The Situation and The Story

by Vivian Gornick
Review by Tara Caimi

In The Situation and The Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick paints a detailed picture of the critical elements of essay and memoir writing. Though many of the elements apply to both essay and memoir writing, the description she provides in regard to the difference between the two styles is lucent. While the writer of essay uses “persona to explore a subject other than herself,” the writer of memoir uses the subject “precisely to explore—illuminate, define—herself” (p 77).

Gornick begins with an exploration into essay writing, focusing on the particular elements that combine to create an effective piece of work. She speaks of “the other”—a voice inside the writer who tells the story from the appropriate perspective. “In nonfiction, the writer has only the singular self to work with. So it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement, achieve a dynamic. Inevitably, the piece builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but in this kind of self-investigation, the kind that means to provide motion, purpose and dramatic tension” (p. 35).

Gornick also uses the term “persona” to describe this narrator, which becomes the “organizing principle”—the structure that drives the piece and gives it the “texture” that evokes emotion in the reader. “The memory had acted as an organizing principle that determined the structure of her remarks. Structure had imposed order. Order made the sentences more shapely. Shapeliness increased the expressiveness of the language. Expressiveness deepened association. At last, a dramatic buildup occurred … This buildup is called texture” (p. 4). Gornick goes on to explain the function of the speaker, “to clarify in relation to the subject at hand” (p. 30). In personal narrative, this is achieved through self-examination, which can take many forms.

To illustrate her points throughout the book, Gornick compares and contrasts a variety of essays and memoirs, at times noting similar themes that were achieved through very different means. This is apparent in her comparison of “For Better and Worse” by Lynn Darling and “He and I” by Natalia Ginzburg. “What divides these essays is easily described. The American’s is the work of a journalist interweaving social observation and personal testimony … the voice one of urban sophistication riddled through with longing for what might have been, its tone both ironic and lyrical; the Italian’s that of a novelist producing a bill of particulars … the voice all uninflected minimalism, its tone forthright and seemingly without judgment…” (p. 74). Later, Gornick explains what it is that she feels binds these essays together. “It’s the randomness, we now realize, that in both essays is the line of influence running strongly beneath the surface of the prose—the shock of it, the struggle over a lifetime to justify, account for, make sense of: why him?” (p. 75)

In these and other passages, Gornick makes it clear that it is not the voice that drives the narrative, nor is it the language or even the writing style. It is, again, the persona—the person inside the writer who is telling the story from a particular perspective.

Gornick emphatically stresses the importance, or rather the necessity of the narrator’s credibility in nonfiction writing. In order for the piece to be effective, the narrator must be, in some way, believable. The speaker must convey some sense of truth telling. “To the bargain, the writer of personal narrative must also persuade the reader that the narrator is reliable” (p. 14).

The narrator can use a variety of tools to create the dynamic, driving force of the piece. Among the tools are sympathy, as in Father and Son, by Edmond Gosse; intelligence, as in the essay “In Bed,” by Joan Didian; anger, as apparent in Jean Améry’s series of essays on aging; and even denial, as in Agnes Smedley’s Daughter of Earth. Regarding Daughter of Earth, Gornick writes of the narrator, “Closed, hard, defensive, she nonetheless lets us see it all, and the writing accumulates into a truth, of which the narrator’s dishonesty with herself is a vital element” (p. 107).

As the book progresses and Gornick slips seamlessly into the analysis of memoir writing, she asks “Why memoir? And why now?” (p. 89) It is Gornick’s belief that the literary histories of rich narrative and stark modernism combined to create our current passion for memoir, which is, essentially, a narrative form of self-examination. According to Gornick, however, it is not the circumstances in a memoir that function to create the work of literature. “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened” (p. 91).

The organizing principle still plays a critical role in memoir, as does the conviction that the narrator in an effective essay or memoir becomes the organizing principle, which drives the narrative and creates the texture of the piece. In memoir, however, Gornick’s notion of persona becomes the “inviolable self.” This is the real, or true self for whom the writer searches in the act of memoir writing. “That idea of the self—the one that controls the memoir—is almost always served through a single piece of awareness that clarifies only slowly in the writer, gaining strength and definition as the narrative progresses” (p. 92).

As with essays, the writing style can vary greatly in this self-searching quest, and the themes throughout the subjects of Gornick’s analyses include human isolation, solitariness, and disconnection, as they relate to or represent universal truths. “Eiseley’s memoir is emblematic of a preoccupation with human isolation that has been growing steadily over the past hundred years …” (p. 135). It seems that the writer of memoir can search for the “inviolable self” in a variety of ways, but the credibility of the narrator is a constant requirement.

Gornick’s book is so thoughtful and well written that it becomes more than a lesson in personal narrative—it becomes a lesson in critical analysis as well. On any given subject, Gornick jabs repeatedly at the heart of the matter before pulling the organ out, still warm and beating on her critical skewer. The reader of Gornick’s analyses cannot fail to accept the conclusions that she so deftly delivers, over and over again in a book that will prove to be an invaluable resource for years to come.

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