The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick 2001
Gornick is an 84 year old literary critic whose work has recently become of interest again and is being reissued. I learned about her from a profile in a 2020 New Yorker by Alexandra Schwartz, one of their best writers. Gornick had been a red-diaper baby, and her early work dealt with American Communism before she moved to writing about feminism. This book is one of her several works of literary criticism and focuses on the essay and memoir as vehicles for personal narrative.
I enjoyed the book for its exploration of some of my favorite writers—-Didion, Mailer, Geoffrey Wolff, Baldwin, Virginia Woolf–in the context of analyzing their attempts to find their ‘self’, to ‘make sense of inchoate flow of events, the rushing onslaught of their own internal flux.’ She describes a new concept for me, the role of the narrator in non-fiction who uses strong feelings, vivid intelligence, original phrasing to speak truth and shape associations to an inner resolution. She contrasts the situation and the story of the title as the tools for the non-fiction writer, stuck without the ability to introduce characters as in novels and left to clarify on the page his/her own person.
This is not light reading, but it’s good writing. You’ll meet old friends as I did and be introduced to many new ones–Edmund Gasse, Agnes Smedley, Beryl Markman and others. One of my favorites, W.G. Sebald is the final writer she discusses.
If you enjoy essays, this is a fine book to read to better understand why.