A guide to the art of personal writing, by the author of Fierce Attachments and The End of the Novel of Love
All narrative writing must pull from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver a bit of wisdom. In a story or a novel the "I" who tells this tale can be, and often is, an unreliable narrator but in nonfiction the reader must always be persuaded that the narrator is speaking truth.
How does one pull from one's own boring, agitated self the truth-speaker who will tell the story a personal narrative needs to tell? That is the question The Situation and the Story asks--and answers. Taking us on a reading tour of some of the best memoirs and essays of the past hundred years, Gornick traces the changing idea of self that has dominated the century, and demonstrates the enduring truth-speaker to be found in the work of writers as diverse as Edmund Gosse, Joan Didion, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, or Marguerite Duras.
This book, which grew out of fifteen years teaching in MFA programs, is itself a model of the lucid intelligence that has made Gornick one of our most admired writers of nonfiction. In it, she teaches us to write by teaching us how to read: how to recognize truth when we hear it in the writing of others and in our own.
With her essays regularly appearing in high-profile periodicals, anthologies and partisan-attracting books like Fierce Attachments and The End of the Novel of Love, Gornick is one of a handful of nonfiction prose stylists whose work is instantly recognizable to the literati and crititocracy. Based on many years' teaching in a variety of creative writing programs, Gornick's book discusses ways of making nonfiction writing highly personal without being pathetically self-absorbed. In admirably plain and direct style, she discusses writers as diverse as Oscar Wilde, Joan Didion and a man she calls the "Jewish Joan Didion," Seymour Krim. Part of the virtue of this book is Gornick's wide-ranging reading, which comprises less-than-household names like Jean Amery, a Belgium-based Holocaust survivor, and the noted Italian author Natalia Ginzburg. By excerpting and condensing freely, she presents chosen texts in speedily absorbed format, which is useful for the primer-style approach here, even if some of the original authors might object to being Readers Digested in this manner. All the texts do nevertheless support her statement that essays can "be read the way poems and novels are read, inside the same kind of context, the one that enlarges the relationship between life and literature."