Do we, as a writer asserted in a recent book review, live in a diaristic present? The answer seems as shoutingly obvious as the answer to Does a bear take a selfie in the woods. We live in an age where no aspect of daily, personal life is too mundane or too intimate to record and immediately share. Meals, medical procedures, the line at the DMV: all is worthy of documentation and broadcast. But before we answer the writer’s question with a resounding DUH, let’s take a moment to consider the term he has apparently coined. The definition of present is simple enough: he means "now." But "diaristic?" That’s where things get tricky.
In a Los Angeles Times review of Werner Herzog’s Of Walking in Ice, an autobiographical account of a 600-mile trek the director took from Munich to Paris forty years ago, David Ulin wrote, "this is a book four decades ahead of its time, since we now live in a diaristic present: Knausgaard, Sarah Manguso and Heidi Julavits come to mind." And its true: all three writers have recently published works that either mimic or investigate daily diaries, concerning themselves less with plot or drama than the close examination of the minutiae of daily life, and what it means to be a writer and observer.
Diaries, as Ulin points out, are having a moment. In this age where immediacy, transparency, and authenticity are coveted by marketers and artists alike, a diary would seem the most honest, the most truthful, the most real form of communication -- the literary equivalent of #nofilter. But the fact that he uses the phrase to describe a work by Herzog, a slippery and complicated filmmaker, should signal that we should be very careful about defining what we mean when talking about a diary.
In Herzog’s later films -- nonfiction examinations of subjects ranging from a man eaten by grizzly bears to people living at McMurdo base in Antarctica -- the director is as much interested in the act of trying to tell the story of a life (or many lives) as he is in any specific subject. We see him setting up shots, hear his voice interviewing subjects, and are constantly reminded that what we are watching is a manipulation -- and even that we are being manipulated in our experience of that manipulation.
Similarly, we should never think that a published "diary" is a faithful representation of what a writer recorded when she truly thought no one else would ever read her words. The diary is an attractive form, an immediately engaging conceit, as evidenced by the hundreds of novels -- from Bridget Jones to A Wimpy Kid -- that borrow it. But even the most seemingly unvarnished, unmediated diary is often the result of careful editing. Anne Frank, possibly the most famous diarist in history, wrote several drafts of her diary and labored over structure and tone, always with an eye to eventual publication, according to Francine Prose’s Anne Frank: the Book, the Life, the Afterlife. So, too, do the writers Ulin namechecks craft and shape their works: Manguso’s Ongoingness, about the diary the writer has kept for twenty-five years, doesn't even quote from the actual diary. Julavits’s The Folded Clock also is more about the act of journal-keeping than a specific diary, a constructed, carefully arranged consideration of the art of recording a life.
So yes, of course, we can say we live in a diaristic present, as long as we acknowledge that every act of recording is also an act of editing, and the impulse to confess -- or to make a work of art feel like a confession -- may be a greater artifice than the most elaborate fictional construct. Diaries, with their promise of candor and intimacy, are irresistible, but that doesn’t mean they’re any more uncensored a representation of the inner workings of the human heart than any other work of art -- no more than Facebook is an accurate or honest representation of your friends' boring, heartbreaking lives of meals, medical checkups, and DMV visits.