Vivian Gornick: The End of the Novel of Love (1997) Essays on Literature

The End of the Novel of Love

In these essays Vivian Gornick examines a century of novels in which authors have portrayed women who challenge the desire to be swept away by passion. She concludes that love as a metaphor for the making of literature is no longer apt for today’s writers, such has the nature of love and romance and marriage changed. Taking the works of authors such as Willa Cather, Jean Rhys, Christina Stead, Grace Paley and Hannah Arendt, Gornick sets out to show how novels have increasingly questioned the inevitability of love and marriage as the path to self-knowledge and fulfilment.

Vivian Gornick is an essayist and memoirist. Her collection The End of the Novel of Love contains a wide range of essays on different authors and topics. The title is the title of one of the essays. Almost all the essays circle to some extent around the topic of love. Some of the essays are more biographical, others focus more on a theme and compare and analyse different authors and works.

There are biographical essays on Kate Chopin, Jean Rhys, Willa Cather, Christina Stead and Grace Paley. I liked the one on Willa Cather and Grace Paley best, as Gornick is less judgmental in them than in some of the others. In the essay on Paley she says that despite the fact that her range isn’t all that wide, that Paley often writes about the same things again and again, her stories are still excellent because in her stories the voice is the story. What is unique in her stories is that people don’t fall in love with each other but with the desire to be alive.

There have been three story collections in thirty-five years. They have made Paley famous. All over the world, in languages you never heard of, she is read as a master storyteller in the great tradition: people love life more because of her writing.

The book contains two essays on people who are not fiction writers: Hannah Arendt and Clover Adams. While I’m familiar with Arendt and her work, I didn’t know the tragic story of Clover Adams, the wife of Henry Adams, who took her own life in 1885. The suicide struck Henry Adams particularly hard as he thought of Clover and himself as two parts of a whole, while, very clearly, Clover had an inner life of her own and didn’t share most of her distress. Clover was, according to Gornick, extremely intelligent and witty, which fascinated Adams. He fell in love with her mind right away, but didn’t show much kindness when he wrote about her as being anything but handsome. And even his praise of her intelligence doesn’t really read as a praise because he feels obliged to add – implicitly and explicitly – that she’s witty and intelligent “for a woman”.

The most interesting essays in the collection are those on themes, in which Gornick analyses and compares several works.

In Diana of the Crossways Gornick compares George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Gornick tells us that while the three books written by women are brilliant, they aren’t a success, unlike Diana of the Crossways, which is a stunning novel, because it goes one step further.

Each of these three novels was written by a brilliant woman with the taste of iron in her mouth. Each of them gives us a sobering portrait of what it feels like to be a creature trapped, caught stopped in place. Yet no one of these novels penetrates any deeper than the others into the character’s desire to be free: all that is achieved here is the look and feel of resistance. (…)

George Meredith, in his late fifties, had the experience and the distance. Meredith knew better than Woolf, Eliot, and Wharton what a woman and a man equally matched in brains, will, and hungriness of spirit might actually say and do, both to themselves and to one another. (…)

Diana Warwick is one of the first women in an English novel both beautiful and intellectually gifted who needn’t be dismissed as vain, shrewd, and ambitious before we can get on with it.

Ruthless Intimacies analyses the relationship between mother and son in D.H.Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and the relationship between mothers and daughters in Radclyffe Hall’s The Unlit Lamp, May Sinclair’s Mary Oliver, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Edna O’Brien’s short story A Rose in the Heart of New York. The relationships in these novels are symbiotic and swallow up the daughters completely. They struggle their whole lives to free themselves. I can relate to that all too well and would really love to read The Unlit Lamp and Edna O’Brien’s short story. Both sound pertinent and excellent.

Tenderhearted Men focusses on author’s who write in the vein of Hemingway about men and women. Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and André Dubus. Gornick dismisses them as too sentimental. They cling to a dated idea of men being saved by women, without trying to understand them.

The End of the Novel of Love is interesting. It states the obvious but the obvious was still worth stating. Most of the tragic (love) stories of the past like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, but also books like The House of Mirth are unthinkable in our day and age. Marriage and society have changed so much. Adultery doesn’t have the social consequences it had. I thought this part of the essay interesting, but I didn’t like that she chose to illustrate her concept in picking apart Jane Smiley’s novella The Age of Grief and calling it not only unmoving, but a failure. Harsh words. Maybe it’s true. I haven’t read it but I don’t like this type of unkind criticism.

