Molly Haskell

Molly Haskell is a writer and critic whose work has been integral in shaping the discussion of feminist film criticism. Her seminal book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, which was published in 1974, was one of the earliest works written about cinema from a feminist perspective. She is also the author of a memoir, Love and Other Infectious Diseases, (1990) a collection of essays and interviews, Holding My Own in No Man’s Land: Women and Men and Films and Feminists, (1997) and, most recently, Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited (2009). Her work has appeared in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian UK, Esquire, The Nation, Town and Country, The New York Observer and The New York Review of Books.

Haskell has served as Artistic Director of the Sarasota French Film Festival, on the selection committee of the New York Film Festival, as associate Professor of Film at Barnard and as Adjunct Professor of Film at Columbia University. She has been a film critic for the Village Voice, New York Magazine and Vogue, and is a 2010 Guggenheim Fellow.

What makes Ms. Haskell’s work so remarkable, and unusual, is that it combines the rigor of the fierce academic with the cinephile’s plain, unapologetic love of the moving image. She refuses to be an unaffected observer, rejects the stiffness of the jargon-heavy theorist, and rather pushes forth with strong emotion and biting humor. To scrutinize myth without compromising magic, to problematize as well as personalize- these are the skills of a truly sensitive critic.

Tell me what it was like for you growing up in the South.

On the one hand, it was very wholesome and I was very privileged. We weren’t rich but we were comfortable, and I went to an excellent girls’ school in Richmond, VA. I had wonderful friends. I spent part of my childhood on a farm that my parents bought out in the county. My father was in business but he loved the land. It was ten miles to the school so he would drive me back and forth most days. We had a close relationship, and he died young, so that was very precious.

The thing about Richmonders is that they just love Richmond—understandably . . . it’s beautiful, civilized, generous in friendship, but very tribal. It’s still the capital of the Confederacy, which means a fairly rigid social hierarchy and attendant snobbery. There was a time when the natives didn’t even want to travel, unless it was to a place where you could be with other Richmonders. I had a friend who said she couldn’t go to Europe because if you went to Europe you had to go for a week and she’d miss too many parties!

I don’t think I thought of it as being narrow-minded, provincial, or conservative— it was just the medium in which I lived. But then, as I got older and more questioning—it was the time of Jim Crow in the South (blacks, or “colored people” as they were called, rode on the back of the bus)— I felt uncomfortable with a lot that I saw, yet not quite capable of challenging these values overtly. I went to a nearby college because my father was very ill and I wanted to be close to home. But then he died the day after I enrolled, so there I was. It wasn’t such a terrible place, but I had wanted to go to the Northeast, and my mother, whose father was from New York and who was quite cosmopolitan, wanted me to go to Smith or Bryn Mawr.

Where did the idea of leaving the South come from?

Reading, my first love, gave me the sense of a larger world, but in my adolescence, movies were the great siren call from beyond. It was through movies that I first developed an appetite for New York. I saw the New York of Doris Day and Rock Hudson in those films about executives and women working. It was the sense of a cosmopolitan world. New York seemed the epicenter of everything stimulating.

Also, there was an art house in town that showed French movies, and I was taking French— as most of us did at the time—and a budding Francophilia along with my mother’s urgings made me want to go to Europe. My father’s death was the catalyst in some way. Something broke. Some automatic sense of being anchored in a world, a religion, and a social group. My sense of belonging was no longer automatic and once that happens, questions occur.

Did you have a sense of what kind of work you wanted to do?

I did want to write, but my ambitions were so unformed because I just didn’t know anybody who was a writer, male or female— certainly no women. I had this idea that a career was possible from looking at movies, but I wasn’t sure what it would be and writing seemed presumptuous, that is to think of myself as a “writer.”

You moved to New York after college. What did you do there?

