The Situation and the Story The Art of Personal Narrative

Vivian Gornick

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

184 Pages



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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, and Marguerite Duras.

This book, which grew out of fifteen years of 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.

This paperback edition includes a guide for students, with exercises, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading.


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The Situation and the Story
oneTHE ESSAYIf William Hazlitt hadn't awakened each morning crawling inside his own skin, he could not have written "On the Pleasure of Hating." If Virginia Woolf didn't have difficulty attaching herself to life, she would not have written "The Death of the Moth." If James Baldwin wasn't in perpetual violent struggle to bring the black and the white inside himself under control, there would be no "Notes of a Native Son." These pieces are the work of writers engaged at the deepest level with the essay. The form itself has released them into purposeful innerliness.
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  • Vivian Gornick

  • Vivian Gornick's books include Fierce Attachments, Approaching Eye Level, and The End of the Novel of Love, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1998. She lives in New York City.