The Third Reading Selection for the 2017 Great Jewish Books Book Club
"I had read Philip Roth, and maybe a little Saul Bellow, but they were male voices. Paley’s voice—sympathetic, funny, wry, loving—was new (or new to me, anyway)."
Francine Prose's words capture the excitement and shock of encountering Grace Paley. Her beautifully crafted sentences resemble no other's writer's. Paley's unique and powerful voice resounds long after you've closed the page on the book. The moral and political implications of her stories fix in the minds of her readers and preoccupy them for years after.
Paley's work has long elicited serious contemplation and critical analyses, and the recent publication of The Grace Paley Reader has led to a new outburst of writing about Paley. What follows is a collection of material about Paley, or featuring Paley: biographical essays; interviews; and recordings of readings by Paley.
Paley's career spanned decades and genres, and her writing and political advocacy inspired countless writers. A comprehensive biographical guide to Paley's work is her obituary in the New York Times. The Times beautifully sets the stage of Paley's life while also connecting some of her English literary innovations to the Jewish literary tradition: "Reviewers sometimes called her prose postmodern, but all of it — even the death-defying, almost surreal turns of logic that were a stylistic hallmark — was already present in Yiddish oral tradition."
More ambitious in its scope is Anita Norich's overview of Paley's career written for the Jewish Women's Archive. Norich's article is literary-biographical introduction to Paley's work. Norich describes the way that the sounds of Russian and Yiddish, languages of Paley's childhood, continued to inflect her fiction years later, and Paley's unique ability to blend Jewish symbols with the images of the dominant Christian culture. Above all, Norich describes Paley's rootedness in New York. "Her settings are primarily urban, taking her readers to the apartments, playgrounds, and streets of New York. Her characters are usually women who speak in the first person. Often they are Jewish, and always they are concerned with questions of relationship. The protagonists she creates are not heroic in the traditional sense of the word, but they manage surprisingly well in a world that seems less than friendly."
Perhaps the ultimate mark of Paley's connection to New York was her selection as New York's first state author. Paley was selected for the honor by an all-star panel of New York writers: Albany legend William Kennedy, Raymond Carver, Mary Gordon, Alfred Kazin and Robert Towers. This recognition, however, did not stop her from moving to Vermont later in life, where she, ironically, became more connected to organized Judaism. "'I often go [to services] on the High Holy Days," Paley said. "In New York, I didn't, but here the towns are very church-centered -- the church is like the community center, and I'm not in it. If I didn't have the Jewish community, I'd be lonesome.''
To talk with Paley was to garner an unmediated experience of Paley’s voice. Paley was sharp and quick, never dwelling long on the sentimental. As The Paris Review observed:
"Her conversation is as cerebral and distilled as her prose. The oft-noted Paley paradox is the contrast between her grandmotherly appearance and her no-schmaltz personality. Paley says only what is necessary. Ask her a yes-or-no question, and she will answer yes or no. Ask her a foolish question, and she will kindly but clearly convey her impatience. Talking with her, one develops the impression that she listens and speaks in two different, sometimes conflicting capacities. As a person she is tolerant and easygoing; as a user of words, merciless. On politics Paley speaks unreservedly and in earnest; on writing, she is drier, more careful."
(The complete article is unfortunately available to subscribers only.)
Perhaps more raw is Paley’s 1976 interview with the Boston Review. A mere year after the end of the Vietnam War, Paley seems to be searching for a new direction. With editor Gail Pool and social worker Shirley Roses, Paley delves deep into motherhood and family, thinking both about own her upbringing and about the relationships that she has written into being. When asked where she sees herself in the women’s movement, Paley reflects on her own feelings about writing female characters, saying “I hadn’t really written about women. I remember thinking—this was just after the war—that men’s lives were very exciting and that my life wasn’t very interesting. But then that was what I was interested in: women.”
Finally, toward the end of her life, Paley sat for a long interview with the editors of Poets & Writers magazine. Not quite a valedictory interview, Paley nonetheless seized on the question, “What advice do you give to younger writers?” Her answer closes on a characteristic, Paley-esque twist.
GP: Have a low overhead. Don’t live with anybody who doesn’t support your work. Very important. And read a lot. Don’t be afraid to read or of being influenced by what you read. You’re more influenced by the voice of childhood than you are by some poet you’re reading. The last piece of advice is to keep a paper and pencil in your pocket at all times, especially if you’re a poet. But even if you’re a prose writer, you have to write things down when they come to you, or you lose them, and they’re gone forever. Of course, most of them are stupid, so it doesn’t matter. But in case they’re the thing that solves the problem for the story or the poem or whatever, you’d better keep a pencil and a paper in your pocket. I gave this big advice in a talk, and then about three hours later I told a student I really liked his work and asked how I could get in touch with him. He said he would give me his name and address. I looked in my pocket, and I didn’t have any pencil or paper.
