Cynthia Ozick 1928–
American short story writer, novelist, essayist, poet, and translator.
Ozick's works generally treat ethnic and language problems unique to the Jewish artist. She treats Judaism as a religious as well as an ethnic and social characteristic, and her work displays an overt reverence for her heritage. Concerned with the creation of a distinctively Jewish literature, Ozick has conceived of a "new Yiddish" which would be comprehensible to speakers of English yet preserve the inflections and tone of the waning Jewish language.
After her first novel, Trust (1966), the story of a young woman's search for identity, Ozick turned to shorter forms in her next three books: The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971), Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976), and Levitation: Five Fictions (1982). In an interview, Ozick explained that she writes novellas because she cannot write anything short enough to be a short story and no longer has the ambition to write anything so long as Trust, which was six hundred pages long and took six years to write. She said, "I will never again write so well … will never again have that kind of high ambition or monastic patience or metaphysical nerve and fortitude." She did, however, write another novel, The Cannibal Galaxy (1983). She has also recently compiled twenty-three of her previously published critical essays into a collection entitled Art and Ardor (1983). Ozick's critical reputation has grown steadily over the years, and she is now both well known and highly respected by critics. She frequently contributes book reviews, poetry, and short stories to a variety of periodicals and also translates works of Yiddish literature.
In Ozick's short fiction collections, most of the stories revolve around similar themes. The stories in The Pagan Rabbi concern the predicament of the transplanted Jew in America, which Ozick typically presents through a character's struggle with two opposing forces. In the title story, the rabbi is caught between love of religion and scholarship and also between love of nature and magic. "Envy: Yiddish in America" concerns one Yiddish author's attempt to save his language from extinction in America, and contrasts him with another author who has achieved fame in America by being translated. This story expresses the conflict which Ozick feels confronts her and other Jewish-American writers—that of being true to one's heritage yet desiring to be understood in a foreign land. In "Virility," Ozick confronts assimilation and sexism and also introduces the issue of authorial borrowing, which is developed more fully in the later novella, "Usurpation (Other People's Stories)" from her collection Bloodshed and Three Novellas. As the subtitle of "Usurpation" suggests, it is composed of fragments of stories by other writers. Her point in this story is that the writer is always borrowing material from other writers and, more importantly, from God. Ozick's religious concern is that by creating a story, a writer breaks the second commandment which prohibits idol worship, the making of graven images, and adoration of magic. According to Ozick, stories, like statues, are graven images. Thus, there is a conflict inherent in being both a Jew and a writer: "Whoever sets up an image-making shop is in competition with the Maker of the world."
In Art and Ardor, Ozick addresses Jewish, literary, and feminist questions. In the process, she criticizes many of her fellow writers, especially those Jewish writers who use religious background to add ethnic color to their stories while writing essentially secular works. Where feminism is concerned, she is adamant in her contention that separatism should not be tolerated in literature and that such categories as "women's literature" are dangerous. Her ideas about literature are traditional, and she opposes what she calls "self-indulgent" fiction. The quality of her own writing, in these essays and elsewhere, reveals that she believes that ideas should never be so important as to excuse poor writing. Art and Ardor includes two essays which are personal rather than critical. In one of these, "Lesson From a Master," she writes of her obsession with Henry James early in her writing career, pointing out the danger of being too influenced by someone else.
With the exception of Trust, Ozick's work has always been extremely well received by critics. A major problem with Trust, critics contend, is that the language is so opaque that it obscures the world Ozick tries to portray. In her subsequent work, Ozick controls her treatment of language so that, while it remains a dominant feature of her work, it does not get in the way of the story itself. In general, critics seem to feel that characterization and emotive qualities are the weak points of her work, while words and ideas are the strong ones. Art and Ardor, her nonfiction work, is her most controversial. To many critics, she was too severe with other writers and made unreasonable pronouncements. Katha Pollitt and others find a contradiction between Ozick's desire for a uniquely Jewish literature, on the one hand, and her abhorrence of a uniquely feminine literature, on the other. But nearly all consider her handling of language superb and her intellectual prowess stimulating.
(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982.)