Not that long ago, Cynthia Ozick wrote an essay for the New York Times, entitled “Writers Old and Young: Staring Across the Moat.” A short time later, this essay was put through the online web content gin and turned into “Should Young Writers ‘Wait Their Turn’? This Famous Old Writer Thinks So.” by Phoebe Maltz Bovy at The New Republic, and the results are a spectacular display of literary criticism bent to the breaking point.
First, let me declare my allegiances. I am a dues-paying, pom-pom–waiving member of the Ozick fan club, so of course I am going to defend her. But even I will admit it wasn’t the most galloping of her essays. To me, the most exciting sentence in the entire piece was the brief one in tiny, sans serif type at the end: Cynthia Ozick is currently working on a book of essays on critics and criticism. Can it be true? Will we get another collection of essays before the unknowable but inevitable end? (Ozick is 87.) Over the past several years, Ozick has been publishing fiction almost exclusively, a late-in-life flush that functions almost as an expression of regret about so much time spent writing essays, though to this humble reader there’s not much better than her five previous collections of essays. (When I read them now, I tend to do so aloud, with a first-edition hardback clutched in one hand, a raised pom-pom in the other.)
Pheobe Maltz Bovy is another writer I like, though obviously not yet at pom-pom level. She’s one of the new regular writers at the newly renovated New Republic, thus far contributing mostly interesting, brief, topical blog posts with a literary slant. She’s also written some longer, perceptive essays for The Atlantic and The New Inquiry about some of the baked-in perils of online nonfiction writing: how parents overshare details of their children’s lives in ways that previously would be considered clear violations of privacy, and how the confessional personal essay invites readerly judgment rather than empathy and defuses the magic of art, where the trivial mundane is rendered sublime.
With that calm and hopefully respectful preamble out of the way, I think that Bovy is completely wrong in her assessment of Ozick. It’s not that the substance of what Bovy says is, in and of itself, incorrect; it’s just that it doesn’t apply well to Ozick. It’s as if her set of contemporary journalistic concerns (how writers get paid, what constitutes a “career” in writing now) were decals for a kid’s toy truck that she needlessly applies to a completely different toy — a set of Legos, maybe.
Ozick writes, “Old writers are taken to be as nonessential as old magazines that long ago expired: they are repetitious and out of date, they fail to be of interest even to themselves, they are worn out.” The essay is about these old writers and their daily increasing irrelevance, in particular their irrelevance to today’s crop of new writers. My suggestion for reading this essay is to replace the phrase “old writers” when it appears with the words “Cynthia Ozick,” because she is obviously talking about herself, admittedly in a slightly old-fashioned, non-confessional, indirect way.
Bovy chides Ozick for her larding of literary allusion and high-art chutzpah, but she’s Cynthia Ozick, for the love. She’s not being pretentious so much as being consistent. Bovy calls Ozick’s essay “the most highbrow get-off-my-lawn ever written” about how young writers are unwilling to “wait their turn” in the spotlight, but this reads Ozick in the wrong key while ignoring much of her previous writing.
What the essay actually seems to be about is searing regret in the face of death. Ozick is the old writer, who is taken to be nonessential. She is the writer who, in her youth, “loitered in [her] room mooning over Proust in his silenced room, or contemplating an exhilarated Henry James.” And she did this instead of “being drawn into the distracting pragmatism of publishing,” be it journalism or any of the para-careers associated with literature. She took this approach, and she’s not crowing about it. And I’m not just consulting my Ouija Board of Ozick fandom to say this. She’s written about it many times: how when Roth and Mailer and Sontag were locking arms and skipping from the offices of the Partisan Review down main street to literary celebrity, she was completely unknown, working years and years on her first, still not published novel, and then again working years and years on another novel, finally published, but, as she claims, read by exactly no one. It was only after this (what? something like 14 years of work?) did she start to publish short stories and reviews. That is, her life has been one of relentless hermetic literary ambition.
