(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

This engrossing little book is part memoir, part literary analysis, and part instructional text. In a clear and evocative style, Vivian Gornick reveals the secret of successfully turning the situation, her term for the raw material of a memoir or an essay, into the “story,” the argument of a narrative that is focused by a coherent, created persona who has the authority to make the argument. Such a persona is, she writes, vital; it is the “instrument of . . . illumination.” No persona, no story. To achieve it, the writer must discover not only the occasion of one’s speaking but exactly who is speaking, that is, the “who” that is either discovered or created by the writer. With that discovery or creation, the writer may be reasonably assured of reaching and holding the audience without boredom and confusion.

Gornick’s strategy is to divide personal narrative into two different sets of materials that, although similar in requiring a foregrounded first-person narrator (a “truth speaker”) are different in their perspectives and their purposes. First she examines the personal essay, a form written by writers who believe they “know who they are at the moment of writing.” Failure to be clear about this intersection of purpose and personal voice leads to confusion and failure. As an example, Gornick analyzes the false and limited voice of D. H. Lawrence’s essay “Do Women Change?” noting that while it is “[o]stensibly a meditation on the cyclical recurrence throughout history of the modern, the piece in actuality is a denunciation of 1920’s feminists.” Gornick argues that it fails because Lawrence “does not know what he is about,” and that he lacks the sort of sympathy with his subject that renders his novels powerful and true.

In contrast, she offers William Hazlitt who, while he certainly could have written a similar denunciation of feminists, always “owns his anger” and lets one see the fear behind the anger. That self-knowledge and that courage make all the difference. The struggle to make sense of his feelings is always apparent in Hazlitt, Gornick asserts, and the struggle makes his subject vital. To achieve this quality, the writer must have and demonstrate sympathy for the subject, a “level of empathic understanding that endows the subject with dimension,” by implicating the writer with it in an effort to clarify it. Gornick’s acuity of analysis and clarity of writing make her discussion of personal essays by Harry Crews, Joan Didion, and Edward Hoagland not only delightful to read but truly clarifying of the distinction she seeks to make not only between personal essay and memoir but of the qualities of voice and discernment that make one essay ring true while another one seems false.

Her chapter on the personal essay identifies other important qualities of this genre of personal narrative that distinguish it from the memoir. For instance, she argues that the personal narrative explores a subject other than the writer’s self. That is, the subject is outside the writer: the nature of marriage, for instance, rather than a narrative of the writer’s own marriage. Essays by Lynn Darling and Natalia Ginzburg reveal under Gornick’s analysis just how this intersection of purpose and perspective works. Each writer’s strategies and styles are radically different, yet both are intent upon discovering the mysterious in the familiar of their marriages while also discovering that they are complicitous in the widening rift within their marriages. Each uses her personal experience to explain and reveal the nature of modern marriage rather than to tell the story of her own marriage. Gornick also argues that readers have an obligation to accumulate a wide experience and knowledge of other writers’ personal essays because doing so will make the reading experience much richer than reading in isolation. In much the same way that one’s experience of novels and poems is made richer with the echoes and images of other novels and poems in one’s mind, so too with the personal essay.

Gornick’s third chapter takes account of the increasing popularity of the memoir as the form to which people turn when they think they have a story that needs telling. The tale taken directly from life rather than invented out of bits and pieces of...

(The entire section is 1756 words.)