Diary and Diary Fiction at MLA 2015

I’ve been deep in diary research the past few weeks as I prepare a talk for MLA 2015. I organized a panel on diaries and diary fiction, and was gratified by the large number of excellent proposals I received. My fellow presenters represent a variety of critical approaches to the study of diary and diary fiction, as well as different national literary traditions and time periods. I cannot wait to hear their papers.

My own talk is a bit of a stretch for me. Here’s how it came to be:

Me (in my pajamas, reading the New York Times Book Review on a Sunday morning, circa 2013): Huh. There’s another review of another novel that prominently features a diary. Isn’t that strange? (Adds book title to growing list.) I wonder why so many contemporary novelists are relying on the diary? What does it mean? Maybe I could write a paper about this?

Well, a few years later and I’ve been reading contemporary diary fiction and hopefully by Sunday I’ll have something productive to say about a selection of these novels. I will be talking about:

Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl (2012)
Tim Parks, Sex is Forbidden (2012)
Scott Hutchins, A Working Theory of Love (2012)
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (2013)
Stephen Lloyd Jones, The String Diaries (2014)

One of the questions I am considering is why, although each of these novels is set in the present, none of the diary writers keeps their diaries on a computer or blog or any other digital format. While I myself am dedicated to my handwritten diary and cannot imagine typing my diary onto a screen, the common theme across the five books of eschewing available technology in favor of the old fashioned manuscript diary really interests me. I have some theories about why this is and how it impacts each novels’ representation of a diverse range of media and technologies.

Something I’ve learned working on the talk: it’s very hard to discuss five novels in 15 minutes. Hopefully the audience will be understanding about my thumbnail analysis.

Here’s the line up …

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Vancouver, here we come!

The Discovered Diary Trope

Warning: Contains mild spoilers regarding Tana French’s In the Woods.

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 1.42.36 PMI was recently reading Tana French’s bone-chilling novel, In the Woods. If you haven’t read it, drop everything and do so immediately. It won’t take you long because it is one of those un-put-down-able, stay-up-to-3am mysteries. Late in the novel, the protagonist/detective finds the diary of the young woman whose murder he has been investigating, which made me think about that old chestnut, “the discovered diary trope.” You know it: a diary is discovered that contains crucial information that allows mysteries to be solved or truths to be revealed. I would characterize it as tired, overused, and narratively lazy trope, one that good writers steer away from.

I’m reminded of a wonderful work of short fiction from the middle of the nineteenth-century, Annie Frost’s “My Experience,” published in 1867 in Godey’s Lady’s Book. The story lambasts the stale conventions of romantic fiction of that era (which aren’t all that different from the stale conventions of contemporary romantic fiction). The narrator is an author who sets out to write her first novel, stocking it full of all the familiar formulas of her selected genre: “My plot was continually tangled into double knots and intricate twists, to be nicely drawn out and wound off in even threads, till every horrible mystery lay coiled in a nice little ball of explanation at the end.”

Here’s my favorite part, when the narrator describes one of the particular challenges with which she confounds her characters:

Heir to a princely fortune, [the male love interest] lives in a garret upon a crust, because his rich uncle’s will, instead of being filed at the lawyer’s, is tucked away in an old-fashioned writing-desk, containing unsuspected drawers. (I wonder it never occurs to heroes and heroines, under these circumstances, to smash all the furniture in the house — it is almost certain to pay.)

I love that parenthetical aside and the image it conjures up of characters across literary history willy-nilly smashing furniture in search of hidden wills that will turn their circumstances from poverty and hardship into wealth and opportunity.

Although Frost speaks here of hidden wills (c.f. the Trope of the Hidden Will), it shares some similarities with the Trope of the Discovered Diary. The discovered diary trope has several embedded presumptions about diaries:

  1. Diaries contain useful information.
  2. Diaries reveal the truth about the authors’ relationships, goals, thoughts, and values.
  3. Diaries solve mysteries.