Paley as Teacher
In addition to writing, Paley served for many years as a professor at Sarah Lawrence college in Bronxville, NY. In her capacity as a writing professor, she both mentored and taught many famous writers of the next generation.
1. In 1989, her unique teaching style and large body of work caught the attention of Nina Darnton, a reporter at the New York Times. Darnton was most curious about how (or if) Paley teaches someone to become a writer. When asked "What is the hardest problem in teaching creative writing?" Paley responded that, "it's trying to keep a class of bright kids dumb." The full interview is full of many more of these gems.
2. In an interview with her former student A. M. Homes, Homes described one of the central lessons she took from Paley. She replies to one question: "That’s the super-cool thing about writing fiction. I describe it sometimes like time travel. You create these characters that didn’t exist before. For me they become very real people. If you do what my teacher Grace Paley talked about, which is to think about the truth according to the character, as they begin to unfold and the story rolls out they do things and go places that are not necessarily where you would expect them to go, and that’s the great adventure.
3. In this interview with Guernica, the writer Ann Patchett was asked about her experiences with Grace Paley at Sarah Lawrence.
Patchett:I was not her kind of student. I was always on time, I did my work to exact specifications, I spoke when spoken to. That was not the Sarah Lawrence way. If I had problems, I kept them to myself. I didn’t make a scene. And she never noticed me. We would go picket things and demonstrate, and she would miss classes, and she would miss appointments. I got my little nose bent out of shape over the whole thing. It was probably two years later, I was in Iowa, and I woke up one morning and thought, Oh, I get it. I get what she taught me. I get how she made me. I get how she was the most important person in my life. I didn’t get it at the time. It was that idea of having a single voice. That you can’t be a good person when you’re writing and a bad person to your husband or a bad friend. You can’t be a jerk in order to be a good writer. You can’t say, “I’m too busy writing to be political.” You are one person. You are the same person in every aspect of your life, and you have to be a responsible person in every aspect of your life.
It was huge. People always say, “Can writing be taught?” I always think, I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to do dialogue, how to do character, but I can’t teach you how to be a decent person, and I can’t teach you how to have something to say. And that’s what Grace did. She could care less about our writing. She did not care at all about our stories. They bored the socks off of her. But she cared that we were better people, and that we would be the kind of people who would have something to write about, and we would have something to say. She was working on our character, not our characters. I’ve never seen anyone else in my life who’s tried to do that. The class was about your character, and the stories weren’t interesting to her.
Paley as Activist
As Pachett notes above, teaching was not always Paley's primary daytime activity. An activist by nature, Paley spent decades protesting on behalf of various causes. A recent article in the New Yorker argued that "there’s a case to be made that Grace Paley was first and foremost an antinuclear, antiwar, antiracist feminist activist who managed, in her spare time, to become one of the truly original voices of American fiction in the later twentieth century."
1. In this Literary Hub article, fellow writer and activist Vivian Gornick reflects on Paley and the struggles she participated in. Gornick writes:
"I knew Grace for some 30-odd years, not as a fellow writer—I don’t think we exchanged three sentences about writing—but as a comrade in the circles of liberal-left protestors that we both moved in throughout the 70s and 80s. She, infinitely more than I, was a pro at the determined acts of civil disobedience that filled those years for so many Americans. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to get arrested, so much as that I wasn’t driven enough by my unhappiness over the state of the world to always be there when the police were charging the crowd. But Grace certainly was. Vietnam, nuclear weapons, civil rights for blacks, women, and gays—you name it, there was Grace, marching, leafleting, wise-cracking, instructing the novitiates on how to act when they were loaded, inert, into the paddy wagon.
I once said to her, 'Grace, if you had one word of advice to give on doing politics, what would it be?'
She laughed and said, 'That’s simple, darling. You sit down and you stay down.'
2. One example of a cause that Paley championed during her lifetime is reproductive care. In this 1991 essay, reprinted in A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry, Paley looks back at the history of women's access to birth control and abortion. Using her own experiences as a guide, Paley crafts a deeply personal argument for the fundamental necessity of access to birth control, healthcare, and contraceptives. At the same time, Paley's essay also advocates for the vitality of intergenerational communication.
1. In November of 2002, we were lucky enough to have Grace Paley give a reading at the Yiddish Book Center as part of our Great Jewish Books Conference. Paley wowed the crowds with readings from two of her shorter pieces, all the while weighing in on the art of storytelling. Here, you can listen to her selections from our conference, newly digitized and available once again to the general public.
