For most of her career, Cynthia Ozick has written challenging and brilliant fictions that examine the metaphysical aspects of Jewish culture, examining fabled belief systems, gender dynamics, and the walls culture might build with even-handedness and cautious interest. Novels and short stories like The Puttermesser Papers and “The Shawl” engage with cultural values and history in unique and dark ways, while several nonfiction books, including the forthcoming Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, examine the value of criticism and the state of the literary novel today. Erudite, intellectually rigorous, and brimming with generous insight, Ozick’s work as a critic and thinker demands a kind of attention from the reader, requires the reader to think along for the promise of revelation. We corresponded about the new book via email. What follows is a conversation with someone just as interested in and excited about literature as they were when they first put pen to paper. The Millions: In a Paris Review chat you did in 1985, you talked about having your routine consist of rising in the late afternoon and working through the night. Has anything changed since then in terms of how you approach the work? Cynthia Ozick: Much blood has gone under the bridge since then. In the last half-dozen years, I've turned into a Snatcher: I read in desperate snatches in the interstices of the Quotidian, and dream of finding three uninterrupted quiet hours to think, moon, mentally maunder, and, above all, write. I am pursued by an anti-Muse; her name is Life. Her homely multisyllabic surname is often left unenunciated, but to certain initiates it may be whispered: Exigency. TM: What’s your reading life like? Are you reading for, say, an hour or so, and then drafting/editing for a while? Is there urgency to write every day? CO: Unlike in earlier years, I nowadays consume public information voluminously. I read both The New York Times and Wall Street Journal (one is the poison, the other the antidote, and make of that what you will!), and also many magazines, both the traditional kind and the digital. In terms of living wholly in one's own allotted time, the world is not too much with us. Decades ago, though, it would have been inconceivable for me to acknowledge this. Whatever counted as "politics" was of no interest; nothing mattered but capital-L Literature and its inevitable sibling, History. Still, writing, whether fiction or essays, is something apart from "information," and rises out of the well of intuition: every human mind has its individuated "tone." So when you ask about "the editing process," and speak of "drafting/editing" — I find these reparative procedures foreign to me. I will not move on to the next sentence until the previous one is fully satisfactory. Perhaps there are two species of writers: those who complete an entire manuscript provisionally, with permission to go back to "polish the verbal surface," as one such writer once described it, and those who endlessly and obstinately fiddle in place. (As for writing every day, see above.) TM: You’re a writer who develops both formative essays and novels and short stories in nearly equal measure. Since part of drafting fiction involves investigating certain aspects of life, I wonder what you see as being the overlap between scrutiny in your essays and scrutiny in your plot lines, or if they're completely separate. CO: The difference is crucial: it's between knowing and unknowing (rather than not knowing). If you are going to write an essay on, say, twilight in Sweden, or on Henry James, you know that much: you have your subject already in hand. But if you set out to write a story, whether long or short, you begin with less than a glimpse: a shred of idea that once moved you, or the wisp of memory of a mother and daughter you encountered for seconds as you passed them in a train, or simply an inchoate feeling. Plotting, though, can be intellectual or serendipitous, a deliberate plan or a revelation or an insight, and this can apply also to the "plot" of an essay; but overall an essay is an assessment, or rearrangement, of given materials, while a story must discover what it is made of in the very course of its own making. TM: I’m interested in how this differentiates from writing an essay or a piece of creative nonfiction. CO: In writing fiction, one creates a character, but very often it's the character who influences the trajectory of events and ultimately creates the story. This wouldn't necessarily apply to certain types of genre fiction, such as the detective novel, where the writer is in full control and follows the design of a prepared plot. But when the imagination is untethered and free, the writer may lose control of the character, and the character may stubbornly decide against the writer's initial wish; or else the character reveals a motive that the writer never anticipated. This can hardly happen with what's called "creative nonfiction," despite the permissive adjective. The subject matter of non-fiction is fixed, chosen, unalterable. A nonfiction piece on the Civil War, say, can't change the nature of the battles; both action and outcome remain today what they were then. The writer may play around a bit with the personalities of Grant or Lee, but the spine of the narrative is immovable. As for the "personal" essay, the writer, like a character in fiction, can assert whatever she desires; as in fiction, she is immune to the fact-checker. TM: What do you think it might take in order for a writer to produce a "great American novel" in today's literary landscape, or even one that has relevance and power beyond what it achieves in the insular writing community? CO: How vast is the invisible