think, Well, maybe next time I will be able to do it. And there’s never a next time when I seem to be able to do that. That’s a big flaw.

A recent profile of you in the Times Magazine said you should get out more often.
I’m content not to go out more. I’ve been out! Been there, done that.

Anything else you’d object to in that piece?
The “traces of the Bronx” in my accent, I really resented that. I had four years at Hunter College High School from Miss Evangeline Trolander, Miss Ruby S. Papp, and Miss Olive Birch Davis, our speech teachers. We came in tawking like dis, and they put us through the most rigorous conversion you can imagine. When I gave the class speech, they said, “Do you remember Cynthia when she first came to us?” It was Pygmalion, they were so triumphant. I had four years of this, and in the New York Times, I have a Bronx accent. With all that work!