Vivian Gornick

EVERY WORK OF LITERATURE has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say. In An American Tragedy the situation is Dreiser’s America; the story is the pathological nature of hunger for the world. In Edmund Gosse’s memoir Father and Son the situation is fundamentalist England in the time of Darwin; the story is the betrayal of intimacy necessary to the act of becoming oneself. In a poem called “In the Waiting Room” Elizabeth Bishop describes herself at the age of seven, during the First World War, sitting in a dentist’s office, turning the pages of National Geographic, listening to the muted cries of pain her timid aunt utters from within. That’s the situation. The story is a child’s first experience of isolation: her own, her aunt’s, and that of the world.

— Vivian Gornick