I interviewed at publishing houses and advertising agencies. And technically my first job was at Time Magazine, which had no women writers then. I had a whole series of interviews and finally they took me on as something called a “Clip Marker.” They said, “We are going to give you a physical, so make sure you want the job before we do because the physical costs a lot.” They hadn’t adequately described the job, so I took the physical and not until after did I go down to the room to get my initiation. What it involved was playing with different colored pencils. You would read papers from all over the world and circle each article: blue would be financial, red would be sports. This is what you did all day long. I went home and I thought: “I can’t do this.” I was a coward and sent them a telegram saying, “For our mutual benefit, I think it’s better if I don’t take this job.”

Ha! What then?

The employment agency sent me to the PR department of UNIVAC at Sperry Rand, which no longer exists. It was a sort of Avis-to-Hertz competitor to IBM. It turned out to be more of an opportunity than the jobs I’d wanted and interviewed for. Every personnel officer would say, “You’re an English major, so?” I had wanted to go to graduate school but at the time my mother said there was only enough money to send one of us, and my brother should go. He ended up not even wanting to.

Interviewing was the most dehumanizing experience I’ve ever had, because as an English graduate from a four-year college, you were just a glut on the market. What did you have to offer? I didn’t even have secretarial skills, didn’t really want to, because I didn’t want to be a secretary. But as far as they were concerned, I was not a very valuable commodity.

But then I wound up at UNIVAC, publicizing the new computers, and it was a little more free form. They hired me as a Girl Friday—an assistant to a copywriting executive. I would do some typing, but it wasn’t heavy duty typing, and they promised I would get to write press releases… So that is what I did.

What was the job like?

That job was right out of Mad Men. Honestly. It’s uncanny how close it was. I was Peggy, though a little less dowdy and with a little more sexual leverage. I started at something like $65 a week, typing letters, writing releases about the latest fabulous Univac on the market. I had a huge crush on my boss’s boss, who was a blond version of Jon Hamm: he was extremely good-looking, had a mysterious past, and a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. After a few months, I moved from my desk outside Harry’s office into my own cubicle! There were all these guys, copywriters a little older than me, with whom I enjoyed innocuous flirtations, basically we would signal each other through the windows of our cubicles, and go out for three martini lunches— which is just inconceivable now! And there was this voluptuous babe secretary who was just like Joan…It was just that early sixties world, a world that was right on the cusp of change.

The end of the sixties was really when the women’s movement was beginning to take form and provide a kind of conceptual framework for all the buried discontent and resistance we all had to the roles that had been pre-ordained for us.

As a self-described “Peggy” who had all those ambitions, did you ever feel frustrated with your work environment?

No, because they coddled me. I was the little mascot somehow. There was a kind of sexiness of the workplace, and that was fun! Another friend of mine was in advertising and she deeply resented the unequal pay. She was in the Art Department, very talented, and was getting paid less than men who were doing the same thing, and she asked repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, for a raise. At least she asked! Something I don’t think I would even have thought to do. I had no idea what my pay scale was compared to the guys. After the demeaning interviewing experience and a glimpse of that ghetto at Time Magazine, I was just so grateful to have this job. The professional world wasn’t panting for me and some part of me had to accept that estimate of my worth.

Also, the office where I worked was never quite the bastion of white-male entitlement you see on Mad Men. One of my colleagues was Japanese, one openly gay, and we all socialized together. Once I had my cubicle, I felt equal to these men. We were all very congenial. In fact, I dated one, and this one and that one… there were these social compensations. And I felt valued, and I was learning.

After that I got a fabulous job at the French Film Office. A friend of mine knew they were looking for somebody who was bilingual. That opened the door to film in a big way.

Lets backtrack. Why were you fluent in French?

In college, I went on my own to the University of London for a year, and spent a month in Paris over Christmas. I knew I wanted to go back. So my mother gave me 6-8 months in Paris [after college]. I had little jobs when I was there, but you could live so cheaply. It was a dollar a night at this little hotel over by the Pantheon that I lived in. I had a few friends. I took a course at the Sorbonne, the “Cours de Civilisation” for foreigners. I started going to the Cinémathèque all the time, becoming interested in thinking about movies though I didn’t do any writing about them yet.

