Broadsheet's Amanda Fortini takes issue with Hadley Freeman's indictment of female confessional journalism. "How boring," she writes, "if all pieces of writing were made to meet some standard of exemplary behavior and thought."
Fortini has a point: the genre of autobiographical writing be pretty dull if everyone wrote about how healthy and self-actualized they were. And, as Fortini's many examples illustrate, confessional journalism is neither wholly new nor wholly limited to women. However, there's a pretty big middle ground between requiring writers to pass a mental health test and applauding "My Boom And Bust Boobs."
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.
Certainly readers should judge each piece of writing for themselves. But that doesn't make writers above criticism. Saying that a writer bears no responsibility for the effects of her work — that laying any blame on her or her editor is tantamount to "not trusting" readers — is a little like Oprah's claim that she doesn't mean to influence her viewers in any direction. When a writer publishes in a public forum, her voice carries farther than that of an average private citizen. She shouldn't have to speak for all women, but she can no longer claim that her words have zero power. And readers aren't stupid or untrustworthy if they take what she says to heart.
It's true that if writers couldn't write about their pain, we'd be missing a lot of great literature. But there's a difference between exploring one's misery and offering oneself up as a sacrificial lamb to a culture that, on some level, wants to see women suffer. We wouldn't say that Liz Jones, who has previously written intelligently on fashion and weight, shouldn't discuss her struggles with her own body. But her chronicle of a ridiculously ill-advised, gimmicky "treatment" for her anorexia, and her relapse into the depths of the disorder, essentially turns her mental illness into a stunt. This isn't self-examination — it's self-mutilation.
At least Jones tells her readers to get comfortable with their bodies in order to escape her fate. Other practitioners of female confessional journalism have more damaging messages. Under the guise of "facing facts," Zoe Lewis says her choice to pursue career over family has made her miserable — and implies that it will make readers miserable too. She writes, "If you find a great guy, don't be afraid to settle down and have kids because there isn't anything to miss out on that you can't go back and do later - apart from having kids," and, more upsettingly, "every day, minute, hour that goes by makes you older and more desperate." Lewis isn't just describing her experience and letting readers judge for themselves — she's giving explicit advice, advice colored by a jaundiced perspective on feminism and life. The trouble with her piece, and with Lori Gottlieb's, is that they take misery as their vantage point, offering wisdom to women from the depths of of self-loathing. And while self-loathing may sell papers, it doesn't help make good decisions.
There is a charge
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.
And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
Plath was certainly aware of the mass appeal of female pain, but she may have been aware, too, of the damage that regular consumption of this pain can do. There is a charge for the eyeing of Jones's or Lewis's scars — an image of helpless, self-hating femininity that we cannot un-see once we have seen it. No matter how smart or self-possessed we are, what we read affects us, and the defenders of confessional journalism are disingenuous if they deny that.
Boobs, Bulimia And Breakups [Broadsheet]