Charlotte Brontë once wrote of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.”
Flannery O’Connor noted of the popular success of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “It is interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a child’s book.”
These remarks are cutting, but they were communicated in private letters made public only after their authors’ deaths. Sniping between female writers reached the weapons-grade plutonium level in the case of Mary McCarthy versus Lillian Hellman, when the former said of the latter—on national television, no less—“Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”
Ah, what would life be without enemies? A bland, unseasoned dish. Conflict converts the passing traffic of our days into a competitive parade, with a prize for the best float, leaving the losers to drag their sorry crepe paper contraptions back to the garages whence they came.
For every Susan Sontag, who wrote in a preface to Against Interpretation, “I don’t, ultimately, care for handing out grades to works of art,” there is a Renata Adler taking down Pauline Kael for having written a book that was “not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless,” but—in Adler’s view—worse. With Mobius strip-like circularity, Adler launched a nasty attack on Kael for being—too nasty.
This sort of sniping makes a great spectacle, and our pulses are quickened by the prospect of a literary catfight, just as the hearts of men beat faster when they approach the scene of a high-stakes sporting event.
Sadly, however, there seems to have descended upon the current literary scene an Era of Good Feeling, an all-encompassing Mutual Admiration Society between and among women writers. In my Twitter feed, which follows several literary sites, I am bombarded by descending shuttlecocks of praise, which are then launched skyward again with return encomiums.
Leaving one to ask—isn’t anybody fighting anymore?
Well, there’s Cynthia Ozick and Zoe Heller.
Ozick, in case you aren’t familiar with her work, has been around a long time. She’s 88, and has produced over the course of her long career six novels, seven collections of short fiction, and eight books of essays. The closest she has come to popular notoriety, however, was when her short stories appeared in Esquire back in the seventies, when that magazine nosed ahead of other general circulation publications with a regular stable on contributors that included her, Raymond Carver and Milan Kundera, among others.
What would life be without enemies? A bland, unseasoned dish. Conflict converts the passing traffic of our days into a competitive parade, with a prize for the best float, leaving the losers to drag their sorry crepe paper contraptions back to the garages whence they came.
She was not then, nor has she ever been, considered fashionable, but a brief mention by David Foster Wallace in a college alumni magazine in 1999 may have persuaded some to view her in a new light. When asked what writers “moved” him, Wallace replied that in his view “Cynthia Ozick, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo” were “pretty much the country’s best living fiction writers.” To say that Ozick seemed out of place in this group (with Wallace completing the foursome) is an understatement: an elderly Jewish woman who depends on a driver to get around, who dismisses critical analysis that seeks to break works of literature into subatomic gender/class/race particles and prejudices, who never felt the need to rebel against her Jewish heritage.
Heller is younger (51), hipper (Vanity Fair, The New Yorker), more fashionable than Ozick ever was, and has had more success at the gamesmanship side of the book world in her shorter time on earth than Ozick probably ever will; short-listed for The Booker Prize, a novel made into a feature film, newspaper columns, screenplays. She recently reviewed Ozick’s latest collection of critical essays—Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays—for The New York Times Book Review and criticized Ozick for her “indifference to bothersome facts” about the current state of the world of books, and “aggressive snootiness of tone.” Heller found the energy with which Ozick expressed her complaint—that the quality of literary criticism has declined from her day to the present—“unseemly and excessive.” It was Renata Adler going after Pauline Kael all over again—the younger woman locking horns with the aging matriarch, similar to the way that young bucks butt horns with their elders to displace them from positions of primacy.
To which Ozick replied two weeks later with a poem (in part, Zoe Heller/kicked me down her cellar) and a citation to a two-year old column by the younger woman titled—“Do We Really Need Negative Reviews?” Heller, as you might have guessed, answered the question in the affirmative, but failed to live up to her own standard: she didn’t “provide supporting evidence for” her judgments, and more or less deliberately misread a fairly straightforward figure of speech (“cafeteria-style readers”) to mock Ozick. In the false choice Heller saw between “humane impulses and cold-hearted snark” in the reviewer’s craft, she came down squarely on the side of snark.
It’s not Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman—but it’s a start.