Gornick’s memoir illumes the divide between fiction & nonfiction.

Gornick-Fierce cover

[Vivian as a girl with her Ma.]

What’s the difference, in reading experience, between fiction and nonfiction? Between reading a novel and reading a memoir?

I thought about this during the past week as I reread one of my all-time favorite memoirs, Fierce Attachments. In it, Vivian Gornick braids her story, alternating between the writer’s childhood past, her adult relationship with her mother as they talk or walk around New York, and continuing into her adult experience with men. Gornick both discusses and dramatizes these realms. She is a master of the reflective persona and also of bringing her experience to life in scene.

I’d read the book three or four times before. But this time I had just slogged through a traditional chronological plotted novel, a traditional plotted and chronological memoir that verged on autobiography, and was trying to read another traditional plotted novel. These books, in stark contrast to Gornick’s, were heavy going. Her thinking and writing—at the sentence and structural level—excited me as before.

But would I be loving Fierce Attachments if it were fiction? If it had been written and sold as a novel? How much does my enjoyment owe to its labeling as nonfiction?

Let’s get something out of the way. Gornick once mentioned to a roomful of journalists that she invented in Fierce Attachments a street encounter she and her mother experienced. The reporters were soon baying at her, and the flap spread online. I can’t endorse what she did, but it hasn’t bothered me as her reader because her goal seems only to fully and honestly portray herself and mother. She might have handled her imagination differently, such as cued the reader, but instead she embroidered.

Still, try to read Fierce Attachments as a novel. Would I find it as absorbing? I kept asking

Some fiction asks me to suspend too much disbelief

Living beside a college with an impressive drama program, I watch many plays. Gradually it dawned that much fiction is driven by portraying conflicts that actually never happen in most lives. I mean family fights or blowups with friends in which longstanding resentments are aired, lanced, and resolved. I know, it’s drama. The theatre could scarcely exist without this convention.

Of course people do disagree and even fight, sure. They yell and sometimes throw things, I understand. But more often, people sublimate or seethe. Aren’t fights, when they happen, quick, a few words? Often harsh only in retrospect? And then years follow when nothing is fixed. But neither is anything fatally broken—as in a verbal brawl. The truth is, we’re a civilized species, with key defaults of repression and depression. We swallow pain to avoid worse pain.

You wouldn’t know this from many plays, movies, short stories, and novels. I imagine that this conflict flows from the fictionist’s inciting question, What if? Maybe s/he broods upon buried feelings to turn a human wish for healing into literary art. The result is what might happen if people would do what in fact they wisely avoid: use rage in pursuit of transcendence.

But people do rage in Gornick’s memoir!

[Vivian Gornick.]

[Vivian Gornick.]

Boy, is this an irony. Gornick and her mother are stereotypes of an immigrant Jewish or perhaps Yiddish culture in which people pick at each other. At least her mother does. In response, mother and daughter often shout and even scream. As a repressed WASP, I envy the emotional venting. But not the obvious pain and insecurity the constant criticism creates. Oy vey!

All the same, the ferocity in Fierce Attachments is different from fiction’s. It’s more intimate, more real. It’s less clear what it’s about, and the outcome is much less healing.

Most fiction isn’t Anna Karenina. It’s some guy wondering, What would’ve happened if Mama had poured a bottle of wine over Daddy’s head? I’m generalizing about fiction here. And not bashing it—my top ten books list might include eight novels. But as emotionally extreme as Gornick’s upbringing apparently was, her world is subtle compared with popular fiction’s.

I decided, quite reluctantly, that much of the appeal of Fierce Attachments is due to it being nonfiction. It probably wouldn’t be exciting enough as a novel, except maybe in the most rarified literary form. But as a memoir depicting the forces and especially the mother that forged the writer? Wow.

Memoir’s peculiar appeal

Hewing as much as possible to nonfiction’s promise to be nonfiction is important because that promise embodies a crucial aspect of nonfiction’s appeal. Someone like you or me is working hard to understand and convey her life. Since some of us are walking around doing that in our heads, it’s compelling to read someone’s shaped but real and real-time account of this task.

Memoir isn’t allowed to be boring just because “it happened.” And it won’t be, however quiet its surface events, if it is fulfilling its role as an instrument of inquiry and understanding. Those virtues also remove the taint of voyeurism in memoirs that depict trauma and severe dysfunction.

Memoir’s peculiar appeal lies not in its label of truth but the effort we sense someone making to arrive at deeply personal truth and honest self-portrayal. That’s the honesty in memoir—subjective truth and unsparing self-portrayal. I have thrown down a memoir in disgust for their lack. I honor Gornick’s for their presence.

Take my 2016 memoir challenge. Take your favorite memoir and try to read it as fiction. Very instructive.


  • Kathy A. Krendl says:

    What memoir would you recommend as a good test? You’ve used Gornick’s as an example, but suggest one that you think might measure up. Clearly some memoirs have been plucked out of the midst for film — Wild, Glass Castle. Are those inherently different with the focus on the “drama” of the author”s experience?

    • Richard says:

      It might be interesting to take the challenge with a “reads like a novel” memoir. In the best ones, I imagine this quality of one person speaking from the heart would arise. Even The Glass Castle, which is very event driven, is framed at its opening and close with a musing, retrospective view.

  • J.V. Wylie says:

    Richard, As you know, I am a psychiatrist who trained in the Freudian paradigm and then experienced the “biological revolution” in my field and the “cognitive revolution” in psychology. The more afield I got with all of this, the more I realized that Freud (and Jung, for that matter) was an excellent non-fiction writer (about others), and thereby effectively purveyed human truth for the very same reasons you state so well. To the extent that Freud may have embellished his stories (as opposed to altering them to protect confidences), that is the extent to which he betrayed his profession.

  • Chris says:

    Just to be completely clear, Gornick did more than admit to that one invention, and, she told the audience that anyone who didn’t understand that everyone did so when writing non fiction was being “willfully ignorant.” There were some reporters in the audience, but that was incidental — it was a creative nonfiction MFA student gathering. I was there.

  • Hi, Richard. Once again, you mine and explore a work you’ve worked with before, and find something new and profound to say again! I really have found that kind of depth in few works, so that I think you have made a very lucky connection and a bridge of talent as well between your own gifts and Gornick’s.

  • This is such a helpful post as I near the end of writing my memoir draft. Your highlighting the spirit of inquiry and understanding in good memoirs is excellent and I’ll keep it in mind as I revise. Sometimes it is difficult to write about trauma in a way that isn’t voyeuristic; as I work on some especially difficult scenes this may help to guide me.

  • mvbetten says:

    That would be an interesting practice for different memoirs, bios or books with a historical origin. But it always seems to go back to character whether it’s fiction or non, an active story filled with page turning action, or a methodical romp through the psyche. If the character is complex and compelling, real or not, you’ll find an attachment to it as a reader.

  • Richard, what an interesting post. Fierce Attachments is on my short list of must reads, especially after Ayana Mathis, in the New York Times, recently said it was the best book she read in 2015. I’ve always avoided it after all the talk about the “invented scene.” I know you’re a purist, so if you recommend it, then that’s good enough for me. I enjoy reading memoirs because I wonder how others navigate all the pitfalls in life. So I read fiction and nonfiction very differently.

    • Richard says:

      It’s a top-five memoir for me, Debbie. In the realm of fabrication, In Cold Blood’s were much more significant, especially since it isn’t a memoir, made from memory, but from reportage, and yet it’s still taught to journalism and creative nonfiction students. Gornick’s invention is a non-issue for me, though I can’t endorse that path she took in portraying her mother.

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