What’s in our Winter issue? Interviews with Vivian Gornick and Michael Haneke; fiction by Ottessa Moshfegh; fiction and an essay by Karl Ove Knausgaard; poetry by Sylvie Baumgartel, Phillis Levin, and Frederick Seidel; aphorisms by Sarah Manguso; a portfolio of photographs by Marc Yankus. And we haven’t even put the issue to bed yet!
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Left: Marc Yankus, Post No Bills, 2013, archival pigment print. Right: Marc Yankus, Pierre Hotel, 2013, archival pigment print. Copyright Marc Yankus.
Vivian Gornick, The Art of Memoir No. 2
I was in my early thirties when I left my second husband and came back to New York from Berkeley, where I had left graduate school and was working at UC Press and trying to figure out what to do next. In New York I got a job at Basic Books working, actually, for Irving Kristol. I didn’t even know he was a reactionary! He was very literary, a very decent boss. I was doing secretarial work for him and I was terrible at it. Every morning I’d prop a container of coffee on the open top drawer of a filing cabinet, then I’d forget the coffee was there, pull out the bottom drawer, and the container would topple into the files. Kristol used to come into my office and between gritted teeth hiss at me, “You must take control.” But I never could. Yet he didn’t fire me. Then Susan Sontag published “Notes on ‘Camp’” and I read that and I thought she’d gotten the whole thing wrong, I thought the camp she described was really not in the spirit of Oscar Wilde but rather in the spirit of miserable Alfred Douglas, so, like the bristling competitive young woman I guess I was, I made that distinction, and I wrote this smartass piece taking Sontag to task, and it got published in the Village Voice and it got a lot of attention.
I had written other pieces for the Voice—in a casual once-in-a-while way—but now I went to the editor and I asked him for a job. He said, “You’re a neurotic Jewish girl, you can only produce one piece a year, how can I give you a job?” “Not any more,” I said, “I’ll write anything you ask me to write.” And that was it. I interviewed Dorothy Day, I covered Jack Kerouac’s funeral, and I discovered that the style of the moment, personal journalism, was a natural for me. The job was mine.
A great photographer insists on writing poems. A brilliant essayist insists on writing novels. A singer with a voice like an angel insists on singing only her own, terrible songs. So when people tell me I should try to write this or that thing I don’t want to write, I know what they mean.
You might as well start by confessing your greatest shame. Anything else would just be exposition.
It can be worth forgoing marriage for sex, and it can be worth forgoing sex for marriage. It can be worth forgoing parenthood for work, and it can be worth forgoing work for parenthood. Every case is orthogonal to all the others. That’s the entire problem.
I wrote my college-application essay about playing in a piano competition, knowing I would lose to the kid who had played just before me. Even while I played, knowing I would lose, I wrote, still I played to give the judges something to remember. I pretended my spasms of self-regard transcended the judges’ informed decisions about the pianists who were merely the best. I got into college.
At faculty meetings I sat next to people who had sold two million books. Success seemed so close, just within reach. On subway benches I sat next to people who were gangrenous, dying, but I never thought I’d catch what they had. That’s the trouble with the idea of success: it mutates hope into hardness.
George W made a painting & painted his toes pink
Like the meat I eat
& the color of my baby’s penis.
The triangle, the British Empire & the Financial Times.
Daughters, gardens & assholes.
All good things are pink.
Pink like the jelly bean on Daddy Reagan’s desk.
Pink like the icing on the doughnut Dad gave me
In a truck he called Ghost.
I vomit that pink on myself
& don’t tell anyone
That I’m talking pink from my pink mouth.