And “who was paying for [this] art-for-art purist to hole up in [her] cabin in the woods?” Bovy asks, meanly. Ozick has been clear on this as well: her husband. She jokes in her Paris Review interview that while other writers were getting Guggenheims, she survived on a Hallotte Fellowship, meaning the steady work of her husband, Bernard Hallotte. And she doesn’t say this in some kind of flippant Caitlin Flanagan-ish way. She says it burning with shame at her late blooming.
Interviewer: What sustained you without publication during that period?
Ozick: Belief. Not precisely self-belief, because that faltered profoundly again and again. Belief in Art, in Literature: I was a worshipper of Literature. I had a youthful arrogance about my “powers,” and at the same time a terrible feeling of humiliation, of total shame and defeat. When I think about that time — and I’ve spent each decade as it comes regretting the decade before, it seems — I wish I had done what I see the current generation doing: I wish I had scurried around for reviews to do, for articles to write. I wish I had written short stories. I wish I had not been sunk in an immense dream of immense achievement.
When she writes of “the madness of failed recognition,” who do you think she might be talking about?
And that’s generally the problem with Bovy’s response here. It’s pitched as if it’s a response to a Caitlin Flanagan piece rather than a Cynthia Ozick piece, as if the Ozick piece was only working at the contemporary click-level rather than the coded, literary, autobiographical level. Ozick is not mainly talking about how young writers effectuate writing-related careers, or even the dwindling market for literary fiction, or the seemingly current vogue for confessing one’s privilege, or any of the other elements of writerly infrastructure that have changed. Bovy entertains the notion at the beginning of her piece that Ozick is talking about differences in culture rather than infrastructure, but then Bovy goes on about the changes in infrastructure anyway.
But what Ozick is really saying in her essay is not just that things are done differently now, but what happens when today’s young writers turn out like her — old and in the way? “How will they live, and in what country, and under what system of temperament and raw desire?” The temperament she’s speaking of is the difference between her, an old writer, who (when young) grew her literary aspirations out of that quasi-religious and thoroughly isolated infatuation with literature, the Cult of the Word, and today’s young writers, who come at writing from the celebrity end, the side of knowingness and connections, and the stock portfolio manager’s whittled sixth sense about reputation and marketability. What, Ozick asks, will happen to these writers once they’ve aged out of this Hollywood-like approach to literature — where there is a canon of connections rather than a canon of reading? What happens when they’re past 50, kids now grumpy teenagers, house under a second mortgage, body beginning to fail, and neither the will or the skill to write another pithy personal essay recapping the finale of season 27 of Girls? Yes, Ozick is old fashioned, with a romantic approach to literature. Not news. But at least she had inspiration from and a dedication to the thing itself — literature. What happens when that is given up? What’s left to fuel the fire then?
Though Bovy is obviously a smart writer and obviously has a strong grip on the weird self-exploitations that a contemporary aspiring writer is heir to, it’s almost as if she enacts the very cultural amnesia Ozick is implicitly warning us about. Ozick’s essay isn’t about waiting one’s turn so much as not forfeiting one’s continuity.
And though Ozick doesn’t push her essay into itemized cultural critique of the present moment, I will. Living in Brooklyn and having the right friends on Twitter and posting occasional humorous pictures of your cat with the book of the moment and having fleeting but deeply felt feelings for every micro-breeze in the literary chattering complex does now somehow count as a meaningful expression of literary engagement. I’m not speaking about Bovy here; I’m speaking about everyone I follow on Twitter; I’m speaking about myself. Having an interest in and aspirations to literature has become codified into a mode of “being literary.” That is, like D.G. Myers warned, it has become a kind of social class, a lifestyle, with all its attendant signifiers. But the problem with a social class is that you can accidentally evict yourself when you buy the wrong jeans, vote for the wrong person, or refuse to read the latest photogenic genius everyone’s gaga over. But Literature, that sunken cathedral, will still welcome you — fat, lumpy, badly dressed, and nearly dead. It’s almost something worth believing in.