Cynthia Ozick, Aesthete

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Author: Sanford Pinsker
Date: Spring 2002
From: Partisan Review(Vol. 69, Issue 2)
Publisher: Partisan Review, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,860 words

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IN ROUGHLY THE SAME WaY that a playful Benjamin Franklin signed himself "Benjamin Franklin, Printer" and William Faulkner tried to put off his overly solemn critics by dubbing himself "William Faulkner, Farmer," I mean to talk about Cynthia Ozick as "Aesthete." I do this largely because many of Ozick's critics have done her work a considerable disservice by so emphasizing her Jewishness that she often comes off as a rabbi without seminary portfolio, or, worse, by regarding her fiction as little more than an extension of her literary essays. In their defense, this is hardly the first case in which an author's pronouncements are regarded as a road map to interpretation. Henry James's "Prefaces," James Joyce's schema for Ulysses, and Malcolm Lowry's similar effort for Under the Volcano spring to mind as documents that are ignored at a critic's peril, as are the interviews that many contemporary writers grant to journals such as The Paris Review.

In Ozick's case, the liabilities are compounded because she writes about fiction--hers as well as that of others--with such passionate eloquence and deep understanding that a paraphrase here, an extended citation there, makes good critical sense. The rub is that everything that makes fiction ... well, fiction often gets lost in the process. At their clumsiest, Ozick's critics reduce her fictions to a set of attitudes and orthodoxies, but even when they are more skillful, Ozick's playful, richly textured imagination ends up sounding more formulaic than it is.

By emphasizing Ozick's aestheticism, I have in mind aspects of the modernist tradition, with all the ambivalence and ambiguity that surrounds writers such as Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and D. H. Lawrence. Of this large grouping of disparate temperaments, Ozick's high regard for James and Eliot is well known. That there is at least as much repulsion as attraction to these literary giants has not always been included in the stories critics tell about "influence."

What follows, then, are a series of glimpses into Ozick's fiction that concentrate on structure; the shape-and-ring of its well-crafted sentences; the ways that complexity inextricably leads to qualified, often ironic, closures; and, perhaps most of all, the insistence that stories occupy a realm quite different from life. Far too much of contemporary literary criticism operates on very different principles, ones more interested in the litmus tests of race, class, gender; and sexual choice than on the actual story before one's eyes. Thus, a good story confirms preconceptions while a bad one is filled with unpleasant surprises. This is to grab hold of the wrong end of the stick, for what fiction of any consequence does is, first, surprise, and then convince. Granted, this preoccupation is hardly limited to academic critics who seem unable to write a paragraph that does not include terms such as "hegemonic" (nearly always as a modifier for "conspiracy"), "patriarchal," and "privileged"; common readers often suffer from the same sense of specific expectations unfulfilled.

Here, an anecdote attributed to I. B. Singer may be...

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Source Citation
Pinsker, Sanford. "Cynthia Ozick, Aesthete." Partisan Review, vol. 69, no. 2, spring 2002, pp. 206+. Accessed 25 Jan. 2022.

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