infrastructure of this proposal! It puts in question an entire culture, and how a civilization expresses itself. Some say that the Great American Novel has already come into being, in The Great Gatsby, or in Moby-Dick, and a good case can be made for each of these. Dreiser's Sister Carrie might be another candidate, or The Scarlet Letter, or The Adventures of Augie March. Your query, though, speaks of the current literary landscape, confirming that "what it might take" still isn't clear. One answer might be that the day is young — but can we see any inkling of a presumptive heir to Bellow or Updike or Nabokov, or to so many others of the previous generation (the list would be long and impressive) who have left a formative mark on American experience? One sign, or omen, would be the presence of a writer of formidable language power, willing to use all the sources and resources of American prose; instead, we swim in a welter of the slipshod easy vernacular. Also absent, so far, is some overriding feeling or idea, or, at the least, something larger than pipsqueak cynicism. Finally, given that the country is roiling and boiling toward some unknown new dispensation grounded in narrow competing triumphalist claims, where is the bold and necessary ironist who will write our Death of Ivan Ilyich? Or else, and why not? Maybe what we are waiting for will be the Great American Comic Novel! And a final caveat: the lineaments of a sublime work of the imagination can't, after all, be prescribed, and one is guilty (mea culpa!) of tendentious theorizing if one dares to do it. TM: Is technology perhaps counterintuitive to to serious literary debate, analysis, and scholarship, or do you feel that it marks a sort of natural progression and provides a platform to showcase what writing has come to in the age of the iPhone? CO: Last year I finally surrendered my pen. I could not conceive of writing seriously on a keyboard facing an illuminated rectangle, and used the computer mainly as a means of transcribing a completed work (as was the typewriter in the past). The keyboard and the monitor struck me as enemies of the freedom of language, since it seemed that the words could come only through the pressure of one's fingers on the narrow neck of a pen. Or to say it otherwise, the ink flowed directly out of the hand; and what was ink if not language? Yet now, as you see, I've learned (to my amazement) that one can actually think on a computer! TM: In a culture of writers that either embrace the concept of direct narrative or a fractured storytelling structure, would the middle ground between the two extremes be something new to emerge, and if so, where does it lie? CO: Either-or has never been storytelling's only available way; from early on, there has always been that "middle ground." Mostly it has been a companionship between fiction and an interpolated essay, side by side in the same novel. We see this in George Eliot and in E.M. Forster, where we hear the author's reflecting voice; it might be called the "intelligence" of the novel: intelligence in both senses, the writer spying on her characters, and the writer's mind exposed. The "fractured" novel (Ulysses is the great modernist instance, but think also of Zadie Smith's NW and Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers) has so far not permitted amalgamation with any other form. Accretion, fragment by fragment, replaces logical chronology Yet despite its jagged unexpectedness, what fragmentation has in common with direct narrative is a paradoxical coherence: we know and feel what we are meant to know and feel. And if there is no middle ground between fragment and form, so be it: why should fiction, the ultimate territory of genuine freedom, eschew extremes? In life we are rightly persuaded to pursue the middle way. But in literature (three cheers for extremes!), what we want is what Kafka relentlessly demanded: A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. TM: David Foster Wallace was an ardent fan of your work, citing The Puttermesser Papers as one of his favorite books. As a critic, writer, and cultural anthropologist, I wanted to know if you've considered the relevance of his work, and whether or not he shifted the direction of post-modern fiction yet again. CO: It was an astonishment to be told not long ago that David Foster Wallace was even aware of my work, let alone had read any small part of it. It was even more startling to see a photo of the flyeaf of his copy of The Puttermesser Papers, on which appears a long list of words transcribed from the book, ostensibly because they were new to him. How could this be? If I hadn't with my own eyes seen that list, I would have thought the rumor of his affinity was no more than a hoax. After all, Infinite Jest is a free-wheeling and exuberantly abundant novel with a fervently reverent and always growing readership, and not only is my own experience as a writer lightyears from his, but in subject matter and in literary temperament Wallace and I have nothing in common. His mind is encyclopedic and digressive; my scope is far more limited and my reach into the world definitively tamer. His novels are termed postmodern, and so they are, but in their appetite for overflowing tangential inclusiveness they also resemble the all-devouring 18th-century novel (Richardson, Fielding, Sterne). And finally: Wallace's most original gesture is the art of the note — footnote and endnote, but especially footnote. Whether this alone (the seductive power of the asterisk) will "shift the direction of postmodern fiction" is doubtful. Once it has been done, and done so lavishly, it may seem superfluous to do it again. TM: It seems that [The Puttermesser Papers] has a certain staying