Gornick’s writing is very accessible, a lot of her insights are fascinating and made me think, but, as I mentioned before, she’s very judgmental, which made me cringe occasionally. It made Gornick come across as very unkind. See for example this passage taken from the essay on Kate Chopin.

One of her biographers makes  the point that Chopin never revised, Chopin herself, announced, in interview after interview throughout her professional life, that the writing either came all at once, or not at all. I think it the single most important piece of writing we have about her. She seems to have considered this startling practice a proof of giftedness, rather than of the amateurishness that it really was.

Although I didn’t care for some of her harsh judgments, I thought many of her observations were pertinent and fascinating and I’d certainly read another of her books. I’m interested in her memoir Fierce Attachments and her book on creative non-fiction The Situation and the Story: the Art of Personal Narrative.

If you’re interested here’s the first chapter on Diana of the Crossways.

36 thoughts on “Vivian Gornick: The End of the Novel of Love (1997) Essays on Literature

  1. Intriguing. Although I’d like to explore her reasoning and concepts more, I think like you I would find the judgemental aspect hard to take. Chopin, for example – I’ve read and loved all her work and can appreciate different ways of writing and working. It’s not amateurish if you think your first work is your best and don’t want to revise it – that’s down to you as an artist to decide!

    • I had to swallow a few times. I love Kate Chopin. The Awakening is one of my favourite novels, that’s why I had a very strong reaction to the way she criticized it.
      In a way I thought it takes guts to utter such strong opinions. In some cases she’s spot on, in others she just misses completely. But she is interesting.

  2. Hi, Caroline. This book sounds like something I’d definitely be interested in reading, though I suspect Gornick’s attitude might not suit me. What I mean is, I have trouble putting anything at all, any topic, any metaphor or simile, any plot line, any compositional strategy at all out of bounds and saying “It is no more” or “It’s no longer appropriate” without knowing how a particular author has used it. I myself have written a romance novel, not because I like the form, but because I wanted to play around with it a little bit, as an act of curiosity, to see if I could do it even though I don’t have much respect for most romance novels. I don’t know what some author in the future might not write with love as a subject (or, as often happens, as the officially proclaimed subject while some other plot line or theme really does the majority of the work), so how can I put it out of bounds? That being said, I’m very glad to have made the acquaintance, through you, with Gornick’s book. It’s one I can see myself reading and trying to engage in argument with. Thanks.

    • I think she’s certainly and author which can trigger discussions, exactly because she’s to some extent opinionated. I understood what she meant when she said the novel of love as such isn’t valid anymore but it was a gross exaggeration. I think novels about adultery must show something very different than they had to show decades ago but surely love is still as relevant. And so is romance.
      But there were a few really oztstanding essays like the one called Ruthless Intimacies. In such a short post i couldn’t do her any justice. I hope that should you read her, you’ll write about her. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

      • I don’t know if she wrote about Jane Austen, but if not, I find it telling: Jane Austen was a past master of works often dismissed as novels of love, yet they were really (in spite of their generally happy endings) about the politics of society and love. I can’t help but wonder what Gornick would (or does?) make of Jane Austen. Maybe Austen is too far back to fit within what she wanted as her chronological range, at some mysterious time when the novel of love was “okay.” I’ve ordered a copy of Gornick’s book, and hope to have it soon.

        • I don’t know what Gornick thinks about Austen, but if I have to speculate, I would say that she probably would have admired Austen. I have seen critics say not-so-nice things about Dickens and Thomas Hardy and sometimes even ignore George Eliot, but Austen is God, the novelist equivalent of Shakespeare 🙂 She has only admirers. Atleast that is what I have seen. I would love to know what Gornick thinks about her though.

          • From the choice of books and topics I think Austen is too far back in time to be analyzed by Gornick. Her main focus is modern literature and those books and the precursors of modernism.
            I could imagine however that she wouldn’t approve of all of Jane Austen’s novels.

          • Hi, Vishy! I’ve enjoyed reading your comments on Caroline’s site. About Austen and her admirers, yes she has many, and I don’t see how anyone could not admire her work. Still, the great Henry James (another favorite of mine, for my sins) dismissed her as a “miniaturist” or something like that, and downplayed her talent. Of course, some critics have remarked that he learned from her just as much as he learned from others, and we all know that he can be turgid upon occasion, proving that he couldn’t seem to learn lightness of touch from her. But I think in the realm of characterization, he learned to “see” his characters by having had her as a teacher. What do you think?

