Her Name Literally Meant Hero
Mavis Gallant died in February of this year, at the age of 92. She is one of my favorite writers. I discovered her in graduate school, in a seminar given by Deborah Eisenberg, through her story “Lena.” Shortly after that, her “Selected Stories” was published, and I have carried that massive volume around, moving with it back and forth across the country, for almost 20 years.
At the time I found Gallant’s stories, I was trying to reconcile some of the difficulties I was experiencing about writing about ethnicity, specifically my own. At that time, no matter what classroom you were in, in America, there was a feeling that mentioning race, class, sexuality—the facts of a life, really—in your fiction was to somehow spoil a story. And as a gay man of mixed Korean and Scots-Irish descent, I understood that I had grown up experiencing myself as a kind of taboo, too complicated to put into a story.
But that, and more, that was what I had to do.
What I found in Gallant was a woman who had left her marriage in 1950 and set off for Spain from Canada, settling eventually in Paris, where she would live for the rest of her long life in a kind of exile, from Canada and marriage both. She did it all to become a writer—and she succeeded, incredibly. She published 116 stories in the New Yorker between 1951 and 1995. She essentially made her living as someone publishing short stories in the New Yorker. Her “Selected Stories” is about 900 pages long and it is not even all of her stories. These stories exist in a world where people are from many places, and have complicated histories in terms of their nationality, their politics, and their affairs, and it was described very plainly, and this matter-of-fact approach in her work became a model for my own approach.
I set aside my own sense of displacement, or rather, understood it as my actual home, and studied the way her work operated from this kind of displacement too.
Who is this woman, you might ask. I say that because it was so often the question, and still is, when I mention her name. I’ve had the following conversation is too many times.
“Who?” Sometimes with a squint, as if I had mispronounced it.
“Mavis?” Sometimes as if questioning, was this a real name. “Yes, Mavis.”
“Yes, like, the word.”
Her name literally meant hero. And she was, to me. By this point in the conversation, though, I can usually see they won’t look her up. And if I say any more, I’ll reach the point where my enthusiasm works against me. As a result, when people do recognize her, I experience a love for them, as if we are devotees of the same secret god, having found each other at last.
When I have tried to talk to my fellow Gallant fans about the invisibility of her, over the years, we often say to each other, “Oh, she’s a writer’s writer,” as if that explained it. I accepted this situation for a long time, but eventually I began to wonder, why isn’t she more famous? Even though I also knew she would hate it, she would hate this, she would never want anyone to speculate on the nature of her stature.
Also: Posterity is fickle. And it is no judge of quality.
All the same, I watched with a kind of amazement as other authors became more well-known, from publishing even a few stories in the New Yorker, and she remained in a kind of blind spot, despite having published so often there. Other writers associated with the magazine became beloved celebrities.
Yes, she was famously reclusive, but that isn’t a reason to be unknown—literature has many famous recluses. I wondered if it was her name, which, while clearly Anglo-Saxon, was so old-fashioned, it was practically exotic. Maybe. But strange names often help a writer. And should it matter? Or was the problem that it was a woman’s name?
Was the problem that she was a woman?
After about 20 years of loving her, I have to believe, well, yes. Yes.
Only a few writers have achieved the distinction of publishing more than 100 stories in the New Yorker. James Thurber is their king, at 273. S.J. Perelman at 272, John O’Hara at 227, Frank Sullivan at 192, E.B. White,183, and John Updike at 168. Then comes John Cheever, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Emily Hahn, and Mavis Gallant.
You don’t have to be an observational genius to see that three of the most famous writers on that list were named John.
Imagine a writer named John Gallant had left for Spain in 1950 after leaving his wife, and that he became a writer who settled in Paris and published nearly every story he wrote in the New Yorker. Even if he was reclusive, he would be internationally famous. You would know what was thought of as his best work without ever having read it. His stories would be taught in every intro class, in high schools and college both. The name would automatically be associated with a kind of quality in the public’s mind. You would never not know who John Gallant was. And even if he had primarily written short stories, his novels would also be known—not forgotten. Even if they were mediocre. In a general way now, if a man publishes more than twice in the New Yorker, we know who he is.
This, to me, is the point of VIDA’s work, the reason I support VIDA. Yes, we look at the numbers every year, we see how the numbers are getting better in some venues. But there is more to do if we still live in a world where even if women publish, they vanish to the public’s mind right after.
Let’s not let the world to be like this, not for even a minute more.
Alexander Chee is a recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award and a NEA Fellowship in Prose. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Awl, Out, The LA Review of Books and The Morning News, among others. His award-winning debut novel, Edinburgh, was published in 2001, and his second, The Queen of the Night, is forthcoming in 2015 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.