Grace Paley Against Arcs

[Writer Grace Paley died yesterday at the age of 84. I asked her close friend Leora Skolkin-Smith to share some thoughts on Grace’s life and work this morning. — Levi Asher]

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Grace Paley was from a post-beat generation. One hears about Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Philip Roth — all of whom were dear friends of Grace’s. But there was also a strong female counterpoint to these writers. And Grace embodied it. We used to call her “headquarters” because she was the mother of our needy female selves. Heterosexual, a lover of men, she helped us say things which were “feminist” but not hateful of men. And we all needed her maternity so much.

Grace was spurned by generations before her. W. H. Auden was her greatest influence, as well as Joyce’s Dubliners (some say she protrayed New York as Joyce had portrayed Dublin, full of multicultural genes and voices and irreverancies). She did not believe in pandering to the “major media”, in comforting audiences, in writers becoming “stars” instead of truth-tellers. Writing was not there to make people feel good and sell copies. It was there as an expression of social and personal turmoil, as truth, and even as a disturbance in the skies — dark, troubling, discomforting.

This is most missed in what we see today, from my standpoint and hers. We had talked often about when the shift into writing as a consumer-pleasing commodity happened. I don’t know how to express this without seeming unkind to so many “current” writers, but Grace deeply resented the course writers who needed celebritization of their work were taking these days. Writing was truth. And truth was uncomfortable. And one didn’t write for a “consumer”, One wrote to live and breathe and because one had to. She was subversive, quietly on this point.

While people often think Grace was a “political writer”, what she meant by this was well quoted in a New York Times article written a long time ago (I was with her while she was being interviewed):

Mrs. Paley — who has made no secret of her support for the peace movement, opposition to the war in Vietnam and her progressive political views — had come to some non-literary prominence as a member of various demonstrations. Some of the reviews took note of these involvements, and suggested they distracted her from concentrated literary effort, an accusation that irritated Mrs. Paley.

“It was ridiculous,” she said. “I mean, in Europe, for a writer not to be political is peculiar, and in this country for a writer to be political is considered some sort of aberration, or time waste. I’m not writing a history of famous people. I am interested in a history of everyday life.”

This is quintessential to an understanding of Grace, I think …

Many other salient parts of her literary vision focused on “personal voice”, the personal as it hits against the global canvas, the daily news reports. The personal, small voice of everyday, inconsequential, searching. Not famous and loud.

Artistically, I think there is no better example of Grace’s literary theory than the desciption she used in a famous short story called “A Conversation with My Father”. It was an anti-linear, anti-narrative-arc policy. She believed it was the dailiness of of ordinary interaction that made fiction, not contrived “arcs”.

This, of course, spoke to so many us as women. We had been left out entirely of the tradition which was based on that all-prevalent Aristotlean “narrative arc” principle. A friend of mine and I used to laugh, asking “doesn’t anybody see this is a male ejection theory of literature? Come on, an arc? It arcs and …uh … ejaculates after penetration?” For Grace, fiction could also be like a feminine sexual experience. She was very sexual about writing. We women, she used to say, have little, multiple spasms of pleasure and truth, very modest. Not arcs!

Of course, Grace loved men. And I do, too! The above isn’t meant as a rejection of men. Both Grace and I married two first-class men, and have both been married to the same guys for over thirty-five years! So I always resented people labeling Grace Paley a “male-hater” She loved men and I think this set her apart from the bitterness you will opten find in other “feminist writers” of her generation. She once remarked: “Bitterness only comes when one doesn’t take an action, if one didn’t exercise choice. I walked out on my first marriage. I took an action and I feel in love again!” So she called herself an “activist”!

Here is her most famous description of an anti-arc narrative approach, told with her initimable sense of humor from “A Conversation With My Father:

‘I would like you to write a simple story just once more,’ he (my father) says, ‘the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.’ I say, ‘Yes, why not? That’s possible.’ I want to please him, though I don’t remember writing that way. I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: ‘There was a woman…’ followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised, not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”

6 Responses

  1. Sad news, great tributeThis
    Sad news, great tribute

    This is the first I’d heard this sad news. I loved Grace Paley’s work from the first story of hers I read in a magazine. I did not know her, as Leora did — and Leora, you have my deepest sympathy, but thanks for the great tribute — but I was privileged to see her twice, in her different roles. First was an appearance at the Brooklyn College Student Center when I was an undergrad in the early 70s. Our creative writing teacher knew her and had us read her (I already had) and then we got to hear her read two of her amazing stories.

    I’ve also taught several of her stories over the years, most recently “Conversations with My Father” a couple of years ago — and I’ve read aloud “The Loudest Voice” at classes around Christmastime in colleges in suburban Phoenix and rural north Florida.

    I feel like I want to run to the public library and get out “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” right now.

  2. addendaI was so flustered by

    I was so flustered by this news that I see I forgot the second time I saw her: at an antiwar rally, either in Union Square or Bryant Park. I don’t recall the locale or exactly what she said so much as her earnest, intelligent, gentle but powerful demeanor.

    She was one of the best American short story writers that ever was, and she also was an exemplary American citizen.

  3. Peace to PaleyGrace Paley was
    Peace to Paley

    Grace Paley was a wonderful writer, wonderful woman. I loved her in the 80’s, and she was kind to me as a writer. I was dismayed in the late 90’s when I taught her to some freshmen college students, who didn’t seem to “get her,” as they said. I saw her a few weeks ago, and she looked very ill, but was still up and around. I feel like it’s been a bad year: first Vonnegut, now Paley. Very sad. As I said on my blog (, I hope they allow gum-chewing in the afterworld! Peace to Paley.

  4. Thanks, Richard. It’s so nice
    Thanks, Richard. It’s so nice to hear your feelings, too, about Grace. And I think we will all miss her so very much, no matter how closely we actually knew her.

  5. Accepting an award in
    Accepting an award in Washngton DC, Grace Paley said something like:

    “In the beginning is illusion”

    Anyone know exact quote?

    I’d appreciate it. Thanks in advance.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!