Why Does Cynthia Ozick Write? 'I Simply Must,' She Says

Jul 17, 2016
Originally published on July 17, 2016 11:41 am

Cynthia Ozick is revered by those who love literature. She's written novels, but also short stories and essays. Her fiction has been nominated for various awards and she's received high praise from critics as well as her fellow writers.

But you won't find her on best-seller lists. Ozick seeks neither fame nor fortune from her writing. For Ozick, she feels it a necessity to write. "I can't not," she says.

And she wishes others would take it as seriously as she does. In her new book, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, Ozick laments the loss of a literary culture in which, she says, "the publication of a serious literary novel was an exuberant communal event."

Ozick spoke with NPR's Lynn Neary about the empathy needed to create good villains, and how she grew to love reading as a child, when the weekly visit from the bookmobile was the highlight of her week.


Interview Highlights

On the importance of novels

I have argued this question, novel versus essays, and I do come out on the novel side. Because though both these forms use intellect and imagination, they do it in different proportions — the essay more on the intellect side and the novel more on the imaginative side.

And the imaginative is freedom. You're at liberty to inhabit other people — including the bad guys — which is sometimes very thrilling, since you won't do it in real life.

On how imagining "the bad guy" relates to empathy

It's the beginning of empathy, indeed. And it's also a place where you can make judgments, where you can enter other people's minds and at the same time subtly, not didactically, not as if you're giving a sermon or a tract. But you can also make judgments, and they can be social judgments, moral judgments, metaphysical judgments.

Judgment is usually frowned on nowadays. People say, "Oh, you're so judgmental." But that's really what novels give us. They give us freedom to do anything, including to make judgments.

On yearning for the past

I wouldn't say "yearning," because one can't have it back. And so why yearn? But there was a time when a new novel came out — let's take [Saul] Bellow — and it was a public event. And really, it wasn't just an elitist hobby.

I remember — this goes way, way back into my early childhood — when Gone with the Wind was published, the world was whirling around this novel. I remember walking to school and seeing shopkeepers sitting outside their shops reading Gone with the Wind. This was an event. It changed people's minds.

Maybe I have a yearning for that, though I don't see it would ever happen again. On the other hand, didn't we see that with Downton Abbey? So maybe it isn't all lost.

Writers simply can't help themselves. In a way they're sort of like the queen of England. Every writer is doomed to his or her profession. What else is the queen going to do with her life? She was born a queen; she's stuck. And writers are stuck, too. - Cynthia Ozick

On her interest in writing

I always knew that this was what I wanted to do. I think this is true of most writers — especially anybody who's read Little Women, which is every writer. Not so much the male writers, let's admit it, but every writer who grows up has wanted to be Jo.

On reading as a child

The neighborhood I grew up in, a kind of semi-rural patch of the Bronx, didn't have a library. And so the green truck came every Friday afternoon and we used to wait for it on a corner. And the kids would jump up and down: The library's coming! The library's coming! And then they would throw on the grass two boxes: one of magazines, and in the other box, the fairy tale books.

So the kids would dash to the boxes and go home. And you were only allowed two books and one magazine. And by the time Saturday came they were all finished and you had to wait another week.

On being remembered

Just think of all the writers who are far better known than I. I've been mostly obscure for decades. ...

I don't think one writes for immortality. I think beginning writers always think they will have fame. But if fame — which is power — is what you want, then you'll get it, probably. But it's not something necessary to want or need.

On why she writes

Because I can't not. I mean, what else am I going to do with my life? That's another way of putting it. I simply must. Writers simply can't help themselves. In a way they're sort of like the queen of England. Every writer is doomed to his or her profession. What else is the queen going to do with her life? She was born a queen; she's stuck. And writers are stuck, too.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Cynthia Ozick is revered by those who love literature. That's both love and literature with capital L's. Her fiction is nominated for awards - the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Man Booker - and praised by critics as well as her fellow writers. But you won't find her on bestseller lists. Ozick seeks neither fame nor fortune from her writing. For Ozick, writing is a necessity of life. And she wishes others would take it as seriously as she does.

In her new book, "Critics, Monsters, Fanatics And Other Literary Essays," Ozick laments the loss of a literary culture where she says, quote, "the publication of a serious literary novel was an exuberant, communal event." Cynthia Ozick joins us now from her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. So good to have you with us.

