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‘Students give me a great gift of hopefulness, and that gives me energy to go on with my own task.’

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 VOL. 23, NO. 18MARCH 27, 1998 


Mary Gordon: The Art of Teaching and Writing

Upon the Release of Her Latest Novel, Gordon Speaks of Loving Her Dual Role


Gordon. Record Photo by Eileen Barroso.

Somewhere in another room, an answering machine picks up a call. Mary Gordon, in the midst of an interview in her Claremont Avenue apartment, pauses, straining to hear the young woman’s voice rising from the speaker. She recognizes it’s one of her students and picks up the receiver.

  Unlike the main character in her new novel, Spending, Gordon does not struggle with the dual job of being an artist and teacher; with the often conflicting demands of earning a living and the passion to create. In the novel, when Gordon’s character is presented with a benefactor’s proposition—allowing full-time devotion to her art—she eagerly sloughs off the shackles of teaching to blossom in the productive, sunlit life of an artist with funding.

  Gordon is hardly so constrained. During the past 20 years, through teaching freshman English at a community college in Poughkeepsie to her current position as Millicent McIntosh Professor of English at Barnard, she has produced nine books—two of them New York Times bestsellers. Yet her day job—teaching—she approaches with no less passion.

  Gordon is working to strengthen that voice she strains to hear.

  “It’s harder for young women, even now, to feel that they have the right to their own voice,” she explains, referring to the writer’s ultimate task of developing a genuine voice on the page. “And I feel like that’s my job.”

  She says, “I love teaching. And I feel like I have the best job in America.”

  With that job comes scores of students annually for whom, in some degree, Gordon is responsible. Gordon does not take that responsibility lightly, particularly because her students are primarily Barnard women.

  “I can deliberately attend to the needs of the female voice, which I think is unattended to in most co-ed institutions,” says Gordon, herself a Barnard alumna. “Now, I’m talking about training writers. I’m very aware of what writers need to be taught, and I think that one of the most important things you can do is give them a lot of voices in their ears. And for young women writers, it’s very helpful to be listening to older women writers.”

  So in her literature and writing classes, she introduces female authors who have been overlooked in many classrooms.

  “I’m not interested in bean counting—insisting there’s got to be a certain number of women in the curriculum,” says Gordon, a professor of both literature and writing at Barnard who also teaches in Columbia’s School of the Arts graduate Writing Division. “But one of the things that happens is that the same two or three women always are taught if they are being taught by people who are doing it because they feel they have to. I think it’s wonderful that Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison are taught, but they tend to be taught over and over and over again. And there are enormously important, evocative women writers that simply don’t get taught.”

  Gordon cites Katherine Anne Porter, Jean Stafford, Collette, Anna Akhmatova, Eudora Welty, Tillie Olsen and Louise Bogan. “I want to put rich, interesting, quirky, profound, funny female voices in the ears of young women writers,” she says.

  And what does Gordon, the bestselling author, get out of it? The teaching of writing and the teaching of literature nurture her own work in different ways.

  “Teaching literature is wonderful for my writing,” she explains, “because I always read over a text that I teach—I don’t have one lecture that I’ve been giving for 15 years. And if you’re going to talk to students about a book, you have to read it in a very intense way. And that is nourishing for my own writing.”

  As for dissecting student stories in her writing workshops, she says: “I do get surprising ideas and new ways of looking at things from my students, but what it mainly does is give me hope. Hopelessness is a great paralyzer, and my students give me hope that what I’m doing isn’t some anachronistic, marginal thing that’s going to die with me. For me, students give me a great gift of hopefulness, and that gives me energy to go on with my own task in a way that’s very valuable.”

  Her energetic writing life has most recently produced Spending, an erotic comedy playfully subtitled A Utopian Divertimento. It is about a struggling painter offered the freedom of money and the inspiration of a muse from a wealthy commodities broker who admires her work.

  While many reviewers have noted this book about sex and pleasure is a departure from the dark themes of her former bestsellers, such as Final Payments—the work does reflect Gordon’s commitments to feminism and risk-taking. But, despite this departure and despite the fully chronicled sex life of the main character Gordon does not expect the book to be controversial. And that is because the story, from beginning to end, is like a fairy tale in the good fortunes enjoyed by its characters.

  “I think I’m doing something quite radical, but people won’t get it,” Gordon explains. “My radical act is that a woman has good sex and nobody dies. And that, in fact, is something you don’t see much in fiction. Nobody dies. Nobody’s punished. Good sex for a woman without punishment is rare. So that’s my radical act, but nobody’s going to get much up in arms about it. I don’t think people care that much about fiction about women unless it involves mutilation of the body.”

  Taking two years to write a novel about pleasure was a welcomed change for Gordon. And a challenge.

  “The challenge was comedy. Velocity was very important. So it wasn’t deeper, slower, darker anymore. There had to be movement. So the aesthetic was not an aesthetic of depth, but an aesthetic of movement.”

  Gordon said the book also allowed her to examine pleasure.

  “I’d just finished writing this book about my father (The Shadow Man). And for four years I was in a place of great sadness. I think I was hungry for an atmosphere that would be more pleasureable, but also I was interested in just the idea of pleasure. And particularly for women, why is pleasure the big taboo? We’re a very un-pleasure-loving culture. We think we’re very pleasure-loving, but we’re not. We’re consumers, but we’re actually very puritanical. So, I wanted to write about pleasure. I wanted to explore that. I was interested in talking about the pleasure of food, the pleasure of weather, the pleasure of movement, being a body in this world, which is a good thing. Or can be.”

  The title of this new book refers in part to the series of paintings created by Gordon’s main character Monica, but also to what Gordon explains as the action needed to induce pleasure, as in spending rather than hoarding, enjoying the moment rather than working and worrying about the future.

  “I think people are working like crazy,” she explains. “And I think that you can’t get away from it. For example, home used to be a place where you could veg out. Now you walk in the door: Is there a fax? Is there an email? Is there a message on the answering machine? There is no place anymore that is free of work. And I think that has made us much less able to take pleasure because there is no space that is reserved for non-work, and I think it’s making us very crazy.”

  So, a kind of divertimento could be what we all need, whether found in the pages of a new book or at the end of a salad fork:

  “I’m a great lover of Italy, and when you go there, having a tomato is an event. Go to the market. It’s fun to buy it. It’s fun to put it on a dish. It’s fun to cut it up. It’s fun to put olive oil on it. It’s fun to eat it. And I feel like we don’t have that. It’s very impoverishing.”