The Situation and the Story The Art of Personal Narrative

Vivian Gornick

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

184 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy

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.


Praise for The Situation and the Story

"Marvelously coherent . . . Ostensibly a guide for those aspiring to write their own personal narrative, The Situation and the Story . . . achieves more, going a long way toward sorting out the confounding questions of just what the genre is."—Jane Brox, The Boston Sunday Globe

"[The book is] insightful—at times even brilliant—when [Gornick] does close readings of works like Edmund Gosses's Father and Son and Marguerite Duras's The Lover. She points out subtle shifts in tone or the masterly way a narrator implicates himself, yet never loses sight of what makes a work congeal as a whole. Her book is a kind of brief history of the memoir and the essay."—Catherine Saint Louis, The New York Times Book Review

"The Situation and the Story [is] an elegant, concise, unlocking of the mystery of personal narrative. It has changed my thinking already and should be on every writer's bookshelf."—Elaine Showalter, Princeton University, author of A Literature of Their Own

"The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative is a how-to book: a record of Gornick's tenacious search for how one can write about one's experiences in the first-person singular and still raise the tale to universality. It is a book that deserves to be on the reading list for creative writing classes as well as on any essay or memoir writer's shelf . . . The Situation and the Story is essential for any essayist or memoirist, even for the performance artist or monologist, indeed, for any reader who seeks an understanding of what makes nonfiction literature . . . Gornick's keen analysis of the personal narrator [will] guide anyone who writes."—Mardith J. Louisell, The Bloomsbury Review

"A wonderful illumination of some of the best and most moving writers of personal narrative, by a writer whose own graceful style and exemplary forthrightness make this a most rewarding book for both the college classroom and one's own favorite armchair."—6Lydia Davis, SUNY Albany, author of Samuel Johnson is Indignant

"Vivian Gornick is an extraordinary writer of personal narrative. In her articulate and compelling new book, we learn about the craft, about Gornick specifically, and about the writer's life generally. Her incisive and vivid blend of story and information conveys the essence and the challenge of the creative nonfiction genre and is an example of what the genre can do."—Lee Gutkind, author of The Art of Creative Nonfiction

"Vivian Gornick writes with distilled wisdom and practiced accuracy. I trust her intuition absolutely."—Sven Birkerts

"We have long needed a book like this, which would put the field of creative non-fiction into thoughtful perspective, X-ray its secrets, and raise its standards. Vivian Gornick has done all that and more, producing a brilliant exegesis that is both analysis and exemplar of the difficult art of personal narrative. She brings a laser-like focus to her subject, while complicating it at every turn with moral nuance. The writing is both eloquent and elegant; the sentences have bite; the whole thing is an exhilarating read."—Phillip Lopate, Hofstra University, author of Portrait of My Body

"Why do I love The Situation and the Story so much? Well, I love its concision. I love its elegant statement of simple ideas, such as the indispensable function of persona, the idea of situation and story, the distinction between personal essay and memoir, and the reasons for the popularity of memoir now . . . I am looking forward to reading it again and discussing it with students next semester."—Marion Winik, Maryland Institute College of Art, author of Telling

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

The Situation and the Story

If 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...

Read the full excerpt


  • 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.

  • Vivian Gornick Mitchell Bach