power, particularly among men. What do you think it is about the work that stands out, be it the brutality of the plot or the force of the prose? CO: I’m afraid that I am unable to address this generous assessment of "staying power." Time will, as they say, tell; and in some cases — though certainly not in mine — Time has already told. (See David Foster Wallace above.) Most writers and their books quickly fall into posthumous eclipse, and I don't doubt that I will be among them. TM: You said that fiction is the ultimate territory for genuine freedom, but is fiction not without rules? The novel can take many shapes, as can short stories, but there's still something familiar within each mutation. Would you argue that genuine freedom works best with some sort of familiarity to constrain or guide its line of thinking? CO: I agree that familiarity of form is most conducive to the reader's comfort, and that feeling at home with its "rules" increases readerly enjoyment. Joyce's Ulysses, which (after, say, Dickens and George Eliot and Trollope) seemed to have no rules at all, was hard going for its earliest readers, though certainly not nowadays, when stream of consciousness has become commonplace. Eliot's The Waste Land was once dauntingly impenetrable; today its technique is ho-hum. The very concept of "rules" means familiarity, knowing what to expect; but even revolutions eventually evolve into the humdrum. As for constraining or guiding a line of thinking, isn't that for sermons and tracts? TM: A large part of your fiction writing has involved chronicling the Jewish-American experience… CO: Here I hope you will allow me to demur. This is certainly true of other Jewish writers, at least those who are inclined to contemplate their heritage; call it, though without denigrating its art, sociological fiction. I am altogether without interest in the Jewish-American "experience," if this term is intended, as you phrase it, to scrutinize and investigate the meaning of that identity, both how it plays out in conventional society and [the writers'] own personal heartbreak over legacy and fractured tradition. Again, all that is sociology, particularly the concern with identity and the deeper roots of the self. I am drawn elsewhere: to the Jewish metaphysic and its long and steadfast history. It is these grains of perception, I believe, that sustain my thinking and kindle imagination. (A recent story in this mode is “A Hebrew Sibyl,” which appeared in Granta.) As for the sociological: Irving Howe, a stellar critic who was part of the group of literary luminaries who came to be known as The New York Intellectuals (all of them now nearly forgotten), once commented that after the generation of the immigrants, the American Jewish novel would die of lack of subject matter. And then — beware definitive declarations! — came the influx of those remarkable young writers who as children fled both the Soviet Union and Iran. For such embattled lives, having endured restriction and calumny in their earliest years, personal heartbreaks over legacy and fractured tradition may be vitally pertinent themes; or may not. But for American Jews, who for the first time in two millennia have the inconceivable good fortune of living freely and without overt fear, and who have rarely known an ounce of oppression or indignity, and who for the most part are now four or five generations distant from the immigrant period…for these, the identity question is simply another floating particle in the egalitarian multicultural movement. (Recall Irving Kristol's quip: "They used to want to kill us, now they want to marry us." And they have: 70 percent of American Jews are intermarried.) Those deeper roots of the self are more superficial than felt. When roots are genuinely deep, they are not scrutinized or investigated; they are as intrinsic and unremarked on as breathing. Self-knowledge in the Socratic sense is indifferent to roots, and Jewish self-knowledge can only mean knowledge, and what is knowledge in the absence of historical and textual and linguistic awareness? Which is why most novels by American Jewish writers are a branch of social studies. Nor would I quarrel with this: stories are free to be whatever they are. TM: Writers who are conscious of coming from rich national and historical backgrounds tend to have their work characterized as being "haunted" by those important works of national or cultural identity that came before….Do you think it's appropriate to draw those comparisons on the basis of legacy and cultural background, or do you think there should be a distinction between what a writer of a certain background is looking to achieve, and how a critic or academic might group them based on previous works of a certain genre?" CO: Well, we know what Saul Bellow thought of how critics and academics grouped him! He retorted with his famous quip — Hart, Schaffner & Marx, mocking how he and Roth and Malamud were, in effect, regarded as a kind of Jewish-owned haberdashery. But your question is serious and important, and we've had two elegant answers from two significant Jewish writers. Isaac Bashevis Singer: "Every writer needs to have an address." Harold Bloom: "The anxiety of influence." Both these succinct insights acknowledge that origins not only count, but continue to carry their force. (The term "haunted" confused and misled me because of its baleful resonances.) Criticism would be blind and deaf if it failed to recognize affinities and legacies, as it always has: in America, Transcendentalism, the Harlem Renaissance, naturalism, and so many other literary movements and groupings, whether conscious and voluntary or critically observed. But this doesn't make writers into pawns! Or turn