2. In 1995, the Yiddish Book Center and the public radio station KCRW collaborated on a series of recordings of classic Jewish short stories. The stories were brought to life by stirring performances by leading Jewish actors. One highlight is unquestionably Rhea Perlman's reading of Grace Paley's "Good Night and Good Luck."
3. During her lifetime, Paley made many appearances on public radio. Upon her death, NPR produced a terrific obituary, which incorporated her own readings of her fiction, and an appreciation by Robert Pinsky.
4. While focused on her political activism, this hour-long documentary/appreciation of Paley incorporates archival footage of Paley, literary readings, and interviews about her politics.
5. Finally, Paley's power and presence as a reader is captured in this recording of her story "Wants" from the late 1980s.
How are we to understand Grace Paley?
With all of these sources in mind, how should we, as readers, encounter Grace Paley? While there is no set way one might go about reading through her work and understanding the significance of her life, many have offered their interpretations. Although mostly favorable, some employ a more critical edge. From the strength of work to her scarcity of published stories, from her unrepentant desire for justice to her absences from arrests, from her witty and unapologetic female characters to her hyperfocus on the domestic, these reviewers hold her multiplicities in mind:
1. Were the subjects of Paley’s work really so common, George Saunders at the New Yorker asks his readers. While we tend to think of Paley’s genius as extension of her ability to paint the quotidian, here Saunders argues that perhaps she is a post-modernist, and her game is to play with what we perceive to be normal. Saunders explains, “what I mean by this is that, as you read a Paley story, you will find that it is, yes, set in our world (New York City, most often), and that, O.K., it seems concerned with normal-enough things (love, divorce, politics, a day at the park), but then you will start to notice that the language is . . . uncommon. Not quite of this world.”
2. Not everyone was a Grace Paley aficionado. In her 1985 article aptly titled “A Dissent on Grace Paley,” reviewer Carol Iannone expresses a great deal of skepticism over Paley’s involvement in activist causes. Rather than focus on her writing (which Iannone describes as “quirky, elliptical, inconclusive, [and] plotless..”), Iannone devotes the majority of her article to tearing apart Paley’s politics and what she sees as the oversaturation of politics in Paley’s fiction. On Paley’s support of the North Vietnamese goverment, Iannone scathingly writes:
"Regrettably, given her sharp eye for the extraordinary detail, Mrs. Paley has apparently elected not to comment on the 'fruits' of the Vietnamese 'revolutionary patriotic struggle' since 1975. Lest anyone imagine her to be mortified over recent disclosures of Vietnamese Communist brutality, however, she has supplied an explanation for her silence: 'I’m not over my Vietnam anger yet,' she insisted in a recent interview. 'Having poisoned them, we’re starving them. Our whole relation to Vietnam is so shameful I can hardly talk about it.'
Thus it is not from Mrs. Paley that we will learn that at about the same time she was thrilling to tales of Potemkin birthday parties, Vice Admiral James Stockdale was being tortured by his Vietnamese captors, held in hand and leg irons, kept for weeks in blindfold and painfully tight cuffs until he was 'reduced to a blind crippled animal shitting on the floor.'”
3. Who really was Faith Darwin Asbury, and how did she become so central to Paley’s vision as a writer, asks Nicholas Dames at The Atlantic. Asbury, a recurring character first introduced The Little Disturbances, is a no-nonsense observer: of her lackluster husbands, of her ever-changing neighborhood, of what her existence means. Here, Dames charts the trajectory of Asbury’s life alongside Paley’s to paint an dynamic story of a writer’s growth.
4. Writing in 1980, Angela Carter at the London Review of Books wonders if Grace Paley is too charming to be taken seriously. Carter admits that she appreciates the “charm” of Paley’s writing, but finds it to be overdone in some of her stories. Carter wonders just how much Joan Didion would disapprove of Paley’s body of work. Although a clearly a fan, Carter is one of the first major reviews to express a note of doubt.
5. At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Jerusha Joy Emerson wonders “how did Paley do it so well for so long?” Throughout her article, Emerson looks at the philosophies of community action, social justice, and intergenerational engagement that Paley held so dear. Emerson argues that it was “Paley’s reverence for being part of a sisterhood of resistance: single moms, working women, community members, political actors… that kinship became like a living blessing, one that she passed to her children, to their children, and to her readers.”
Nora Paley, the co-editor of the recently published A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry, talks about the life and work of her mother, writer Grace Paley. Nora explains, “who Grace Paley was and that she was my mother are naturally inseparable for me.”