        • She only wrote about more recent novels. George Meredith and George Eliot are the only older authors she includes here. I think her point is that it’s not possible anymore to write about love and give it the same meaning it used to have. But I wouldn’t be surprised if she dismissed Austen as well. I’m very tempted to read Jane Smiley’s novella now. To see for myself if she’s up to something.
          I’m looking forward to your thoughts.

  3. Interesting book and wonderful review, Caroline. I am surprised when I read comments by critics that a book is a failure (the way Vivian Gornick has described Jane Smiley’s book). How is a book judged as a failure? Is that a vote that a majority of the critics give? Or is it just the opinion of this particular critic? Or is that what the readers of that time felt about the book? Or is that how today’s readers feel about the book? What about the people who liked the book? Does their opinion count? And what about books with respect to which the critical opinion changes with every generation? (Shakespeare was regarded as a plagiarist by the literary critics of his era, while today he is a literary God.) Thinking about all this makes me confused even more 🙂 Gornick’s thoughts made me think of how the influential literary critic F.R.Leavis tried creating a new canon in English literature in the 1940s, ignoring important writers like Dickens and Hardy (stating that their works were not important in the English literary tradition. Leavis later recanted his opinion on Dickens). Gornick looks like the 21st century Leavis 🙂

    Thanks for reviewing this interesting book, Caroline. I will keep an eye for it. I think I could have a lot of heated debates with this writer – I love it when I can do that while reading a book.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I hope you get to read her. I’d love to know what you think. In a way I admired her for stating her own opinion in such a way but on the other hand I thought she was too extreme. I think she certainly also wants to provoke and that’s not necessarily a bad thig. Sure, seeing her judge my favourites – Kate Chopin and Jean Rhys – quite harshly shocked me. She also made comparisons between work and life or stated things like the books of such and such couldn’t be any better because the writer was still immature. But when she said something interesting or positive, it was great. The book is quite old and maybe she’s part of a school of criticism. I found it accidentally I wanted to read it. I owe her the discovery of Radclyffe Hall with whom I wasn’t familiar and I’m looking forward to read The Unlit Lamp.
      Certainly a book for heated discussions. 🙂

  4. I can’t imagine a writer calling an established (and respected) author’s work a “failure.” That is not only judgmental, but kind of … arrogant. The criticism of Chopin is unduly harsh, too.
    Was wondering if you liked The Awakening, because I’ve had it on my shelf for a while, Caroline.

    • Oh I love The Awakening. It’s one of my favourites and I could not understand why she thought so little of it. She made it sound like a case of te emperor’s new clothes, as if all those who like her or appreciate her just had no clue.
      Yes, she has an arrogance. I have hard time to belive that Jane Smiley could write anything that was a failure.
      I should read it. But she does also dismiss Jean Rhys’ early work. Despite of my criticism of her judgments it was interesting.

      • I’m in the dark until I get my copy of Gornick’s book next week or so, but I would ask what book in particular of Smiley’s she found a failure. The only book I’ve read of hers is “A Thousand Acres,” and it wasn’t really what I would call a novel of love, more like a shocking family saga, but I too find it hard to believe that such a good writer, even if she turned her hand to the “novel of love,” would muff it. I even read the book after I’d already listened to the complete thing on CD, which is going some, especially since I don’t like listening to books being read that much except by people sitting around in a room together doing it for fun.

        • She only “attacks” The novella The Age of Grief. I just ordered it. I want to see for myself. I love A Thousand Acres and could imagine reading it again.

        • The only one she thinks is a real success is her last, Wide Sargasso Sea. I think it’s a great work but I liked her other novels, and especially the short stories just as much. It seems Rhys made some bad choices in her life and Gornick says it can be felt in her writing. In a way, also in what she says about Kate Chopin, she’s a real puritan. You have to work hard or it’s not valuable work, she seems to say.

  5. Very interesting post, Caroline. I’m not going to read this book (someday I might overcome my difficulty with reading non fiction) but I’m glad you wrote about it. It sounds more like a pamphlet than a balanced theory about literature.

    Vishy recommended Kate Chopin, I’m looking forward to reading The Awakening.

    • Some of the essays are very balanced and well worth freading. Some are a bit like pamphlets.
      You would find this very accessible. Her style is straightforward. It’s really the content that is a challenge.
      I loved The Awakening and most of Kate Chopin’s short stories. If they were first drafts then I’m even more impressed.

