De@r World: Contemporary Uses of the Diary by Kylie Cardell and The Language of Houses by Alison Lurie
by Kylie Cardell, University of Wisconsin Press, 182 pages
Whether written by a young girl hiding from the Nazis or by a young girl hiding her thoughts from her prying family, a diary is usually presumed to be a form of private, unadulterated truth that is meant to be kept secret — at least until the keeper of the diary dies. There is a field of academic literary criticism devoted to studying the personal versus private nature of the diary, its different uses, and how it relates to other literary forms of self-narrative, such as memoir and autobiography. With De @ r World: Contemporary Uses of the Diary , Kylie Cardell joins this conversation in progress and attempts to center the diary, in its more public forms, as an intrinsic part of popular culture. Cardell is a lecturer in the department of English, creative writing, and Australian studies at Flinders University in South Australia. This is her first book.
Cardell looks at venues for making a diary public, including published war diaries by journalists and those living in war zones as well as sex blogs and visual or illustrated diaries. She begins by distinguishing diary from memoir, the latter of which is more selfconsciously crafted as a literary narrative to show a particular aspect of its author. The diary, on the other hand, is present-tense, confessional, and unconcerned with being well written. In the second chapter, “How to Be the Authentic You: Therapy, Self-Help, and the ‘How-to’ Diary,” Cardell explores the activity of writing to become a better, more spiritually whole person through structured diary-workbook exercises that are commodified and sold as “creativity” to a public yearning for insight into their authentic self, such as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way . Subsequent chapters look at the immediacy of war diaries. Those written by journalists tend to have more in common with the carefully honed redemption arc of memoir, and are often meant to be published during the author’s lifetime as an (ostensibly) unfiltered complement to their official reporting. The authenticity of diaries or blogs written by Arab women living amidst conflict — such as Baghdad Burning, the long-standing blog of a young Iraqi woman who calls herself Riverbend — are often questioned by Westerners insisting that such authors should not be able to write so well in English or have internet access. Female sex bloggers are often assumed to be men, or erudite posers with too much education to write at the same level the public believes a genuine sex worker would. The interactive, real-time nature of blogs extends the meaning of diary as something shared rather than private. Since fiction also sometimes uses the structure of diary to create intimacy between the narrator and the reader, the difference between diary as a repository and diary as a literary approach is also discussed. The diary as a gendered form, usually written by women, also comes up throughout the chapters. While there are many depths to plumb in
De @ r World , there isn’t much to grab onto. The book is selfconsciously academic. Though it purports to analyze a pretty meaty aspect of popular culture — the blurry line between private and public persona in online and published writings, and the growing emphasis placed on first-person experience in the face of the public’s increased appetite for intimacy, paired with a demand for authenticity — the book is disappointingly dry. It’s unclear what a general audience is supposed to take from it or whether Cardell makes her point in the end, as she strays quite far from where she began. For the most part, rather than Cardell’s thoughts, we are offered chapter after chapter of her sources, which are referenced so often that it makes reading the book for pleasure nearly impossible. That said, the issues brought up are provocative. The book might be suited to a reading group ready for a challenge, as, like most textbooks, De @ r World would really be brought to life through discussion. Academic books have certain citation requirements, but those requirements do not preclude writing in a way that invites readers in. Here, warmer tone and diction would have been appropriate for the subject matter, as would an eye toward more fluid prose. That style is rarely prioritized in academic writing is a pity. Making important ideas slightly more accessible to interested readers outside of the academy should be a requirement for publication, since it would indicate an ability to teach the subject matter to students. Perhaps the most stimulating aspect of De @ r
World , and one probably unintended by the author, are the questions it might provoke for the reader, namely: What kind of diary is right for you? What comes across most clearly in the book is that there is no one right way to keep a diary. Recording daily activities and thoughts — the mundane — is just as valid as writing to heal your inner child, bear witness to atrocity, or confess your sins.