Cynthia Ozick: Or, Immortality

Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, & Other Literary Essays

by Cynthia Ozick

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 224 pp., $25

Why does Cynthia Ozick, at 88 an undisputed giant of American letters, still seem obsessed with fame?

Like nearly everyone else who appreciates Cynthia Ozick’s brand of genius—and I don’t mean “brand” in the 21st-century sense, but rather the brand plucked from the fire, searing one’s lips into prophecy (the distinction between the two neatly encapsulates Ozick’s chief artistic fascinations)—I’m not the type of person who is a fan of anything at all. As something close to Ozick’s ideal reader, I am skeptical of the entire concept of fandom, religiously suspicious of the kind of artistic seduction that would make one uncritical of anything created by someone who isn’t God. But I am nevertheless a fan of Ozick’s, in the truly fanatical sense. I have read every word she’s ever published, taught her fiction and essays at various universities, reviewed her books for numerous publications (occasionally even the same book twice), written her fan letters and then swooned over the succinct handwritten replies in which she graciously gave me a sentence more than the time of day, and even based my own work as a novelist on her concept of American Jewish literature as a liturgical or midrashic enterprise (a stance she has since rejected, though too late for me). As a young reader I was astonished by what she apparently invented: fiction in English that dealt profoundly not with Judaism as an “identity,” but with the actual content of Jewish thought, at a time when almost no one, and certainly no one that talented, was quite bothering to try.

Today I remain utterly seduced by the dazzling architecture of her stories, the distilled clarity of her sentences, and the urgency of her arguments. But my love for her is haunted by one point of strange discomfort: her obsession with fame, which in one form or another suffuses nearly everything she writes. (In this collection she loudly clarifies that she really means “recognition,” since “Fame is fickle”—but we knew that. Fine, then: high-end, enduring fame.) Her early masterpiece, “Envy: Or, Yiddish in America,” is a novella-à-clef about Isaac Bashevis Singer’s cheap glamour overshadowing better-yet-untranslated writers; her novella “Usurpation (Other People’s Stories)” involves, among much else, a fable about a magic crown that grants its wearer eternal literary fame (spoiler: this isn’t a good thing); The Messiah of Stockholm is about the forgotten genius Bruno Schulz and failed writers and charlatans vying to steal his legacy; Heir to the Glimmering World includes a scholar and a scientist both robbed of their greatest discoveries, forced to become wards of a famous-yet-thoughtless millionaire . . . I could go on, but instead I will simply point out what Ozick’s entire oeuvre brilliantly enacts: Despite the underlying assumption of Western civilization that we owe our world to the genius of Great Men (yes, men) whose names still resonate today, the truth is that merit and credit are only rarely linked. This sad truth is genuinely fascinating, because it unearths our most buried questions about the purpose of living as mortals in a world that outlasts us. But it also can become a perverse obsession for creative artists of every stature, because, as conventional wisdom and the degrading experience of reading Amazon reviews suggests, nothing good comes of it. Or does it?

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About the Author

Dara Horn is a scholar of Hebrew and Yiddish literature and the author of four novels, most recently A Guide for the Perplexed (W.W. Norton & Company).


fmoreau on September 30, 2016 at 8:35 am
An excellent and fascinating article. I absolutely agree that poorly framed criticism is at the heart of the problem. But I think it goes deeper than that. When I was young (I'm 61), it was common currency that educated people "ought" to read serious literature (and go to art galleries, and listen to classical music..), and so they did. But that's no longer true. Relativism and its various malign offshoots has done for "the canon". So my nephew, 30 years younger than me, who was studying English Literature at the time, told me aggressively that only elitist old people thought that some kinds of books (ie, literary books) were better than others.

Ultimately, people read these books because they believed in something called Western Civilization. Do the young any longer believe in it? And if they don't, why would we expect a critical tradition rooted in that civilization to survive?

One other point, though: it's premature to think that Ozick's list of the no-longer-read is the last word on this. History tells us that writers (even Shakespeare, for example) are frequently dismissed and forgotten in the immediate aftermath of their death, only to be revived later. Blame the wheel of fashion, which will turn again, at least for some.

And one more point: you're surely wrong to think that Kerouac and On The Road are already in the dustbin of history. I read it three years ago and was blown away by it. I note that it's described on Amazon has a "best seller", and has over 1,400 reviews...
Joel Drucker on October 3, 2016 at 10:50 am
Wonderful article -- elegant and informative. It makes want to read both more of Horn and Ozick. But please, tell me, what kind of powers does Cynthia Ozick have that she can determine anyone else's reading habits? Care to make a case for Bellow's significance? Go ahead, cite his ideas and the joy in reading his works. But to do so at the expense of others is petty and ill-informed.
gwhepner on October 11, 2016 at 3:25 pm

Apart from Orwell specialists, who
now reads The Road to Wigan Pier​​​?
The answer surely is, “Less than the few
to whom his masterpiece is dear,
but even those for whom it's not,
and who in nineteen eighty-four
would also not have thought a lot
about the progress Orwell would deplore
prophetically, are now aware
that we're all by Big Brother watched,
but do not about this much care,
because our planet has been blotched
by something he did not predict,
islamic terror which has changed
the climate so dramatically
that all norms have become deranged.
The question asked socratically
in the first lines of this verse
does not require a reply,
for everything will be far worse
that what he chose to prophesy,.
The road to Wigan Pier was paved
with good intentions, but from hell
there's little hope that we'll be saved,
and Orwell never tolled this bell,
and yet, of course he is immortal,
because in Nineteen Eighty-Four he showed
the world that it was at the portal
of hell to which we're on the road.

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