Structure is Everything: An Interview with Vivian Gornick

August 26, 2019 § 4 Comments

Tgornickhe publication of Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments in 1987 was a landmark event, establishing Gornick as a distinctive voice in the genre of memoir. Now, more than thirty years later, that book is experiencing renewed life in Europe, has been translated into ten languages, and recently earned first place in the New York Times‘ “50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years.”

Gornick followed up about a dozen years later with The Situation and The Story, explaining how she created the persona of an “unsurrogated narrator” to serve the story she wanted to tell in her memoir. The Situation and The Story became an indispensable guide to the literary strategies of creative nonfiction, popular in the classroom and often quoted.

Brevity’s Associate Editor Kathleen B. Jones, author of the memoir Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, interviewed Gornick about The Situation and The Story, her career as an author, and her other works. The interview is divided into three parts.

Part 1: Writing and Teaching The Situation and The Story

KATHLEEN B. JONES: You wrote The Situation and The Story almost 20 years ago.

VIVIAN GORNICK Oh, my god, is it that long?? (laughs)

JONES: What motivated you to write that book?

GORNICK: Well, actually, it started because somebody else came to me, a teacher of writing, and wanted to do this book together. I can’t remember how I knew her. She came to me with this proposal that we write a textbook together. And, of course, the lure was, we were going to make a fortune, because we would write a textbook that would be adopted all over the country (laughs). And, I agreed to it and got involved in it enough to see it really did interest me. We went along for a while but we really weren’t getting anywhere. We didn’t work well together, and I didn’t really know how to structure it for a textbook. She became, I thought—but who knows—she became exasperated with the difficulties that I posed. Probably it was out of frustration we were not going to make this thing work. So, I said, let’s abandon this. And once we abandoned it I realized that I had really become interested in writing, completely on my own, my version of what it meant to create a nonfiction persona. I realized I had been reading this stuff, and writing this stuff, and teaching this stuff for fifteen years by then. I thought it would be a piece of cake. But, it wasn’t, of course; it was really hard to structure. I thought it would take six months. It took two years (laughs).

JONES: It actually has become kind of a bible…

GORNICK: Yes, it has…

JONES: In many places…

GORNICK: I know; it’s taught all over the country. I’m amazed by it myself.

JONES: So if you were writing the book now, is there any way you would change it?

GORNICK: No! I look at it and I’m amazed at how good it is (laughs). I can’t believe I wrote it…It was really hard to write. I wrote a whole manuscript and I knew I hadn’t gotten it right. I just could feel in my gut it wasn’t in the right shape. I’m really a writer who needs an editor all the time; there’s a certain constipation in my own way of writing. I telescope too much in first drafts. I’m not sufficiently aware of what the reader actually has to know, or not know. I need somebody to set me straight. And a very talented editor at FSG all those years ago read [the manuscript]. He was brilliant about what I needed to do and how I needed to restructure it. Structure was everything. Just as, in the life of nonfiction writing, structure is everything. It took quite a while for me to figure out the elements that were necessary. The most important thing was developing my idea of the persona… which I lay out in the very beginning. The girl who is doing the eulogy and how she knows who she is in relation to the subject and therefore she knows how to write—that was very important.

JONES: In The Situation and The Story, you wrote about why you thought memoir writing was, at that time, felt as a particularly urgent call. You said modernist novels had been bypassed by this genre. Now, some critics declare the age of memoir writing to be over. You might read—ironically, in a New York Times book review of some new memoir—a critic saying she thought we were done with all this, but this book has really done something different with the form.

GORNICK: I really don’t know what to think. The reason that is said is because we live now in a time when every deluge is just gigantic. In a previous time, when one literary genre replaced another, you might have had hundreds, now you have thousands of instances. The memoir, the memoir, the memoir. So it’s a glut on the market.

Look, the fact of the matter is, most memoirs are not literature, and most novels are not literature. When a good one comes along, its power is felt all over again. I do believe that the passion for the novel has run its course for the time being. It doesn’t feel, not to me at any rate, that one looks forward to the next novel. You know, it’s so hard for me to have any really organized opinions about all this.

