Mavis Gallant: The Art of Fiction No. 160 in The Paris Review
You are 28. You move to Paris. You decided to write only fiction and somehow survive on that. You make this your life. You are Mavis Gallant. At the time, she explained, “I believed that if I was to call myself a writer, I should live on writing. If I could not live on it, even simply, I should destroy every scrap, every trace, every notebook and live some other way.” I recognize this sort of youthful all-or-nothing ultimatum, and I am jealous of its purity. Living off writing is often an unreal, impossible dream or one mixed with stints working in bars, making coffee, or even ghostwriting – something you are quite sure you don’t want to do, except that you need to pay your rent.
I was introduced to Gallant through The New Yorker Fiction podcasts, which I listen to while running around on the NYC subway. In this interview with The Paris Review, when asked if she likes her own writing, Gallant replies, “I don’t think I can answer that. I don’t think that one is impressed with one’s own work. I can’t imagine such a thing. It’s a question of getting it right; it’s not a question of admiring it.” I admire her directness. Gallant goes on to explain,
In fact, I think that I’ve only written one thing that on rereading I thought, This is fine and I like it. The long story “The Pegnitz Junction”—it reads exactly as I wanted it to. I wrote it in a tearing hurry. It was as if it was all in my head and waiting to be written—almost like taking dictation. It was extraordinary.
At 91, Gallant continues to write. “It is not a burden. It is the way I live.”
Like many, I remember my encounters with Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, very clearly. The first time I read it I was a high school freshman in California; I stayed up late to finish it and spent weeks dreaming of New England and the sophistication I imagined would await me in college. In college I re-read it one weekend in late September; I’d just moved into a new apartment that still smelled of paint, and I lay on my bed with the window open to let the fresh air in, aware of the luxury of doing this, aware of how close the frigid winter was. My life at an east coast college was nothing like I’d thought it would be, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book, and whenever I think of it now, I think not just of it, but of that particular September breeze, carrying the smell of almost-Autumn in Boston.
Which feels fitting, because as Tartt says in this interview: “To think about a place has always been a way into a story.” Her new book, The Goldfinch, has just been released, and here, elegantly interviewed by Laura Miller, Tartt discusses, amongst other things, her process of writing, her way of being in the world (“Even when I come to the biggest cities in the world, everything is a series of small rooms”), and, of course, writing male protagonists. This is one of my favorite exchanges; Miller says to Tartt:
“The Goldfinch” has very much the how-I-grew feeling of “David Copperfield.” This isn’t really fair, but when you have a novel like “The Goldfinch” — with that Dickensian length and the different milieus it moves through, and with that robust storytelling — if it’s a female main character at the center of a book like that, we’re almost conditioned to think that the key issue in the novel will be…
To which Tartt responds:
I know, I know! I’m making a face because I know exactly what you mean. It’s terrible.
I had a fairly well-known editor tell me that “The Secret History” would never be published because no successful book by a woman had ever been written from the point of view of a man, and that I would have to change it to a female narrator. But that novel would never have worked with a female narrator because then you would inevitably have the question of whether she was attracted to some of the male characters … it would just never work. It would have been a different book. It could only work if no question of attraction came into it.
Stephanie Mencimer’s “The War of Rape” in The Washington Monthly
This is one of those not-easy-but-necessary pieces. Stephanie Mencimer digs into the muddled complexity of both the Jamie Leigh Jones rape case and the media reaction to that case, from the sketchiness of the details and factual evidence, to the rallying of media, to their silence when the murky nuance of the story and of Jones began to emerge. Mencimer goes on to discuss the avoidance and even resistance with which her writing about the case was met. It’s in these latter aspects that she really taps into a phenomenon that extends beyond rape: our cultural need for myth-making, for the innocence of victims and purity of motives, and our tendency to cling to simplified, palatable stories. Jones was “the perfect victim” because she was so naive, so blond, because her story was so seemingly packagable. One of the really difficult parts of this story is when Mencimer reveals Jones’ deeper motives, colored by blackouts, and untreated mental and emotional disturbances. And if Mancimer’s depiction is correct, this is a story the larger media and even elements of the feminist community would rather avoid, but by paying attention, we stand to learn something difficult but extremely useful about rape culture and ourselves.