CYNTHIA OZICK: Thank you, happy to be here.

NEARY: Now, I know you are known both for your fiction, your novels and short stories, as well as nonfiction, your essays. But it's very clear to me, really in this book particularly, that the form you love best and consider the most important, I think, is the novel. Why is that? Why do you feel the novel gives readers something that no other form of writing can?

OZICK: Well, I have argued this question, novel versus essays, and I do come out on the novel side because though both these forms use intellect and imagination, they do it in different proportions, the essay more on the intellect side and the novel more on the imaginative side. And the imaginative is freedom. You're at liberty to inhabit other people, including the bad guys, which is sometimes very thrilling since you won't do it in real life.

NEARY: Yes, and you also write that ability to imagine both sides and to imagine the bad guy, as you said, is the beginning of empathy.

OZICK: It's the beginning of empathy, indeed. And it's also a place where you can make judgments, where you can enter other people's minds and at the same time subtly - not didactically, not as if you're giving a sermon or tract, but you can also make judgments. And they can be social judgments, moral judgments, metaphysical judgments. Judgment is generally frowned on nowadays. People say, oh, you're so judgmental. But that's really what novels give us. They give us freedom to do anything, including to make judgments.

NEARY: I couldn't help feeling, though, as I was reading your book that - I think there was a yearning for the past running through it a bit. You mean, you wrote about Malamud. You wrote about Lionel Trilling, Saul Bellow. I felt a bit of a yearning for a time when those masters were striding the earth (laughter) kind of thing.

OZICK: I wouldn't say yearning because one can't have it back, and so why yearn? But there was a time when a new novel came out - let's take Bellow - and it was a public event. And really, it wasn't just an elitist hobby. I remember - this goes way, way back into my early childhood - when "Gone With The Wind" was published, the world was whirling around this novel. I remember walking to school and seeing shopkeepers sitting outside their shops, reading "Gone With The Wind." This was an event. It changed people's minds. Maybe I have a yearning for that, though I don't see it would ever happen again. On the other hand, didn't we see that with "Downton Abbey?" So maybe it isn't all lost.

NEARY: Or for kids and then their parents. "Harry Potter," of course...

OZICK: ...Oh, "Harry Potter." Yes, indeed. Yes.

NEARY: How did you start writing? Did you start writing as a child?

OZICK: Yes, I did. I always knew that this was what I wanted to do. I think this is true of most writers, especially anybody who's read "Little Women," which is every writer. Not so much the male writers, let's admit it, but every writer who grows up has wanted to be Jo.

NEARY: (Laughter) It seems that way, doesn't it? And I know that you were an avid reader and used to wait for the library truck or cart.

OZICK: Yes. The neighborhood I grew up in, a kind of semi-rural patch of the Bronx, didn't have a library. And so the green truck came every Friday afternoon, and we used to wait for it on a corner. And the kids would jump up and down - the library's coming, the library's coming. And then they would throw on the grass two boxes, one of magazines and in the other box the fairy tale books. So the kids would dash to the boxes and go home. And you were only allowed two books and one magazine. And by the time Saturday came, they were all finished and you had to wait another week.

NEARY: You are such a well-loved writer right now. But I understand that you don't believe you will be remembered as a writer. Is that true?

OZICK: Oh, I think it's obvious. Just think of all the writers who are far better known than I. I've been mostly obscure for decades.

NEARY: Does that bother you, to think that you won't be remembered as a writer?

OZICK: Not at all. I'll be dead (laughter). No, but to answer that seriously, I don't think one writes for immortality. I think beginning writers always think they will have fame. But if fame, which is power, is what you want, then you'll get it probably. But it's not something necessary to want or need.

NEARY: Why do you write?

OZICK: Because I can't not. I mean, what else am I going to do with my life? That's another way of putting it. I simply must. Writers simply can't help themselves. In a way, they're sort of like the Queen of England. Every writer is doomed to his or her profession. What else is the Queen going to do with her life? She was born a queen. She's stuck. And writers are stuck, too.

NEARY: (Laughter) Cynthia Ozick is a writer, and her latest book is "Critics, Monsters, Fanatics And Other Literary Essays." So good to talk with you.

OZICK: Thank you. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags: