What is a memoir anyway? Readers respond to Vivian Gornick's defense of her work.

Published August 14, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

[Read "A Memoirist Defends Her Words."]

Thank goodness for Ms. Gornick. For nearly a thousand years, English-speaking people have understood that a memoir is a "written account, description, document containing the facts in a case which is to be judged" (according to the Oxford English Dictionary). I am so grateful to her for informing us stupid readers that we are wrong, and that a memoir is, instead, what she wants it to be. While I expected a work labeled "memoir" to reflect personal bias and mistakes due to memory, now I understand that Ms. Gornick is instead teaching it as a way to write fiction without having to try so hard. What a relief.

I shall now begin on my memoirs, no doubt containing composite characters and reordered events, in order to create a more compelling narrative. I don't suppose it matters if instead of recounting dialogue as best I remember it, I make it a point to give myself many brilliant and witty lines. Just to make it more meaningful to the disinterested reader.

-- Kathe Douglas

What does the term "creative" in the name of countless "creative nonfiction" writing programs mean? While I empathize with the students and faculty at Vivian Gornick's presentation at my alma mater, Goucher College, and share their frustration surrounding issues of accuracy in memoir writing, I also believe strongly that Ms. Gornick's sensitivity to the art of narrative construction in nonfiction may have been lost in translations of the events. Historiography and journalism may well be core elements in creative nonfiction writing programs, but what might make Goucher and other such programs different is the practical attention to questions of narrative style, personal voice, and anecdotal structural development. Composite characters and scenes in journalism and historiography are unethical. But, in so-called personal essays and memoirs, it may well be best to consider each case on an individual basis. Clearly, Ms. Gornick's writing was not like the writer who made up his experience in Nazi death camps or the young journalist at an elite paper who made up, well, just about everything in his pieces. Might we listen to the details of Ms. Gornick's observations about what constitutes the "story" in her memoir "Fierce Attachments" and release ourselves from the drama of seeing things in black and white when it comes to some kinds of nonfiction like personal essays and certain kinds of memoirs?

-- Jonathan David Jackson

Chana Bloch, literature professor and poet at Mills College, says that in poetry, the writer has to be true to the feeling. That doesn't necessarily mean being true to the facts. I believe the same is true for memoir. I appreciate a memoirist's effort to glean what's important from the tale and skip the tedious details, and I think most readers would have that same appreciation if they knew what had been left out of the story.

Memoirists like Gornick have no place in this ridiculous witch hunt set off by Jayson Blair.

-- Tricia Caspers

Vivian Gornick defends her idea of what a memoir is quite eloquently (although I personally would never lump Doris Kearns Goodwin with Jayson Blair!), but the giveaway here, if I may appropriate her language, is in the final sentence of her response: "Memoir writing is a genre still in need of an informed readership."

Ah yes; it's the reader's fault. The lack of an audience for modern classical music is the fault of uninformed listeners. The lack of appreciation for modern art is the fault of uninformed viewers. The lack of appreciation for modern, plotless, character-based literature is the fault of the uninformed reader. And so on.

I appreciate Ms. Gornick's desire to fit a category in between biography and fictional literature, but I have to say that if so many people -- and it seems from the reaction to her talk and to the article about her talk that this is not a small group -- feel that her definition of "memoir" is something of a minority opinion, perhaps she should rethink her definition. Personally, I prefer something like "The Ladies Auxiliary" which, while clearly based on the life of the author (a fact that she herself has commented on), is also just as clearly fiction.

If Ms. Gornick feels that she has to modify events to make the narrative work more cleanly so as to make more clear the focus of her book -- the "fierce attraction" -- I would personally rather she didn't file it under the heading of memoir, but rather fiction. And it seems as if many readers -- uninformed or not -- agree.

Tweaking the facts of your life to fit narrative needs is understandable; as Tom Lehrer once pointed out, "God can't write book." But rationalizing one's own definition of "memoir," and then blaming the lack of understanding on one's readers, strikes me as unreasonable. Maybe Ms. Gornick should consider that perhaps it is the definition at fault, and not the readers.

-- Douglas Moran

So Vivian Gornick's best defense is that her memoir is real even when it's made up, and readers who complain about accuracy are just too literal-minded and unsophisticated to know how to approach the genre properly? Whatever. Maybe some readers do cling too tenaciously to the idea that you can't make stuff up about your life (unless you're fairly obvious about it, like Chuck Barris); it seems to me just as likely that Gornick might need to let go of the idea that the stories she tells about herself are "true" just because she believes in their aesthetic merit.

-- Ron Hogan

Vivian Gornick's heart's in the right place, judging from her description of her intentions behind writing "Fierce Attachments." But unless an author (or editor or publisher) gives the reader some indication of how much liberty he or she took with the facts, as known by the author at the time he or she wrote the memoir, the reader's normal presumption is that the author is trying to tell the truth. Sometimes by tone of voice exaggeration is implied. If I describe an incident of physical abuse at the hands of my mother, however, it is not kosher to defend myself when evidence is presented that this incident never occurred, by saying it represents an objective correlative of my feelings over the course of my childhood (I'm not saying here that Gornick did anything like this in her book, since I haven't read it). If I tell the reader that I'm creating a poetic composite in the interest of getting at the whole truth and not letting the raw facts obscure the story, that's OK.

Calling yourself a memoirist does not exempt you from this simple moral contract with readers.

-- Greg Napoleon

By Salon Staff

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