Hawthorne and Melville, with their similar Anglo heritage, into Siamese twins! Or Bellow, Roth, and Malamud into Jewish clothiers. It's a sublime paradox, sublime because the seeming contradiction fortifies rather than diminishes: every writer is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; and yet, contra Donne, every writer is at the same time an island entire of itself. The continent is humanity; but every continent contains someone's own home address. TM: At this point in your career…do you feel any differently about your work, either the work you're developing or the work you've done? Do you feel that your role as a writer has taken on any sort of prominence? CO: My diary with its innate depression contains the felt truth of any answer I might give. I have been driven to write — to be a writer — from a very early age, but have never been able to think of it as a "career," a schemer's word that suggests aggrandizing hot pursuit. And for a very long time I was unpublished, a failure in my own literary generation: a circumstance that has left its mark. I am always surprised to discover a reader, and when I do, it is usually in the context of "I never heard of her before." As for what I feel about past work, I wish I had done more. And I begin to wonder whether reviewers who have found my novels unsympathetic may be right. I still hope to write a story made purely of feeling. TM: Are you working on anything now that you're hoping to release? CO: Yes. On a story made purely of feeling. TM: Can you elaborate on what you mean by this? CO: This brings us instantly back to Tolstoy, though I am thinking here not of a novel, but rather of a story: The Death of Ivan Ilych, wherein ultimate aloneness in the face of imminent dying leads to a kind of catharsis, and revelation overcomes dread. Or the haying scene in Anna Karenina, which envelops the reader in bodily joy and the intense companionship of laborious achievement. On second thought, an entire novel can't be made purely of feeling, since such sublime moments are exactly that: moments. Pure feeling mostly occurs at the extremes of life: terror and joy.
Unless you're inhuman or illiterate, you've felt the frisson of joy delivered by an instance of perfect mimesis in fiction -- that moment when a writer gets something so recognizably right that the act of recognition itself seems to confer a new reality upon the experience. Yes! you might say, that's exactly how it is, and underscoring your pleasure there might be recognition of another sort: the writer's recognition of your own experience of the world. Then there's the convincing depiction of experience that's recognizable, yet once-removed. For simplicity's sake, for the moment let's stick with experience or behavior rather than natural occurrence. Someone you might not have known or seen or heard firsthand becomes, through the deftness of the writer's rendering, distinctly and convincingly familiar. Yes, you might say in this case, that's what it must be to be someone like that. That's how he would talk. That's just what would happen. Reading Zadie Smith's NW, for instance, when a distressed Natalie (Keisha) wanders the streets of her old neighborhood with Nathan, who's never managed to escape its dire demographics, you might -- if you were someone like me -- never have known someone quite like Nathan, but now you do. You can hear him say, as surely as if he'd been standing next to you, “Everyone loves a bredrin when he’s ten…After that he’s a problem…That’s how it is…There’s no way to live in this country when you’re grown.” Or another type, one you've observed in one form or another, might become not just credible but comprehensible, as in the work of Curtis Sittenfeld in American Wife. You might have asked yourself (again, if you're like me, sadly), How is it possible to be Laura Bush? A smart, educated, seemingly enlightened woman as the self-affirmed conjugal flak of a spoiled, failed child of privilege turned evangelical war-mongering anti-intellectual politician on the world stage? And in Sittenfeld's fiction you might find an answer that resonates. Move one step further away from what you know, and you may be confronted with a character who's conceivable even though he or she might not exist. Yes, you say in this case, it's entirely credible that a character might be made up of such components -- now I see her! -- yes! -- that's what she'd say or do! She might be Oedipa Maas of The Crying of Lot 49. Or Jack Gladney, pioneering the field of Hitler Studies in White Noise. Or David Foster Wallace's Orin Incandenza. Or Charles Dickens's Mr. Dick. But what about experience that's inconceivable to most of us -- an act of genius, a moment of utmost extremity, a visit to the moon, a chat with Kim Jong-un, falling to the guillotine, challenging Julius Caesar? Anyone who has read The Iliad and understood that the pouting Achilles was a hero to Homer's audience must know that what we understand to be verisimilitude, let alone storytelling and heroism, is in some philosophical, even existential way uncommunicable across time and culture. And when we realize that nothing resembling what we understand to be a novel was written in the West before the 1600s or in the East before 11th century, we have to concede that fiction as a conveyance of experience, a depiction of reality, a connection between writer and reader is susceptible to time and interpretation. What do we want from it anyway, aside from the oh-get-me-from-here-to-there-already of plot, a perfectly acceptable demand for the satisfactions of seeing things make sense? This was a question that -- oddly, perhaps -- came up for me as I was reading Ethan Canin's new novel, A Doubter's Almanac. Canin