Boobs, bulimia and breakups

Does female confessional journalism really harm women?

Published July 3, 2009 10:18AM (EDT)

Have you heard? According to a recent article in the Guardian, there is a “new and very weird” genre of writing on the rise. This is called “female confessional journalism.” To diagnose the troubling trend, writer Hadley Freeman marshals as evidence a Daily Mail article in which the author chronicles the vicissitudes of her fake breasts (the result of botched surgeries and several "encapsulations"), and another article, also from the Daily Mail (a publication Jezebel has cleverly dubbed the “Daily Fail”), in which the author writes with commendable if discomfiting honesty about her pathological obsession with thinness. (Anna N. of Jezebel, in a post praising Freeman’s “very smart piece,” fills out the trend by adding playwright Zoe Lewis’ recent lament at having chosen career over family, and Lori Gottlieb’s now-infamous exhortation to settle for a less-than-perfect man.) “A female journalist describes his or her obsession with her weight/breast/ageing face/food or alcohol problems/inability to have a happy relationship,” writes Freeman. “These are tales of daily woe. It concludes with the writer still sufficiently unhappy to be commissionable for another very similar piece.”

In what universe is the phenomenon of women writing about themselves a new genre? Remember Kathryn Harrison’s "The Kiss," her tale of her incestuous relationship with her father, or "At Home in the World," Joyce Maynard’s painfully detailed account of cohabitating with J.D. Salinger, or "Prozac Nation," Elizabeth Wurtzel’s seismographic charting of her depression? These memoirs were published more than a decade ago. While, in the realm of journalism, there are indeed numerous recent examples -- Emily Gould’s ambivalent mea culpa for blogging her life, Sandra Tsing Loh’s dissection of her divorce -- there is also plenty of precedent. Lauren Slater has written of her mental health, her ailing marriage, her tendency to prevaricate, her lack of desire. Katha Pollitt has admitted to “Google-stalking” her ex and her inability to drive a car. Way back in 1996, Daphne Merkin told of her predilection for spanking. Further back, in the '70s, there was Joan Didion, who, if she didn’t pioneer the genre -- Bernarr MacFadden founded True Story magazine in 1919 -- she arguably perfected it, with her memorable rendering of her neuroses and her migraines, with lines like “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.”

Of course, confessional writing has never been the exclusive province of women. Men have penned their own “tales of daily woe,” chronicling depressions and breakdowns, struggles with alcoholism, and bewilderment about women and sex -- see William Styron’s "Darkness Visible," say, or Frederick Exley’s "A Fan’s Notes." The term "confessional," in fact, was first employed to describe the autobiographical poetry of Robert Lowell. Journalistically, too, there is no shortage of examples: Harold Brodkey’s “I Have AIDS” essay for the New Yorker; Andrew Solomon, in the same magazine, describing a melancholy so deep he could not rouse himself to urinate; Andrew Sullivan writing, in the New York Times Magazine, about his medical use of synthetic testosterone. More recently, the Michaels -- Chabon, Lewis -- have explored the bemusements of fatherhood, and Christopher Hitchens has recounted his adventures in waxing for Vanity Fair. True, men don’t often flay their own bodies with surgical precision, but they do write about preoccupations personal to them. “The Men -- Mailer, Updike, & Roth Inc. -- can natter away all they want about cunts and orgasms and the humiliations of desire,” Daphne Merkin wrote several years ago, in a discussion of confessional writing published in Slate, “and no one takes that to be the sum of their parts.”

No one takes them to be mentally unstable, either. (Or, if they do, this is considered part of the job description. When have writers ever been models of mental health?) No one worries that they “need help” and should get it instead of writing. Was anyone concerned that the New Yorker was exploiting Harold Brodkey by publishing his pieces chronicling his slow death from AIDS? Many thought that his own egotism got the better of him, not that his editors did. It’s believed that men confess because they want to -- this is the piece they choose to write -- not because a confession has been extracted from them by a mercenary, “misogynistic” boss. And if their writing makes them appear as “needy, helpless, childlike narcissists,” to quote Freeman on female journalists, this doesn’t perpetuate any “offensive stereotypes” about men, nor does it set any cause (like, um, feminism) “back by about 50 years.”

This points to the most galling aspect of the Guardian article: its paternalism and reductionism. Freeman not only frets about the women who write confessional journalism, but she also frets about the women who consume it. These are “vulnerable readers” for whom sentiments about disordered eating “are surely just as dangerous and potentially influential as the photos of the skinny models the journalist professes to abhor,” to quote Freeman. Journalism of this stripe supposedly makes women appear “self-hating” and “self-obsessed.” But why should a female journalist writing an essay be required “to open a window into what life is like for women today?” Why can’t she write a singular account of herself, and expect that readers will recognize it as such? Why not trust that they will perceive what is useful or interesting or even damning about an article? How boring if all pieces of writing were made to meet some standard of exemplary behavior and thought. I say, if some women want to write about their miseries, let them. And let readers judge for themselves. 

By Amanda Fortini

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