Biography 26.4 (2003) 719-722
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Posterity will regard Vivian Gornick's The Situation and the Story with the same unqualified esteem as readers now hold William Strunk, Jr.'s Elements of Style: it is a classic handbook that will be in use for years to come. And [End Page 719] like Strunk's Elements, The Situation and the Story has a wry, sneak-up-on-you kind of style, rewarding the seasoned aficionado as well as the novice with keen observations on the craft of non-fiction narrative.
Part of how Gornick avoids didacticism is through the methodology she chooses. Herself a master storyteller, Gornick keeps the reader not just informed, but counts on the reader as an informant. The book is laced with examples that readers are invited to interpret and learn from along with Gornick. For instance, she opens the book with an anecdote about eulogies she heard at a funeral. She describes, following her own title, both the situation—the funeral of an important doctor—and then tells the story of how one of the speakers in particular moved her. In this initial example, Gornick makes the important difference between the situation and the story clear. The book's central lesson—that a situation is not the story—is thus part of how the book itself begins. This situation—writing a book about writing a book—is not the story. The story is about how meaning is made and how particular writing goes about achieving it.
Gornick, like the eulogist she praises, "never los[es] sight of why she [is] speaking—or, perhaps more important, of who [is] speaking" (6). The speaker in The Situation and the Story is not just Vivian Gornick, world-renowned journalist and author, but Vivian Gornick, sensitive and attentive reader. Indeed, it is partly through her engagement of her own readings that she connects with us, her readers. And the words she uses to conclude about the eulogist apply just as aptly to her: "Because the narrator knew who was speaking, she always knew why she was speaking" (6).
Part of how Gornick sees the eulogist accomplish this important perspective is through the invention of what literary types call the "persona." Renaming this rhetorical trope "the unsurrogated narrator" so as to distinguish it from a more traditional (because fictional) "persona," Gornick explains that "the unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader" (7). It is unlikely that any one picking up The Situation and the Story would qualify as a disinterested reader, yet the basic premise of Gornick's claim still helps to explain the value and success of Gornick as our guide to the mysteries of effective non-fiction narrative. Her success as an author makes us believe in the possibility of our success should we be able to follow the analysis she invites us to perform.
In addition to the very illuminating example of herself and her career, Gornick casts her penetrating gaze on the work of some of the other "greats" of the narrative non-fiction world, such as Joan Didion and George Orwell. [End Page 720] But perhaps even more helpful and interesting are the sections where she takes up some lesser known writers such as Loren Eiseley and Natalia Ginzberg. Providing not just a description but lengthy passages for the reader to interpret, Gornick shows us how she learns as she teaches. Also very useful is her decision to divide the book into two sections: one that focuses on the essay, and the other that focuses on the memoir.
Gornick's distinction between the essay and the memoir as forms turns on her sense of motive and focus. The essayist wants to narrate a process, one that leads to and is determined by...