  6. This sounds so very interesting. My only problem with works like this is that I have a tendency to not ant to read them unless I have read most or at least all of the works that are covered in the essays.

    • I’m the same. In this case I was lucky, I have read most. It’s just the novella by Smiley, and a few others I wasn’t familiar with, That certainly helped and that’s why I said she’s a harsh judge. And it makes me want to read those I didn’t know.

  7. This sounds really interesting and at first when i began reading your post the book sounded quite promising, but I am not sure I would like the critical (as in judgemental) slant of the essays. I want to learn something about a book or writer–it doesn’t necessarily have to all be positive, but I don’t want to read something negative either. I think every work has something to offer a reader and I like a critic who can help me tease the best out of any piece. If nothing else perhaps she has introduced you to some potentially good/new to you books!

    • I discovered a few books, I’m keen on reading but I did find her strong opinions annoying at times. There is certainly some truth in some of her negative criticism but I wouldn’t utter it the way she did.

  8. I don’t know any of the writers mentioned in this book…but the book itself sounds great, great in the sense that it talks about essays.

    Great review Caroline 🙂 I am also reading a non-fiction now.

  9. I’ve meant to read Paley’s short stories for years but haven’t ever got to them. This sounds like a really good read if you’re in the mood for the subject. Personally I like to read non-fiction-it’s a good change of pace.

  10. Hi, Caroline. I’m finally able to get back to you about Vivian Gornick’s book. Maybe the fault is in my expectations, but it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I was expecting a more scholarly account of how the feminist literary movement (whether of female or male authors) had affected the development of the novel of love. But her book was a pale shadow compared to my (perhaps unfair) expectations. She made no outright connections between the what and the why except to make some vague comments about how the non-literary experience of love in the real world had impacted upon the literary use of love as a metaphor, or theme. My paperback copy at least was badly edited (riddled with typos) and had no notes in support of her arguments. As well, Clover Adams’s life and letters to her father were considered cheek-by-jowl with Adams’s novels, and the affair between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger was also there, as if it were a novel. She made a lot of gross overgeneralizations about the novelists and other subjects, rationalizing from the biographies to the works, and vice-versa, and there were a number of idiosyncratic opinions and statements that were relatively unsupported by direct quotes or references to the works. On the whole, I’m glad I read it, because I was interested in hearing what she had to say, and I thank you for taking the time to review the work. This is because I write mainly comedies and light satires, and in that form, it’s fairly usual to have a fairly “happy ending” appended, because of the demands of the form. I can see why she feels that such manoeuvers are taken in “bad faith” (that old swear-by of Sartre and the existentialists), but the form is still around, in spite of what Gornick says, and we don’t all write the kind of heavy, “realistic” novel she has taken for her subject. I guess it’s all in what you go to literature for, after all: I read a lot “heavier” novels than I write, and maybe someday I will try my hand at something more pointed and realistic. Certainly, she makes a number of good if unscholarly points that come from the heart, and there’s no virtue in denying the sense she conveys of our contemporary “zeitgeist,” which is probably in the main accurate. I hope this long response is what you were looking for when you invited me to respond, as it is deeply thought out, though how it strikes you only you can say.

    • I’m sorry, if my review mislead you. Your reactions are similar to mine, you just worded it differently.
      I didn’t really get Hannah Arendt and Clover Adams in all of this but I found the chapter on Clover interesting, the one on hannah Arendt was another of those that I called highly judgemental.
      I liked the book more for what it made me think about that because I was so taken with her reasoning. There are no notes in my edition either. She’s called a critic but not in an academic sense.
      I found it much more like a opinionated reader’s view than proper analysis.
      I thought it was an interesting mix of profound thoughts and undifferentiated opinions.

      • Yes, I think you’re right, the book is a mixed bag. Worth reading, but with some serious flaws. I thought I read somewhere that either (or both) Clover Adams and Virginia Woolf were partly off-balance because their husbands wouldn’t allow them to have children, but I don’t know if that remark was from a feminist point of view or from the kind of negative perspective that says that women aren’t complete unless they have children. Could be either, I guess. Anyway, you did me a favor by recommending the book, as you are quite right, that it is “an interesting mix of profound thoughts and undifferentiated opinions.” We have to take our profound thoughts where we can find them.

        • I’m glad you didn’t regret reading it. I’m always suspicious when I hear interpretations like that – that a woman was off-balance because she had no children. It’s possible of course, depending on the cisrcumstnaces but so often people assume it just because they think that’s what women truly want.

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