Skip to main content

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick (Books 2022, 18)

On my MA course, in the Creative Nonfiction module, we were assigned the first chapter of this as one of our readings. It intrigued me enough that I ordered a copy.

Pages of Hackney had to order it from the US, and it took a long time to arrive. The module (and possibly the course, though I don’t actually think so) had finished by the time it arrived.

It took me even longer to finish reading it, despite it being a very slim volume.

It’s subtitled ‘The Art of Personal Memoir’. She starts one section by saying:

Thirty years ago people who thought they had a story to tell sat down to write a novel. Today they sit down to write a memoir.

And it was published in 2001, so she was seeing a change since the seventies. That may be even more true now, as creative nonfiction, memoir, the confessional story: that’s a huge publishing category.

But I’m not sure to what extent this book will help people who want to sit down and write one.

Gornick likes to teach by example. I would estimate that between 40 and 50% of the words in this book are other people’s. All properly cited and credited, of course, and the relevant permissions listed at the back. But she uses huge long quotes.

Nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. How else do we first learn to write at all, other than by the examples of things we read? But I felt she spent too much time quoting the examples, and not enough explaining why she chose those. I don’t know, maybe use smaller examples, or break the big quotes up with interjections on technique.

Early in the book she talks about the nonfiction writer:

Here the the writer must identify openly with those very same defenses [sic] and embarrassments that the novelist or the poet is once removed from. It’s like lying down on the couch in public … Think about how many years on the couch it takes to speak about oneself

The casual synecdoche of ‘couch’ to mean ‘therapy’ or ‘analysis’ amused me. So commonplace must analysis be in her circles, that she assumes everyone knows what ‘lying down on the couch’ is like. Whereas most of us, I would guess, only know about it from seeing it in films.