This was the time when Henri Langlois was running the Cinémathèque and the Cahiers du Cinema writers were getting going, right?

Yes. This was 1962. But I didn’t know about Cahiers du Cinema, then. In fact, Andrew [Sarris, her husband] was there at the same time. We didn’t know each other, it would’ve been a real disaster I think! He was really down and out…but he was getting involved, reading Cahiers du Cinema and would later do a translated version of it in the States. He was far more involved than I was, meeting Langlois and various luminaries. I never met anybody, I just went to movies, went to movies, went to movies…and learned French a lot through watching movies. Then I would go home—I now rented a room in an apartment owned by two Frenchwomen, a spinster and her mother—and read Henry James about Americans in Paris. I became a James addict. A great writer but a bad influence.

Tell me about the job you had at the French Film Office.

What I was doing was putting out two publications on French cinema for journalists, I would get all the material from Unifrance, a French government agency that promotes and publicizes French films around the world. I would interpret when directors and actors would come over: Truffaut, Agnes Varda, Jean-Louis Trintignant.

The woman who had had the job before me was Helen Scott, a sort of monstre sacré. She was a real firebrand, a radical. She had lived in France, been in the Resistance, and was very close friends with Francois Truffaut. She had done the translation of his book-length interview with Hitchcock, and she was actually leaving the job at the French Film Office to go work with him on Fahrenheit 451, since it was an English project. They needed someone to replace her, and I got the job.

You started writing for the Village Voice around this time. How did that come about?

When I began working at the French Film Office, people just stayed away in the beginning, because for some reason they imagined that whoever took Helen’s job was going to be like her— she was this great big, gruff, funny, but intimidating person. So everybody was staying away in droves. But finally I started meeting a few critics. The first person I met was Joe Morgenstern, who was at Newsweek then and is now at the Wall Street Journal. He had been asked to write something for USIA, the CIA’s publication, and he couldn’t do it so he recommended me. I did that. Then I met Andrew [Sarris]. At the time, he was the film critic for the Village Voice.

I did theatre reviews for the Voice first. The Voice needed someone to cover Broadway. Their interest was off-Broadway, all those stretches of attics and basements. They had their three off-Broadway critics. So as the fourth-string critic, I was doing Broadway! [laughs] Then Andrew expanded the film coverage and I and several others started writing movie reviews, every week or so. That was the beginning. From there I went to New York Magazine and Vogue.

When you moved to New York, where did you live?

I was always sharing apartments, because no one could afford to live on their own. My first apartment was with three other roommates at a place on East 69th street. I didn’t really know my roommates very well, it was more of a makeshift thing, and it worked out OK. No one would take responsibility, it was such a mess. Finally, we called this maid service. She came and we told her what to do and then we went into another room so she could do her work. But we didn’t hear any noise, so we went to check on her. The apartment was on the second floor and she had climbed out onto the fire escape and left! That’s how messy it was. We were all ditsy and irresponsible. I guess in a way this time was my graduate school.

How do you look back on the person you were at that time?

It’s a little painful. As we grow old, I think we look back on our younger selves with a sense of strangeness and embarrassment. (In my case: what took her so long to find her way?) That person is both familiar yet hard to recognize. It’s not so much that we shed our earlier selves as that they get shoved to the back of the closet. We can’t quite get rid of them, yet feel a certain anguish when forced to bring this or that passé version of ourselves into the light. So out of fashion, so conventional. Also, the gap between what was going on inside that person, and the view others must have had of her.