is, in the old-fashioned sense, as Henry James said of Nathaniel Hawthorne, "a beautiful writer." His clear predecessor is the F. Scott Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby, as he can so perfectly capture a thought, a gesture, a look, a detail, or an event as it means something to a character whose reflections he's so precisely and evocatively conveyed that it means something to us. In this new book, the narrator is something of a mathematical savant, son of the not-at-all-somewhat mathematical genius whose story the first half tells and the second half retells from another perspective. This is fiction that captures reality in a way that's quite different from what I've described so far, because the reality that Canin is depicting is, for the most part, philosophical. The novel is steeped in a mathematical sensibility. In his father's mind, Hans, the narrator, tells us, "all the other academic disciplines -- including the physical sciences ...were irrevocably tainted by their debt to substance." And again and again we are asked to view the world as someone like Hans's father, Milo, might -- purely, you might say, without reference to its physical coordinates, though the physical coordinates are what orient Milo and make him aware of his gift, as we see when we first witness his extraordinary "positional aptitude" -- his uncanny ability to know precisely where he is on the "plane of the earth" -- a "sort of intrinsic, spatial mapping." “Mathematics is an invented science,” Milo tells Hans. “But strangely,” he continues, “the inventions of mathematics, which are wholly constructions of the mind, are in turn able to yield other inventions. That is why they seem more like discoveries than creations. In fact the distinction remains a debate...I also believe that this is why so many mathematicians feel that they have been privy to the language of God.” He thought for a moment. ‘Although I should also say that I’ve thought of it in other ways, too. As the language of the mind, for example. Or even’—here he turned to me more thoughtfully -- ‘as the language of language. The underlier of grammar. The skeleton of cognition. The rails on which the train of human advance steams up and down, one hill after the next.’ At this point, a mulberry twig falls onto the lawn in front of father and son. “Squirrels,” Hans says, looking up. The squirrels, of course, are the point. “Mathematics,” Milo says, “is like carving a wooden doll...and then, one day, you watch as your wooden doll gives birth to another wooden doll.” In its form and its fashion, the novel raises the question: do we look to fiction for the wooden doll or the squirrel? In A Doubter’s Almanac, Ethan Canin gives us a truly convincing picture of what it’s like to experience the world as most of us, probably, don’t. This is life in the abstract, which, predictably, doesn’t work out very well for those who are privy to this intellectually elevated existence. When Milo has failed in worldly terms: “His mind, he realized, was his only friend.” Though Canin wants us to care about Milo and his mathematically gifted children and grandchildren, what’s far more convincing is what’s familiar: “We watched a pair of red ants pitilessly drag a thrashing inchworm across the sand. It was like the ending of a great novel.” An inchworm or mayflies or lily pads: Canin takes us back to that moment of mimesis that reminds us of our connection to someone else’s vision or experience of the world: My mother looked up at the cloud of wings and feelers. ‘Mayflies,’ she said. 'They seem to be committing suicide in pairs.’ ’You’re right.’ She leaned back and let out a sigh. 'They’re mating.' There is in this novel a strange tension that makes me, at any rate, wonder what we ask of fiction anymore. Does it, as in the work of Lydia Davis or Diane Williams or perhaps even Jenny Offill, ask us to question how we experience reality -- or whether we experience it differently than others might? Or does it allow us to confirm what we think we know? In A Doubter’s Almanac we have two worlds, and two forms of fiction, in uneasy coexistence, one that psychologist Jerome Bruner says establishes “not truth but verisimilitude” and one that -- in Bruner’s view not fiction but argument -- “verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof.” Just as, in a world that contains photography, a painter must reconsider the value of representationalism, a fiction writer in an age of the extraordinary documentation of television and the Internet, where every last little feature of reality might be found and viewed from virtually every angle, must reevaluate the merit of capturing every detail, every moment, of a story. Is that exquisite word picture of a person, a gesture, an instant -- that yes! of recognition -- what we want? Or do we want something different, something new, some sense that, with the same words, in the same world, we might, through the workings of fiction, find a way to rethink reality -- and to find the familiar strange, the world an ever bigger, more interesting place? Observing his daughter, the next generation of mathematical genius, admiring the carpet of lily pads on a slow spot in the river, Canin’s narrator remarks, I think Emmy likes the mystery of the spot, too, the way she knows from the undulation of the green that the water is there but never actually sees it. The feeling is much like the joy of mathematics itself, the original secret of the guild: that the miracle of the universe can be worshipped without actually witnessing the divine. I also think she might be counting the lily pads. Worship the miracle of the universe, witness the divine, count the lily pads: what do we, as readers of fiction, want to do?