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.


The Guardian Might Stop Being a Printed Paper

Colin Morrison, writing at ‘Flashes & Flames’:

The Guardian, which has arguably become the world’s most sophisticated digital news operation, may be contemplating an end to its printed newspapers. That may have been signalled by the recent decision to cut 180 jobs (or 12% of its UK workforce) as a result of Covid.
...
But, tellingly, newsstand print sales, at £49.3m, were 50% down compared with 2016. Last year, print accounted for 42% of revenue (£94 million) and an estimated £75 million of production, distribution and marketing costs. So, the printed newspaper may last year have delivered almost £20m of real profit. But now Covid is pushing it into losses from which it may not be able to recover – without dramatic change.

Interesting and unsurprising to learn that Saturday is (was?) its biggest day for print sales:

Like most UK national newspapers, The Guardian has been highly profitable on Saturdays because of higher prices and sales volumes. Pre-Covid, The Guardian had been selling 100,000 copies at £2.20 on weeekdays. But, on a Saturday, it was selling 246,000 copies at £3.20 – and with more advertising revenue too.

After our local newsagent stopped delivering the Saturday Guardian, we went out and bought it most weeks… until Covid and the lockdown. We haven’t bought it since, probably, March. But we do pay online, as supporters and subscribers.

I don’t think I’d mind that much if it went digital-only, though it would be the end of an era. You’d think they could keep just the Saturday edition, but:

The management may already have concluded that any plan to print a newspaper only on certain days (including the weekend) will not be viable. Much of the experience (especially of the Newhouse family’s Advance newspaper group in the US) seems to show that reducing the daily frequency seldom works: once the daily habit is broken, newspaper buyers quickly seem to stop buying the paper altogether. A consolation print option could be the expansion of the 101-year-old news magazine Guardian Weekly which claims readers in more than 170 countries.

I’d guess they’ll maybe keep The Observer going for a while: Sunday papers have their own distinct identities.

The contrast with digital could not be greater. The Guardian has 160 million monthly uniques across the world, some 25% in the UK. More striking, though, are those digital editions in North America and Australia/New Zealand which, respectively, have advertising revenue of £25 million and £11 million. These are now strong operations, evidenced by Australia where The Guardian is the fourth largest online news service with an audience of 11.6 million (more than 50% of the adult population) – ahead of News Corp’s national daily, The Australian.

Good to know it’s beating Murdoch on his home turf.

Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab describes The Guardian as “a weird newspaper” because: it has nearly two-thirds of its readers coming from outside its own country; started in one city and moved to another; and is owned by a trust that mandates it promotes liberal journalism in Britain and elsewhere.

“A weird newspaper”: works for me.


Boiling a Frog by Christoper Brookmyre (Books 2020, 8)

The last Brookmyre I read was Pandaemonium, in 2010. Before that, his first, Quite Ugly One Morning, before I started writing here. The second of those introduced campaigning journalist Jack Parlabane. There’s another one before this, but you don’t need to read them in order. There are also a stack more.1

Anyway, what’s it like? No bad, as we say in Scotland. It starts off with Parlabane in prison. Part of the story, including how he ended up there, is told in flashback. It’s all set in the early days of the new Scottish Parliament, around 2000, 2001.

It’s a decent page turner, I can’t deny. My main criticism in writerly terms is about the old ‘show, don’t tell,’ thing, which we’ve discussed here before.

In at least one of those pieces I counsel against setting that injunction in stone. But it’s notable how much of this novel violates or ignores it. For large chunks of the flashbacks we’re told what happens. It’s fine. The writing style flows and it doesn’t feel like infodumps, but I was certainly aware of it.

Worth reading. I’ll probably read more of him, eventually. Still looking for a sequel to Pandaemonium, though.


  1. Apparently I’ve also read Be My Enemy. I don’t remember anything about that one, and I only mentioned it in passing there. ↩︎


From The Guardian‘s piece on what we learned in the election about the media:

One Labour MP who nearly lost their Brexit-backing seat told the Guardian that on doorstep after doorstep, people brought up Corbyn’s connections with the IRA after seeing memes and images on Facebook: “It was never used by the Tories in the campaign but there was a separate election going on, which was a Facebook-orientated campaign.”

Maybe this explains the hatred for Corbyn which so mystified me.

The next paragraph is astonishing:

The MP suggested constituents are increasingly overwhelmed by information and unsure what is real and what is not, assuming there is some sort of editing of what goes on Facebook. “People have a sense that some of this stuff is probably wrong but they have no compass. They would say: ‘But it’s on Facebook – how can there be something that isn’t true?’ They think there are gatekeepers but there aren’t.”

Emphases mine. Oh my god. How can anyone think that after all that’s happened? I realise that not everyone is as deeply into tech and politics as I am, but still.

We never had a chance, did we?