The recent death of Tillie Olsen (1912-2007) reminds us that the value of a piece of literature is not quantifiable – not by word count, not by books sold – but, rather, resides in a black box between writer and reader, in a transaction that defies easy explanation. Olsen’s writing was not prodigal – she only published one complete book of fiction – but was, in its artistry and its impact, prodigious.
Tell Me a Riddle (1961), a collection of four stories, drew on activist sensibilities forged in the 1920s and 30s and on Olsen’s innate poetic gifts. It consciously reclaimed the lives of minorities, of immigrants, of working-class people, and, especially, of women, as worthy of fictional examination. In so doing, it anticipated much of the finest literature published since.
It seems that Olsen was as inspiring in person as she was on the page. Her great-nephew Matt Osypowski, himself a fiction writer, recently told The Millions:
I started a novel (unfinished) in her apartment when I was eight or nine years old. Something about her presence made me want to do what she did, to master the language in the way that she had. She would send me the most beautiful birthday cards – short notes of pure music. Her partner, Jack, was deeply involved in labor politics in San Francisco, as was my grandfather. Their work was steeped in conflict, ideology, and mass movements… There was a beautiful contrast between their work and Tillie’s, the big picture on their end and on hers all the small pictures that make the big picture matter. Her work can make me so sad, but it’s never an impotent sadness – beneath it lie all her hopes for a better world, hopes that she wrote for, fought for, and helped all of us in the family share and understand.