All I know is this: I grew up in a book culture which means that that book culture never had huge numbers of devotees. Where people took literature seriously, we all read the same books, we all read the same reviews, and we waited for the next book of a writer to come out. The reviewers in the New York Times Book Review were of a really high order. You had that whole generation of Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, all those men who were very serious critics writing the Sunday Times Book Review. You don’t have anything of the sort anymore. All that has just dissolved. So what we have is this gigantic entertainment world and a world of celebrity where writers have become celebrities. It all feels hit or miss to me. I remain devoted to looking for the same experience in a book that I always look for. And when I say a book is good or not good it’s out of a mindset that was formed 50 years ago. So I really don’t know what to make of this business—the age of memoir. We’re talking about 20 years. I mean, we’re too old (laughter) to subscribe to that sort of thing as ‘the age’ or, better yet, ‘the era’.

JONES: Say more about that.

GORNICK: I do think the memoir will continue to be written more readily than the novel, and only a fraction of them are works that will last. I mean, they come and go, and most of them are not literature. They remain books of confession. Somebody writes a memoir about not being able to give birth to a baby and then what follows is her encounter with fertility clinics. There’s that. Or then there’s alcohol and there’s incest and there’s just a glut of stuff. I wrote [The Situation and The Story] out of what I thought was a serious consideration of serious books. I know people now who teach courses out of this book. They make their students read the books that I refer to. And the same with my other collection, The End of the Novel of Love, they teach out of that. And I’m thrilled by it. But they do it because they think those books I wrote about are serious examples and they can run the rest of time. There will never be a time when those books will not look good.

JONES: Surely those books you cited aren’t the only ones?

GORNICK: Oh, of course. There are always others.

JONES: Have you been in contact with people who use The Situation and The Story the way you describe?

GORNICK: Always.

JONES: Do they talk about how they structure their classes?

GORNICK: No, and that’s interesting. I should ask. I never have asked that. I shouldn’t say I’m in contact with people. I meet people all the time who tell me they teach it but I never have asked how exactly they teach it. Well, you probably know more.

JONES: I did teach it in a writing class.

GORNICK: How did you use it?

JONES: I used it as the main way to think about how to structure an essay and find the language and persona necessary to tell whatever the story was. And then we looked at other texts. Interestingly enough, this was not in a literary writing class, but in a course about writing a master’s thesis, with people from a variety of disciplines.

GORNICK: Interesting.

JONES: Some students were creative writers; others were writing in philosophy, or anthropology.

GORNICK: Oh!

JONES: Each one of them had the situation of their research that she needed to turn into a story.

GORNICK: Exactly. Very good.

JONES: So that’s how I used it and tried to make it fit all these different disciplinary fields.

GORNICK: That must have been fun.

kathleenbjonesJONES: No matter what your field, you still have to write and you have to write well. You may be constrained by the structure of what a university tells you must be done for a thesis. But the narrative, the story, can bear all those same qualities you described.

GORNICK: My niece, who is in social policy, writes reports nonstop. She understands you have to be telling a story all the time. With her, it’s easy to see what her situation is—it’s the background of her discipline. But she knows, within that, you must tell a story and she’s made use of that. Just to clarify on that concept should help you.

JONES: Are you still teaching?

GORNICK: No,  no. I try not to. I taught a couple of years ago in Iowa and I swore I’d rather go on welfare than do this again (laughs).

JONES: When you were teaching, how did you structure your workshops?

GORNICK: I had a very simple method. The workshop would just concentrate on the immediacy of what they were writing. I made all my students write 1,000 words every other week. A three-page piece. And then we would workshop them. I did not give out assignments, but the pieces would generate themselves out of the previous week’s discussion. I had no pedagogy.

JONES: Assigned readings?

GORNICK: For sure. A lot of the books I refer to in the books I wrote came out of those courses.

JONES: No in-class writing exercises?

GORNICK: No. these were graduate students. Gotta write.

JONES: At the end of The Situation and The Story, you wrote that all the years of teaching led you to conclude that you can’t teach people how to write but you can teach them how to read. How do you teach people how to read?

