Sarah Nicole Prickett in Bookforum:
BEGINNING THE SECOND PARAGRAPH of her 1973 essay on Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set, published in the New York Review of Books, which she cofounded, Elizabeth Hardwick had a line on the lesser members of that mutual entourage: “Certain peripheral names vex the spirits.” When the essay appeared a year later in Seduction and Betrayal, her formational work on the fates of literary women and women in literature, the line had changed and become: “Certain peripheral names scratch the mind.” No editor, and perhaps only this writer, would make such a change. Unnecessary, it’s instructive. “Certain peripheral names” is contemporaneous, cool and distant, idiomatic of her good friend Joan Didion. Wallace Stevens had “scratch the mind” in a 1938 poem, “The Man on the Dump,” but a nightingale (symbolic, like all birds) was doing the scratching, so the verb made sense. Tricky to effect a key change in a decasyllable. Hardwick makes the odd sentence weirder. Where “vex” exaggerated and made tonal her discord, and came naturally with “the spirits” to a writer who’d studied metaphysical poetry in graduate school, the furtive, unlikely “scratch” awakes in midsentence those annoying minor characters from their index and disturbs the reader, on whom the revised line falls faster thanks to the shorter “mind” and the continuous s-word after the plural, the unlikelihood registering when it’s too late to object: Who says that?
Hardwick could do more in six words than any Hemingway type, including Hemingway. Her feats of compression were exactly that, special, not habitual, because she was not really laconic and liked words better than she liked choosing between them. Her complaints about the process remind me of the writer (Jeff Goldblum) in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), protesting the output of an overproductive hack. “It takes me six months to write one line sometimes,” he says, and when a girl asks why: “Because I pick each word individually, that’s why!” Devoted to “the interest of the mind of the individual [writer],” interested in a plurality of writers and literature, places and persons who don’t belong, Hardwick became singular eventually, not as an event; she is more so now that she has not been greatly imitated. I get it: You would be hard-pressed to trace your own thoughts over her syntax the way you can copy, half-consciously, sentences by Didion, or the way Didion copied sentences by Hemingway. Any Hardwickian rules for writing she left unsaid, subject to desire. Even her students at Barnard, said one who wrote about her later, learned little in the way of technique and found that “the idea was to study her, not a particular subject,” while she thought the purpose of study was to acclimate writers to harder lives.