It’s hard to imagine now what it was like then. We were so submerged, there were no ideas of sexual equality floating in the air to which we could attach ourselves. Especially for Southern girls who were taught to defer, to feign dumbness and listen to men. I was still pretty straight arrow, so not capable of jumping into some bohemian life. But I had become a serious person, intellectually curious, so I was out of sync with all the people who looked and talked like me. I think that happened in college, even. I was suddenly consumed by my studies. It was a profound shift. You’ve gone lockstep with these childhood friends all your life, with all the attendant benefits and comforts, and then suddenly you’re acting the same but you feel like an outsider. It’s very wrenching. Although I continued to function (this was at college), once I got back from London I fell apart. So much of what I had taken for granted and accepted I was now discarding or rejecting, but I hadn’t found my sense of purpose or orientation. I felt awkward at fraternity parties, and very self-conscious, as if I’d lost a common language. I was no longer fluent in small talk. I was finding other friends who went with my new life. But there was also depression, a sort of divided self.

That was true even after I came to New York, I never was quite at ease. It was then I met a woman who is still my friend today. She was looking to share an apartment as was I so we signed a lease together. She was an ex-actress, now a journalist, working at Look magazine and she had been at Vogue. A friend of hers from Vogue knew the people at the French Film Office and that is how I got that interview. We had a little walk-up on 49th street. She was making more than I was, so she had the big room and I had the little room. She got to be the boss, like an older sister, which was a little annoying— her decorating taste prevailed! But we had a good time. Betty was smart and confident, the adored only child of Jewish parents, and she was a lesson in how to put yourself forward, make the most of yourself. I was still flailing and I think I learned from her without quite realizing it.

Things were beginning to take more of a defined shape at that point. Then the women’s movement came along, there were women writer groups, and I got involved in that when I was at the Voice.

Tell me more about writing about film with the female perspective in mind.

I was always interested in roles, in male and female roles, and variations on gender norms, and I started writing about films from a feminist perspective when I was at the Voice— we used the term “women’s movement” then. I remember there were already different groups, waging sectarian battles, and a little embassy of three or four women went to Dan Wolf, the editor, and said, “How can you let Molly Haskell write about women in films, she hasn’t paid her dues.” I was stunned.

Well, what do you think they meant?

They meant that I hadn’t subscribed to whatever political group they represented. They were very ideological and party line. I was never a political activist, it was never in me, I guess I always see too many points of view. And I always felt that my commitment as a critic was to film first and feminism second. I joined a group called Women’s Ink, writers fighting for greater representation in magazines and newspapers, especially The New York Times. It was the closest I got to activism, but even there I signed petitions but never joined the front lines, never stormed the barricades.

And in analyzing movies, I did not want to use an ideological prism, a template. It was a time of rampant sexism and very few good roles for women. I think it was Betty Friedan who suggested that we should devise a rating system for film, W++ would be positive etc. In response, I said, “Well, what is a positive? What do you want to see? Do you want to see women idealized as victors over all the obstacles or do you want to see them more realistically as victimized, etc.?” There just is no one way. So I always stayed clear of or actively opposed the idea of correctness, of some kind of cultural commissar on the set decreeing what the appropriate view should be.

What was the living like for you during your early years in New York?

The living was really Sex in the City without the designer duds…and, for me, with a lot less sex. Though that wasn’t true of my contemporaries I gather. I was ambitious. I still had all these free-floating desires, I worked on things that never got anywhere, short stories and plays. I never took a writing course though I always wanted to.

My social world revolved a lot around movies and screenings. And then Betty [her roommate] and I would have parties with weird mixtures of men. I was always attracted to critics. Not “regular” writers, I felt they were too egocentric and neurotic. The thing that drew me to critics was that they loved something beyond themselves, they had this devotion, also were analytic, as I was. I liked that sensibility. I fell in love with Andrew’s writing. I met Andrew in 1966, so I didn’t have a lot of playing around time. And I was a little conservative anyway. Other people had wilder times than I did. I think I had marijuana twice. Not that I wouldn’t have indulged, it just didn’t come up, somehow. I listened to Dylan and the Beatles and all that, but I wasn’t into any kind of subculture. I guess my proper upbringing was just too strong…though my mother thought I had gone to hell!