GORNICK: You depend upon them learning from the critiquing, if you’re going to teach people how to gain judgment about their own work—and what else are all these MFA programs about? They’re allowing people to write and to hear their own writing read in the company of others so that they see how it hits a reader, when it seems right and when it’s absolutely wrong. And through the critiquing, which keeps concentrating on the relation between the persona and the story in the situation, you learn by example. If you can’t learn by example you can’t learn. There’s nothing for you to memorize, no body of information that’s being passed on. It’s all a matter of experience; it’s a matter of doing it and hearing it done, and learning from that.

Now, I taught for 6 or 7 years at the University of Arizona, a perfectly standard, straightforward, conventional MFA program. It happened to be filled with perfectly ordinary people teaching. It also happened that David Foster Wallace was a student there. And he kept writing his stuff and he kept being told it was no good. Not a well-crafted novel.

Now, when you have someone like that, all bets are off. So, I think what it did for him was, it showed him he had to go his own way. And he had genius. He wrote Infinite Jest, a thousand or so page novel, soon after leaving the program.

So these programs are for the most ordinary of the ordinary. First of all, very, very few writers emerge from them. Very few. The mass of people go on to other lives. They’re not writers. They’re not writers; they’re wanna-bes. And so what you can teach, as I said, is you can teach someone how to read their own writing better. You can’t teach them how to do it better, unless , if someone has some writing talent, they can make better use of it because you’re being taught how to criticize yourself.

JONES: I think the books that you read while you’re in a program enable you to see how to write better.

GORNICK: Sure.

JONES: Because you look at them and take them apart differently, instead of just being immersed in the plot.

GORNICK: Right, how did I become a writer? Out of City College’s English Department. Because of all the great books people put in my hands.

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Part Two of this interview: The Other in Oneself

Part Three of this interview: Of Reading and Culture

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Kathleen B. Jones taught Women’s Studies for twenty-four years at San Diego State University. She is the author of two memoirs, Living Between Danger and Loveand Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. Her writing has appeared in Fiction InternationalMr. Beller’s NeighborhoodThe Briar Cliff Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She recently served as Brevity‘s Associate Editor while completing an MFA in writing at Fairfield University.

David Foster Wallace’s CNF Syllabus

September 4, 2015 § 2 Comments

David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

Also a noted bandana-wearer.

Ah, David Foster Wallace. The teacher we either wish desperately we had or are heartily thankful we didn’t. And a kickass syllabus writer, too.  For instance:

…the adjective creative signifies that some goal(s) other than sheer truthfulness motivates the writer and informs her work. This creative goal, broadly stated, may be to interest readers, or to instruct them, or to entertain them, to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse, to get readers to look more closely at or think more deeply about something that’s worth their attention. . . or some combination(s) of these. Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to “share” or “express herself” or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you. The reader, in fact, will feel about you, your subject, and your essay only what your written words themselves induce her to feel.

Check out the whole thing–and wonder what grade you might have gotten on the scale of “Mind-blowingly good” to “Downright bad”–over at Salon.

The Last Word (We Hope)

March 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

Tired of Daisey and D’Agata? So are we. With any luck, this will be our last post on the fact-shifting argument for a good long while. We promise, at least to try. In any case, the folks at Slate have made the parameters crystal clear with this handy chart:

To make life easier for would-be liars everywhere, we have attempted to answer that question with a handy visual guide. Some of our conclusions are obvious: If you’re a journalist, making stuff up is not a good career move. If you’re a fantasy writer, on the other hand, you’d better make stuff up by the chapter-load, or you’ll be out of a gig. But what if you fall somewhere in the middle?

Well, if you want to make stuff up, it helps to be funny. While David Sedaris’s books are classified as nonfiction, for example, no one seems to mind that they’re not all true. Likewise, stand-up comedians can tell you about the hilarious thing that happened to them last week, and no one will check to see if that hilarious thing really happened last week. Even if you’re writing a reported piece for a fact-checked magazine like Harper’s orRolling Stone, you might be able to throw in a few whoppers if you’re as funny as David Foster Wallace. (Try to write prose as memorable as his, too—that seems to have helped Truman Capote.)

You may also want to consider putting your story on film. While biographers get a hard time for documentable inaccuracies, biopics don’t get the same degree of scrutiny. If you write a true story, it should probably be true; if you make a movie “based on a true story,” people will assume you made a bunch of stuff up.


