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“There is an inclination to punish women.” Elizabeth Hardwick on writing while female.

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July 27, 2021, 1:19pm

Today marks the 105th birthday of the late Elizabeth Hardwick, sweeping, incisive critic, novelist and short story writer. Festively revisiting her 1985 Art of Fiction interview in The Paris Review, I was pleased but unsurprised to see her response to the now-derided question “[What is it like to be] a woman writer?” Her answer avoids cliché or sugarcoating; it’s funny, self-aware, doubling back on itself, and—unfortunately—still relevant.

The discussion reads, in part:

 

INTERVIEWER
Do you think there are special difficulties in being a woman writer?

HARDWICK
Woman writer? A bit of a crunch trying to get those two words together . . . I guess I would say no special difficulty, just the usual difficulties of the arts.

INTERVIEWER
So you feel it’s the same for men and women?

HARDWICK
Nothing is the same for men and women.

INTERVIEWER
Not the same and . . . what else?

HARDWICK
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.

INTERVIEWER
What “public scourging” are you referring to?

HARDWICK
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.

INTERVIEWER
Intellectual woman? Aren’t you yourself one of them?

HARDWICK
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.”

INTERVIEWER
But, these days, women writers fare about as well as men, don’t they?

HARDWICK
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.

INTERVIEWER
Which women?

HARDWICK
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!

INTERVIEWER
You mean they’re getting away with something? What big guys?

HARDWICK
Never mind, never mind.

 

Ouch—and that’s just a small segment of the interview, where Hardwick discusses the state of criticism, her thoughts on New York, and her (lack of) writing process. Happily, everybody loves female ambition now. (Just kidding.)

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