Give Me Fiction
Small and fat with a tiny, bendable key that unlocked your thoughts, a bright fabric-covered lined notebook, or a more grown-up black Moleskine with its heavy vanilla pages: I think at one point everyone has kept a diary. Or at least started one. I started many at different ages and even would start and stop the same one with years in between, the change in handwriting marking the years past when I didn’t care to chronicle.
Those years, I admit, were most. I would often write for a few days and then give it up. I feel that those who keep up the entries consistently are the exception, while those who lose interest in ourselves quickly are very much the rule. So why the ubiquitous urge to start a diary with a few full pages inevitably left to collect dust?
Diaries are, in theory, our innermost thoughts and feelings combined with an uncensored account of our daily lives. However, except for the rare exposure or the truly uninhibited, we can never be frank enough because there is always a filter. There is always a filter because there is always an audience. When we write a diary, we are always writing for an imaginary audience: that person who accidentally finds our diary or the author who will use it to write our tell-all biography when we’re famous. That person who will judge us. While we endeavor to keep it private, we secretly want someone to want to read it. Even if you believe you are writing for yourself alone, you are likely writing for a future self who will re-read it later as a better version of actual life, or a least a more thoughtful version that makes much more sense than the jumble of actual life. Take Cringe, where people gather to read excerpts of their old diaries. Though seemingly bare readings, it still culminates in exposure. How authentic are we able to be when we write about ourselves?
Diaries are also incredibly tedious, to read and to write. While there are some very famous diarists out there, like Godfrey Williams, who wrote 76 volumes from 1879 to 1955, my guess is they won’t keep you up reading through the night. Enter the diary novel. While we love the idea of a diary, being let in on the secret, snooping about inside someone’s head, the idea of the pursuit is often much more alluring than the result. I remember loving Harriet the Spy, but finding The Diary of Anne Frank exceedingly boring. Novels written like a diary give us that same slightly salacious sensation, don’t claim to be real, and are written eliminating the boring parts of life. The diary we always wanted: fiction!
Diary novels are a product of the Victorian era, frequently didactic, filled with morality and life lessons. Under the guise of reality, they were an extremely useful mechanism for admonishment. Two such examples are Pamela and its sequel Clarissa, both iconic 18th century diary novels by Samuel Richardson. Both diaries and diary novels are often associated with women, because of their “everyday” nature and form seen as an acceptable literary outlet for female expression. Perhaps their association with women also stems from a particular notion of vanity: writing about oneself, but also needing to explain this daring. “This diary is written because…” as if self-reflection needs justification.
Beyond the realization of inevitable inauthenticity and perceived vanity, writing a diary just takes way too long. Daily life is much more interesting lived than written. I tend to agree with Zadie Smith’s recent article in Rookie:
I realize I don’t want any record of my days. I have the kind of brain that erases everything that passes, almost immediately, like that dustpan-and-brush dog in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland sweeping up the path as he progresses along it. I never know what I was doing on what date, or how old I was when this or that happened—and I like it that way.