Of course, diaries generally don’t contain what might be considered useful or truthful information — in the sense of authentically characterizing either the author or her subject matter. Diaries are generally so idiosyncratic, interior, and fragmented that their readers are forced to speculate about their real meaning. (This is what so much diary scholarship boils down to.) It’s hard to imagine an real diary containing a statement such as “If I am murdered, my killer is _____.” (Though I am tempted to write such a sentence in my own journal now.)

Discovered diaries need not be formulaic pap. In the hands of someone like French, the discovered diary trope becomes something else. In In the Woods, French turns the trope on its head (as she does throughout the novel with regards to multiple mystery/detective fiction tropes): the diary is not discovered by the detective but someone else, who hands it over to him; the diary doesn’t solve the mystery (it’s already been solved); and the diary does not guarantee that the guilty party is caught or punished (she isn’t). French’s discovered diary frustrates expectations by failing to provide resolution. In that sense, it is a wonderful citation of the trope, even as it subverts it.

EDITED to add: I’ve been reviewing my notes on diary criticism and stumbled across Abbott’s discussion of the “conceit of the found object” and the common framing device of representing a diary as a real document that is found and introduced by another. While not exactly synonymous with “discovered diary trope” I’ve addressed here, it’s still worth citing this useful source: H. Porter Abbott, Diary Fiction: Writing as Action (1984).

What’s the difference between a diary and a journal?

A diary is a journal but a journal is not a diary.

The dictionary yields this curious logic. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a diary is “a daily record of events or transactions; a journal,” a meaning it tracks back to 1581. But, the OED entry on the word “journal” does not employ the term “diary” except in a sub-entry and as a negative example: The journal is a “a record of events or matters of personal interest kept by any one for his own use” — which sounds an awful lot like a diary, were it not followed by this disclaimer: “Now usually implying something more elaborate than a diary.” Instead of using “diary” to define “journal,” the OED provides a host of other comparative terms including: day-book, record, service-book, itinerary, account book, logbook, daily newspaper, etc.

The journal, it seems, is many things, while a diary is only one thing, though that thing is very like a journal. Which is many things.

“Journal” has a number of other rich, sometimes obsolete associations: religious, nautical, financial, legal, mechanical, related to mining, related to travel. My favorite is the use of “journal” (from the French) to refer to the amount of land that can be plowed in one day. What a wonderful metaphor for the work of keeping a daily diary: how much land did you plow today?

The Google Ngram Viewer yields the following results:

The usage of the word “diary” in print over time:

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The usage of the word “journal” in print over time:

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Insofar as this is reliable data (and I am not sure whether it is*), it would appear that “journal” has had a wider and more consistent usage for a longer period of time, whereas “diary” had followed a track upwards from relatively little appearance in print in 1800 to frequent appearance today. Of course the host of meanings attached to the word “journal” also explains its frequency.

In my own experience, “diary” is a word I long associated with antiquity — something kept with a quill pen — and with girlhood — the pink book with its little key. Neither was an image I could relate to. It was in the 1980s that I started hearing the word “journal” and particularly in the verb form, “to journal” — terms I found engaging. I thought of myself as journaling — I addressed my journal as a journal. It is only recently as I’ve started to study historic diaries that the term “diary” has become a more relevant one. I noticed a shift in my own writing, which is that I now write about my diary as a diary (though not with the “Dear Diary” address). Thinking of myself as participating in a literary tradition with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women who kept diaries has given me a very different perspective on the diary as a form. But such is the mutability of language that I might again someday think of what I do as “journaling.”

* The Google Ngram Viewer is a great tool for “armchair historians” (as Ben Zimmer writes), but I hesitate to place faith in the Google digital book corpus. Among other things, the privileging of print matter in determining word history is problematic — all the more so if what you are interested in is unpublished or manuscript materials. Does the print history of the word “diary” actually tell us more than the use of the word “diary” in actual — and generally un-digitized — diaries?