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 more recent, adult past, and her relationship with her mother as they talk or walk around New York. 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 probably three times before. What was different this time is 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—excite me.
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 first. 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 has never 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 she embroidered.
Still, try to read Fierce Attachments as a novel.