To hell, huh? What did your mother think of your choice to go to New York and be a writer?

My mother thought I was lost. I went to New York, I voted Democratic, I was sort of a liberal, and I wrote raunchy stuff. I wasn’t raunchy in person, but I guess in writing I was racy, that was my way of rebelling. My writing was much more sexual that I was!

I was very influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis and in my reviews of plays and films, I was always finding perverse sexual subtexts and writing about penis envy. I used the term penis envy in From Reverence to Rape (a title that was bad enough in conservative quarters), and my mother, it turned out, was horrified. Many years later she said, “You use such bad words!” mentioning penis envy. And I said, “Mother, that’s a Freudian term.” And she said, “Molly, we don’t read Freud in Richmond.” That sort of sums it up.

She didn’t approve of my marriage. She wanted me to marry a respectable home town boy. Except some part of her perhaps approved. She had been a painter and given it up to marry. She had been to New York and studied at the Art Students League. She said when she was three years old and picked up paint and colored pencils she knew it was what she wanted to do all her life. She really didn’t want to marry, but she was afraid that if she gave herself over to painting and didn’t succeed, she would have lost everything. So in a way I lived out part of her dream. Though I still didn’t do it her way. She wanted me to go to a little cabin to write novels. I was writing something that she didn’t really understand, and wasn’t really that interested in. But here I was giving lectures, and she was proud of that. I never shamed her when I came to speak in Richmond, no “penis envy,” she would sit at the edge of her seat…!

You are married to Andrew Sarris, a very influential film critic. What was it like being a part of such a dynamic duo?

Andrew was always important to me as a mentor, and much more. We supplied each other with something the other lacked. If I gave him a kind of social credibility, he gave me intellectual heft, or at least support. Andrew was the serious side of me. He was the son of Greek immigrants from Queens and he’d gone to Columbia and was brilliant, but he wasn’t particularly at ease in the world. And I was this girl from the South at a time when all Southerners were considered idiots. So we were apparent opposites who actually had a tremendous amount in common. He thought I was good looking, yes, but he liked that I was serious. We went on a date to a screening of a French film, started talking right away and never stopped. As soon as we started talking about movies we were on common ground, and had very similar taste. Mine was shaped by his to some extent, but I inherently valued the things he did. People would say, “Oh your tastes are alike because you’re married,” and I would say, “No, we got married because our tastes are alike.”

Any great writerly challenge you’ve experienced?

When I was writing From Reverence to Rape, I experienced every writer’s nightmare: there was another woman, Marjorie Rosen, writing a book about women’s roles in the movies at the same time. We met at a screening at the Whitney and realized we were doing very similar books in terms of structure and thrust; we actually bonded over it and became friends. She was envious of me because I had a birth at the Voice and because of Andrew. But then my editor left the publishing house and I had to get a new editor, and the publication got delayed, so her book came out before mine! Every writer’s horror. Also, when you’re publishing a book your agent tries to get it excerpted in magazines. Ms. Magazine had just started the year before and would have been ideal, but they turned it down.

Ms. had a definite point of view: women had been victimized and oppressed but now we were in a progressive present heading toward a future that was more enlightened, more favorable to women. But this trajectory didn’t hold for women in Hollywood. During the supposedly bad old days of the studios, actresses (sorry, but I won’t use the gender-neutral “actor”) had tremendous power. True, there were more genres that were male-dominated, but there were almost as many female stars and they were out there playing all kinds of roles, whereas now in the 70’s, at the time I was writing, they had all but disappeared. There were maybe five female stars and the roles were for the most part uninteresting. One year the National Society of Film Critics said, “Let’s just not give an award to Best Actress this year, because there are so few parts.” That was the situation.

