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by Vivian Gornick

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-374-16733-8
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An insightful examination of personal narratives.

In the course of her discussion, teacher and journalist Gornick (The End of the Novel of Love, 1997, etc.) observes, “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.” She does not try to explain this shift towards personal narrative, but concentrates instead on what distinguishes a successful memoir from a failed one. Not surprisingly, she holds that a successful author draws upon personal experience to illustrate broader truths, which involves engaging “one’s own part in the situation—that is, one’s own frightened or cowardly or self-deceived part.” To illustrate her point, she has culled a variety of personal essays and memoirs that go beyond a simple recital of events. These range from George Orwell’s well-known “Shooting an Elephant” to Lynn Darling’s “For Better and Worse.” To Gornick’s credit, her selection of narratives provides an invigorating reminder of just how subtle and varied the genre can be. As V.S. Pritchett once put it, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.” Thus, Gornick reads Edward Hoagland’s “The Courage of Turtles” as an exploration of the contours of human intimacy. Likewise, James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” goes beyond the author’s own experience of racial prejudice to confront the complexities of civil society. In personal narratives, a reader must sense the author engaging his or her life dynamically. It is this quality that triggers the reader’s empathy and transforms the work from the purely personal—the Mommie Dearest syndrome—to the universal.

An excellent exploration of the writing process that will particularly interest those who have toyed with the idea of documenting their own experience.