One of the best books for writers of memoir is Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. In addition to being a memoirist, Gornick is also an essayist and literary critic.
We all know the term “personal journalism” thanks to Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and other celebrated practitioners. Gornick would develop for a new generation something you might call “personal criticism,” a first-person style that draws on the tradition of essayist-critics like William Hazlitt and Virginia Woolf while also reflecting a very contemporary hunger for personal testimony. Indeed, the “I” of The End of the Novel of Love seems continuous with the “I” of Fierce Attachments, of her personal essays, and even of the biographies she has written (of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Emma Goldman). Whatever Gornick’s subject, her writing relies on direct, lived experience.
In this article from the Winter 2014 issue of The Paris Review, Elaine Blair interviews Gornick about her parents, her education, and the books and writers who influenced her.
Maddie Crum examines the recent popularity of memoir—though this popularity has now gone on for so long that I find it difficult to continue to refer to it as _recent_—and the central question that all memoirists must confront: What, exactly, constitutes the extend of truth in memoir?
When we tell stories — in writing, out loud to our friends, in the form of jokes with a punchline — we owe our listeners the good feelings that come with dramatic timing, with building anticipation and providing welcome release. The desired effect is to allow listeners, and readers, to feel how we felt, not to merely be aware of the literal circumstances lending to the feeling. If a memoirist can achieve that — and if she must take a few liberties in truthfulness to get there — then she’s done something right.
Nicola Skinner has nearly 29 years’ worth of diaries. And suddenly she wonders what to do with them now that her her four-year-old daughter, Polly, is learning to read.
After much lamenting, she arrives at this decision:
But I think the best thing to do is to lock them away until she reaches adulthood – or motherhood, whichever she fancies. Then, both armed with a stiff drink, we can read them together. I can put things into context. I can say – yes, I was having a bad day when I wrote that. But look! The next day, I wrote about your dad’s homemade chicken curry, and that time you gesticulated around yourself excitedly and said: “There’s so much to like!” (3 April 2015). I’ll explain that writing a diary is like sketching: you only see a fraction of reality. If all else fails, I’ll tell her that my diaries saved me thousands of pounds in therapy – money that was spent on eating Portuguese custard tarts every day of our holidays and buying amazing films to watch together. I’ll look her in the eye and say that I wouldn’t swap one single day, not even the worst ones, for my old life, if it meant not having her. And then I’ll give her a diary, and tell her to write her own story, and never be afraid of her feelings.
Inspired by the recent publication of Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road, Erin Donnelly has composed a list of 30 must-read memoirs.
While individual tastes will undoubtedly vary, I was gratified to see that I’ve read 13 of these books and have another five on my TBR list.
What about you?
How many of these memoirs have you read? What other titles would you add to the list?