Ander Monson on Truth and Suspension

March 21, 2012 § 4 Comments

Ander Monson, essayist, diagrammatic virtuoso, bearded-one, weighs in on the fact-shifting debate with his customary fresh take and refusal to settle on a binary (true/not true) approach.  Well worth the read both for Monson’s views on D’Agata”s choices and possible motives, but also for Monson’s overall discussion of the essay form. Here’s an excerpt, followed by the link:

In an interview, David Foster Wallace makes the argument that “[t]he reader’s pre-suspension of disbelief gives nonfiction a particular kind of power, but it also seems to encumber the nonfiction with a kind of moral obligation fiction doesn’t have.” To me that’s part of the trouble: it seems to me that as readers we do, contra DFW, still get/have to choose to suspend our disbelief in nonfiction — these days at least; or any days, really. Art requires that suspension. That’s the thrill of it. In fact, that’s what we desire most deeply as readers, offering ourselves up, our brains up, as willing vessels for the (simulated) mind (in the case of the essay — which is the closest we can currently get to a simulated brain) of the writer, because we want to be possessed. We need it. Not completely, of course, particularly in texts that aspire to art — we want to do some work as readers, too. We’re not dumb. We tell ourselves we’re not dumb.

But that’s what makes us angry when we hear about confabulation in works of apparent nonfiction, even as the deep satisfaction we may take in the artifice of the book (until it is exposed) moves us greatly. It’s as if we are angry in proportion to how deeply we allowed ourselves to be possessed by a book or an essay. We are angry at ourselves, and we project this onto the author.

Maybe instead of ceding to the anger, let’s try not to be so utterly credulous and admit that there’s some space between these two positions — true believer and total skeptic — that we’ve been offered.

Monson’s Full Essay Can Be Read Here

He Made It Up: Franzen on Wallace

October 12, 2011 § 7 Comments

Let us state up front that people are already questioning Franzen’s reliability here, and David Foster Wallace is not around, sadly, to defend his record. So we do not offer this up as necessarily true, but rather as an interesting moment in the ongoing discussion of “truth as best effort to be factual” versus “truth as metaphor.”   Plus, the full exchange in The Awl would make a delightful one-act play, entitled perhaps, “For Instance, Yeah. Facticity…”

An Excerpt:

Remnick: Well, I was, I was fascinated to hear… that there are some people in this world who feel that it’s o— that to have a kind of hyper-postmodern view of nonfiction/fiction questions, that it’s all writing, and that questions of fact, facticity and, well, that’s kind of square and old-fashioned, and it’s okay that Kapuscinski does what Kapuscinski does and kind of makes this up because it’s really just a metaphor fo Poland itself. And other writers that one could name who have a different view of fact and fiction… You’re pretty strict about the dividing line. You see, you think that somebody who’s—
Franzen (interjecting): [unintelligible]
Remnick: — allegedly writing nonfiction and cheats it—
Franzen: Yeah.
Remnick: —is cheating the reader, is somehow in a way that should be kind of like admitting a false —
Franzen: David and I disagreed on that.
Remnick: David?
Franzen: Dave Wallace, yeah.
Remnick: So Wallace felt well—
Franzen: Yeah, cause he—
Remnick: He said it was okay to make up dialogue on a cruise ship?
Franzen: For instance, yeah. Uhhmmm…
Remnick: I’m heartbroken to hear it.
Franzen: I know, I know.

In Search of a Name: The Splor?

March 13, 2009 § 7 Comments

Here in nonfiction we have the short form and the long form, the essay and the memoir. The essay essays—it attempts—and the memoir remembers.

thomas-de-quinceyBut then again, our essays often remember too, and our memories are often essayed into their eventual meaning. Some memoirs are boiled down to only a few pages, and essays often swell to book-length sprawls in the tradition of Montaigne’s “On a Few Verses of Virgil.” Even more complicating, certain online journals claim to be interested only in very short shorts of, say, 750 words or less, turning a blind eye to what such pieces might’ve been in a longer span: essays or memoirs or somethings-else. And then you have books like Scott Russell Sanders’ Hunting for Hope, in which a whole group of essays, any of which could stand alone, combine in a way that magnifies each. Add to that the interviews, reviews, profiles, radio essays, graphic memoirs, hybrids, experimentals, prose poems, grocery lists, and Facebook statuses that might also jostle for space in the genre, and, well, you get the idea.

