Tuesday, June 28, 2016

On That Cynthia Ozick Profile

I interviewed Cynthia Ozick eight years ago for Bookslut. She corrected my ill-chosen words and accused me of a lack of preparation. We had an early disagreement on Philip Roth's depiction of the 2004 election night in Exit Ghost and our discussion only grew more contentious. When the hour was over, she wouldn't let me off the phone until I agreed to send her a copy of the transcript before it was posted on the site. I relented and sent her a copy the next day. She was furious with the piece and rewrote it, line-by-line, not changing the substance, but honing her language and making her ideas that much more precise. I could have told her to go to hell. Instead, we exchanged a few emails in regards to fact-checking and language. At the end, she paid me a compliment. She really liked my interviews for Bookslut. She found them "arresting." Out of all my interview subjects, I learned more from her than from anyone else. And the interview is still a fun if tense read. A literary blogger whom everyone hates now tweeted something mean about me after he read it. But I'm proud of my work.

Too many literary interviewers are afraid of disagreements. I just received answers from an email interview with a graphic novelist. She was insulted by one of my questions in regards to feminism. She prefaced her angry response by asking me to please keep that particular question and her answer in the final copy. Of course I will. I don't think my question makes me sound like a jackass Other people might disagree. The only relevant thing is the finished product. My question and her answer are the most interesting parts of the interview.

I thought about my 2008 interview when I read this new profile of Ozick now up on the New York Times Magazine web site. You can read the profile if you want, but if you've read any of her criticism, I wouldn't bother. It's a stale piece of journalism that offers nothing new. The author delights in the greatness of his subject, but fails to ask Ozick or himself a single hard question. (My one rule for any piece of writing: If you're not willing to ask at least one hard question, don't bother.) Instead, he spends half the article quoting her essays, and her admirers like Harold Bloom -- of course, Harold Bloom, always Harold Bloom -- and David Foster Wallace. There's plenty the author could have done. He could have asked her about her right-wing views of Israel, which are probably better known to readers of the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement than to the readers of the New York Times Magazine. He could have asked her if there was any piece of writing she regretted. Rather than accept her claim that she could still enjoy T.S. Eliot in spite of his anti-Semitism, he could have pushed her further to examine that idea. Was there no point at which bigotry destroys aesthetic pleasure?

Ozick yearns for a lost literary past. In that lost past we didn't just read books, we fought with the people who wrote them. The reading made the fight worthwhile. The fight made the reading worthwhile.


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