Question: Do you think there are special difficulties in being a woman writer?
Answer: Woman writer? A bit of a crunch trying to get those words together . . . I guess I would say no special difficulty, just the usual difficulties of the arts.
Q. So you feel it's the same for men and women?
A. Nothing is the same for men and women.
Q. Not the same and . . . what else?
A. Actually I have noticed lately a good deal of bitchiness with regard to certain women writers. Susan Sontag, for instance. The public scourging she was subjected to from all sides seemed to me disgusting and unworthy.
Q. What "public scourging" are you referring to?
A. A sort of extended flap about a speech she made at a public gathering in which she spoke of communism as "fascism with a human face" and other matters. This was followed by attacks from the left and the right that seemed to go on for months. She was also scorned for writing so much about Europeans, the French particularly. I think her being a woman, a learned one, a femme savante, had something to do with it. As an intellectual with very special gifts and attitudes, it was somehow felt that this made her a proper object for ridicule of a coarse kind. I believe the tone was different because she was seen as a very smart, intellectually ambitious woman.
Q. Intellectual woman? Aren't you yourself one of them?
A. Let me quote from "The Land of Ulro , " the latest book by the poet Czeslaw Milosz. "The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes."
Q. But, these days, women writers fare about as well as men, don't they?
A. In general, of course. Just as many atrocious women writers are laughing all the way to the bank as men. But I do feel there is an inclination to punish women of what you might call presumption of one kind or another.
Q. Which women?
A. For instance, Joan Didion and Renata Adler. I haven't found two books recently that have seemed to me more imaginative, intelligent, and original than "Democracy" and "Pitch Dark." In the reviews, at least in many of them, I felt a note of contempt and superiority, often expressed in a lame, inept effort to parody . . . And when you think of what the big guys have been turning out! And the ponderous, quaking reviews they receive!
Q. You mean they're getting away with something? What big guys?
A. Never mind, never mind.
Q. What about reviewers today?
A. I notice that many of them in very important places haven't written anything except their reviews, their quick, short reviews, composed with an air of easy authority. For the most part, I think the authority should be in some way earned. Well, they pass the night perhaps. . . . When a real writer discusses literature and culture you will notice a difference in style, in carefulness, and you will actually find ideas, illumination, oddities and not merely yes-or-no opinions.
Q. Are you saying it's not entirely fair for a critic to do nothing but practice criticism?
A. No. Let me say that criticism, analysis, reflection is a natural response to the existence in the world of works of art. It is an honorable and even an exalted endeavor. Without it, works of art would appear in a vacuum, as if they had no relation to the minds experiencing them. It would be a dismal, unthinkable world with these shooting stars arousing no comment, leaving no trace. But it is the mind of the critic, somehow, the establishment of his own thought and values, that counts; and that establishment is the authority of the voice, whether it comes from creative work in the arts or creative work in criticism. When I read a review, a mere short review, I am more interested at first in who is doing the reviewing than in the work under discussion. The name, what is attached to it by previous work, by serious thought, tells me whether it is likely to have any meaning or value for me. It is not a question of right or wrong specific opinions, but the quality of the mind.
Q. You have been criticized for your review of Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex" in "A View of My Own . " Would you still stand on that?
A. No, I wouldn't. It's a wonderful, remarkable book. Nothing that has come since on the matter of women compares to it. When I wrote my comments I was thinking of existentialism and the idea that one can choose and not be dominated by the given . . . something like that. And of course thinking back on my remarks I see how much has changed since the 1950s, especially in the manner of life for women.