My book went against the triumphalist narrative of Ms. Magazine, so they didn’t run it. Afterwards I did write for them, but I was never a perfect fit because I always saw paradoxes and contradictions where everyone wanted to see more of a black and white picture…this is the problem of ideology and why I’ve never been a big fan of feminist film theory. It imposes a monolithic template, a Marxist style dialectical structure, on film history and basically sees women purely as objects of male fantasy, fear, desire. That exists, to be sure, but the picture is complicated by examples of autonomy and spirit, subtle and not-so-subtle forms of female power, and by the very real fear and weakness betrayed by the so-called patriarchy.

The discussion has changed so much since that time. Now you can hardly say the word “feminism” without people shuddering.

Yes! The climate has changed so much. Back then, everyone was participating in the discussion. I think every generation has to do this— the flappers in the twenties had to reject the Suffragettes, their parents’ generation, as too puritanical, and that’s what’s happening now. There is a kind of caricature of our era as bra-burning, prune-faced activists when in fact it was a conversation that was going on all over the place. Yes, there were extremists and dogmatists, but also plenty of dissent. Now, “feminism” has become a dirty word. It’s the need of a younger generation to invent the world anew, which I can understand. But so much is also being taken for granted.

Can you recall a movie-watching moment when you started thinking about film differently?

Yes, it was Diabolique, a wonderfully creepy Henri-Georges Clouzot horror film. It was sort of Hitchcockian, I think it came out at the same time as Psycho and it has a very scary bathtub scene whereas Psycho has a very scary shower scene. It took place in a girls’ school, which of course I knew all about, and it had all these erotic undertones. It was so much more sophisticated than any American film, it was a whole other world. Then I saw Brigitte Bardot in When God Created Woman, and that created a huge splash.

It was the beginning of an influx of European art films, Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, Truffaut. The forces of censorship in Hollywood movies were crumbling, and there was just more openness generally, frankness about sex, a freer language. It was the era of cinephelia and the passionate film culture of the late sixties and seventies. All of a sudden there were film courses, which there had never been before. Everybody wanted to write about films, make films…it was just a tremendous time for cinema.

For me, it was not just seeing French movies in Paris, it was seeing American movies in Paris. I think even before I read and was influenced by Andrew, I was seeing American movies differently just because the French were taking them seriously. The French were aesthetically adventurous, they didn’t make the middle-brow distinctions between high and low culture. They didn’t use words like “kitsch,” but embraced Hollywood films along with everything else. Alain Resnais, one of the most intellectual of film directors, also loved comic books and American movies. The Cahiers critics looked at Westerns and other genre films and saw patterns and motifs that American reviewers had missed.

Do you have any good stories from back in your salad days?

I was at the French Film Office and Andrew was writing for the Voice and I had not started writing for the Voice yet when a group formed called the National Society for Film Critics. They set themselves up in opposition to The New York Times and its extremely powerful critic, Bosley Crowther. He could make or break a foreign film, even a Hollywood film. It included people like Stanley Kauffmann who was writing for the New Republic, and still is forty years later! From The New Yorker was Pauline Kael, Hollis Alpert, who was with the Saturday Review, Joe Morgenstern at Newsweek…there were eight of them or so. I went to their first meeting with Andrew because I was writing about movies, but only for my little bulletin for the French Film Office.

At the meeting they elected Stanley Kauffmann chairman of the group and he said, “My first question as the head of the group is, what is Molly Haskell doing here?” There was a complete silence, it was awful. We got to be friends after that, but at the time it was like, “How come Andrew can bring this babe in here?” I had finally gotten some encouragement for my writing and begun to take myself a little seriously, thinking I might have a career in film and writing, and suddenly I had to see myself as a kind of trophy girlfriend, a hanger-on or a groupie. Someone jumped in and said, “She can become the secretary,” so I became the secretary. I always said I would never be a secretary, but I had to be then. Soon after I became a reviewer. But that experience, mortifying as it was, became a spur to me. I thought, “I’m going to become a critic, and I’m going to be one of them!” And so I did.