I’m not really worried about small, sub-genre distinctions between essay and memoir and all their cousins, though. But I can’t get past the fact that I inevitably seem to come back to length: If you say “essay,” I think “short”; and if you say “memoir,” I think “long.”

My friend is finishing up her dissertation and it’s 90 pages long—too short to be a book, too long to be an essay. Discussing it recently in a workshop, we had trouble calling it anything except “the dissertation.” Somebody threw out the word novella, but somebody else rejected it on the grounds that the term novella was reserved for fiction. The word monograph was tried, but it rang of academia. Chapbook was similarly ill-fitting. “That-stuff-that-Essay-Press-is-publishing,” I tried: too long.

Another colleague thought a neologism was in order and suggested the portmanteau splor, a combination splurge and exploration. As in, “This started as an essay, and there’s too little here to make it into a whole book, so I’m hoping to expand it into a splor of sorts.” There were half-hearted assents and some nervous laughter, but no one championed the cause (Sorry, Dave).

So what do we call it? What term can we use for our middle-form nonfiction? “Novella-length essay”? “Short memoir”? “Book-length essay”? Splor? Messay? Brevimoir?

This isn’t really that important except for this: if they have a name, they might find more of a space. It seems to me that many excellent pieces are in publishing limbo because they are too long for the journals and too short for the houses. Often they get bowdlerized or wait around for the author to get a book deal so they can sneak in with shorter works. I’m thinking of “Tense, Present,” David Foster Wallace’s massive splor that filled 20 pages of Harper’s but 61 pages of Consider the Lobster. Or his “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys, and the Shrub” that fills 11 scant pages at rollingstone.com, 89 pages of Consider the Lobster, and 144 pages as its own book, McCain’s Promise.1 I just finished de Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,” which only makes it to Penguin-edition glory by being packaged with two other of de Q’s works. And I can’t help but remember a piece by my mentor that sat on the editor’s desk at The American Scholar for close to a year: they seemed pleased with its quality but were nervous about its girth.

I’m not bemoaning the fact that I have an 80-page manuscript without a home. I don’t. But I wish a had more 80-page jewels on my bookshelf waiting to be read. The splor, like the brief essays we publish here, has a certain allure. It can exhibit a kind of brevity not seen elsewhere. It is the movement of a mind focused on a subject for an afternoon—not an hour, not a week. That mind ups the ante on the essay’s demand for precision and concentration, yet it eschews the sometime pretension or petulance of the full-length memoir.

If essays are episodes of Seinfeld and CSI, and memoirs are Groundhog Day and You’ve Got Mail and, sometimes, all three Lord of the Rings films, then splors are miniseries. They are made-for-TV movies. Telenovellas. Firefly. Freaks and Geeks.2

But they need a name, one we can all agree on (or at least argue about). Personally, I’d like to vote for “the monograph essay.” Sounds classy. Discuss.

~David Grover
Managing Editor


1 In fact, DFW’s collected essays often have lines like, “Since this will undoubtedly be cut before publication,” giving one the impression that he wasn’t writing with the reader in mind at all but was instead engaging with his editors in some kind of odd game.
2 Brevity, I guess, publishes commercials.

David Foster Wallace: Nonfiction’s Special Contract

February 27, 2009 § Leave a comment

Our friend Richard Gilbert notes on his blog Narrative some wonderful recently published comments from the late David Foster Wallace about the difference between (and the importance of the difference between) fiction and nonfiction.

Here is one of those comments:

“[W]e all know . . . any embellishment is dangerous, that a writer’s justifying embellishment via claiming that it actually enhances the overall ‘truth’ is exceedingly dangerous, since the claim is structurally identical to all Ends Justify the Means rationalizations. Some part of nonfiction’s special contract with the reader specifically concerns means, not just ends, and also concerns the writer’s motives . . . and maybe the ultimate honesty that good nonfiction entails, and promises, is the writer’s honesty with herself.”

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