They say “writing is the best revenge,” and I think that’s true. Through writing you get your own voice, you become somebody. Maybe that is also a form of insecurity because other people maybe know who they are without having to write. But I think for most people who write, that’s where the confidence comes from, that is when you feel most yourself. So that was a major thing. Because when I started writing on my own I could begin to come out from under Andrew’s shadow.

Amazing story.

Around the same time, something else happened. We had a panel at the New York Film Festival, in 1970 or 1971. This was before I wrote my book [From Reverence to Rape], and in fact this kind of led me to write it. I was then writing about film from a feminist perspective for the Voice. So they had a panel on women and movies. I was on it and Barbara Loden, Elia Kazan’s wife who had made a wonderful movie [Wanda], was on it, Eleanor Perry who was a screenwriter and a film-making team with her husband, the director Frank Perry, was on it, and, Kitty Winn who was an actress in a film called Panic in Needle Park with Al Pacino was on it…and someone else.

The question and answer period of the panel came and John Simon stood up. John Simon was notorious at that time. He and Pauline Kael and Andrew used to have these fights in print about film— it was kind of exciting. He was very vitriolic and a culture snob and would write very personal attacks on women and how they looked— he was at New York Magazine. But he was smart and quick-witted. Simon said, “They say behind every great man is a woman, but it looks to me as though behind every woman there is a man.” First we were stunned, as was the audience, but then we recovered and we all got angry. I said something like, “Well, why not? If men have been using women all these years, why shouldn’t women use men a little bit?”

That, like Stanley Kauffmann’s insult, was a spur to me. The two remarks were so outrageous it was a little scary—how much male hostility there was out there.

What are your work habits like, have they changed over time?

I am both an extrovert and an introvert. The extrovert in me has a very hard time saying no. I’ve gotten much better at it as I get older. I went to Yaddo once and that is my ideal, residencies like that, isolation. But normally, now, I go to the library in the morning. The morning is my good time. I work three or four hours then I come back and try to attend to practical things. I’m not good for much in the afternoons. I’m a low-energy person, unfortunately, I’ve never had a lot. I’m a good concentrator, but nowadays with e-mail and everything, it’s so much harder!

But as you get older you get selfish, you appreciate time more. You don’t have that much of it. You eliminate a lot. There is something quite liberating about that, giving yourself permission to focus on whatever it is that really interests you.

Do you have any advice for the aspiring writers and critics out there?

What’s staggering is how many talented people there are today– another fallout, in a way, of women entering the picture in great numbers. It’s distressing because of the shrinking of opportunities. But at the same time, women are more emboldened. If there are women who want to write and who can write, they are going to find a way. But the question is: will they be able to make any money at all? Will they be able to sustain themselves? There are only so many teaching jobs, though it seems like teaching writing is the one growth industry.

My advice would be not to be discouraged. In a way, it is what I contended with in my time as well, though at a less advanced level. There were growing numbers of young women who were smart and who wanted to work and do something worthy of their intelligence, while the jobs were virtually meaningless and menial. Instead of going into the two preferred jobs for English graduates, publishing or advertising, which I looked at and found in many ways to be the most demeaning, I went instead to the P.R. department of a computer company! I thought, “computer company?!” But I had a lot of opportunities to grow there, in that unexpected place. Opportunities exist in all sorts of strange places. I got to write press releases. You might thing, what’s the big deal? But that was precious to me. I got to write.

Also, I purposely never learned secretarial skills because I didn’t want get stuck being a secretary. So, bearing in mind there are certain lines you won’t cross, you have to be open and flexible.

I also think solidarity with women is hugely important. It doesn’t mean we have to march together, but simply not to feel like we are in competition—with each other, with our feminist antecedents. There is so much emphasis, at least in movies, on Finding a Man and Getting Married. 50% of those marriages will end, while women’s friendships have a better rate of survival and may be more sustaining in the end.

Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander

Photo by Jim Carpenter

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