It's time to stop condemning 'confessional writing'

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Photo: Getty Images. Posed by model.

Women’s memoir writing is again being accused of oversharing with the recent publication of Emily Gould’s semi-autobiographical novel. Gould, a long-time famous blogger is an expert at public self-reflection. But as Stassa Edwards argues in Salon, the criticism of oversharing in women’s personal writing is very gendered territory indeed.

For one, it seems absurdly grumpy to read memoir only to then complain about its abundance of intimacy. What exactly is too much? Oversharing, at least as it occurs between people, apparently stems from anxiety and a pressing need to belong for the sharer. This makes me wonder if our discomfort with women’s memoir writing reflects a greater disturbance with interpersonal connection.

But if the drive to confess potentially manifests from a state of distress then the capacity to be exploited by the publishing industry is significant, particularly when Internet publishing has such a pronounced appetite for young women’s sex writing.

Women’s sexuality, long interpreted by men, makes personal writing by women a radical act. Take, for example, Marie Calloway telling her story of sex with an older writer she admires. To see the difference a female writer makes you need only consider her account of faking pleasure with his average attempts at giving oral sex.

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It’s a private joke for women readers, acknowledging how far we’ve come that a sexual act designed for our pleasure is now mainstream, but how far we have to go that male givers frequently remain inept and egotistical enough you’re obliged to exaggerate your pleasure for them. She may be his Lolita fantasy but he requires some babying of his own.

While the essay describes a sexual affair it is really about connection and detachment. Calloway uses both the story, and the affair itself, to highlight sexual objectification and what that kind of power and powerlessness feels like for a woman. A part of me squirms reading that essay, not because of Calloway’s sexual experiences but because both her self-satisfaction and insecurity are on such naked display. Some of our recoiling from personal essays suggests not just discomfort with intimacy but concern for self-preservation.

The Internet, with its immediacy, collapsing the private and public realm, prioritises the undistilled thought. This is a shame because while visceral emotion has its place, generally, processed experiences make for better reading and I’d argue, a more cathartic experience for writers, too. But then, Calloway has recorded something significant about the desperation of youth in this essay that may not have survived intact had she waited some years to write it.

Gould is also known for this kind of youthful recklessness. In her essay, “How much my novel cost me” (she employs a technique important to personal essays. As critic and essayist, Vivian Gornick observes, the drama of good memoir writing comes from showing us “the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent”. In Gould’s essay she plays upon your prejudices about writers and writers of her generation, particularly. Writing is self-indulgent, writing is time-wasting, writing isn’t even proper work. But Gould exposes her personal failings with just enough vulnerability to make her endearing.

All the same, there’s something in it that captures why I have a hard time really warming to Gould’s work. She recounts unexpectedly finding herself giving money to a homeless man. During the encounter she insists that she accompany him to buy food so she knows for certain how her charity is being spent. In an essay about how indulged she is - Gould was paid a generous book advance, her boyfriend paid her debts, her friend lent her a cabin for a writing retreat - she appears completely unaware of how paternalistic she is being. The anecdote is, instead, meant to convey that even while broke she was spending her money in oddly sentimental ways. She was coming undone. Gould always knows what a moment in her life means for her, she does not always know what that moment might mean for anyone else.

For me, Samantha Irby is a much more engaging young woman memoirist while covering similar territory to Gould with her candid reflections on relationships, sex and writing as a career. Of course, maybe this is because Irby has experienced some serious things in life. At nine years old she became a carer for her mother and by the time she entered adolescence was being forced into foster care. Irby has incredible insight.

Memoir writing can have an unfortunate tendency to reduce everything to personal obstacles one surmounted on the way to becoming a well-adjusted person. In doing so, the genre can play into an exasperating framework of individualism. But Irby’s writing is richly feminist. Her defiance and vulgarity about sex and Crohns Disease are important acts of destigmatization. For Irby, the lonely monster is the female body.

If sex is dangerous territory for memoir writing then it is surpassed only by motherhood. Mothering is so wrapped up in notions of sacrifice that it can scarcely sustain even the mildest critical eye without some controversy. Rachel Cusk, one of my favourites in this field, is she completely vilified for her memoir writing. In fact, a scathing review of her latest memoir, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation won Hatchet Job of the Year. Sometimes the criticism of her motherhood writing is about her taking domestic life too seriously; something that is notably considered “brave” when done by a male author.

But more often it is about Cusk being insufficiently cheerful about domestic life. In depicting herself as a mother in Aftermath,Cusk is devoted to her children but you are still invited to consider her selfish. Cusk describes an argument around shared parenting revealing her own monster. For Cusk to pursue her writing career, her ex-husband had given up his job and become a stay-at-home father. Now that they’re divorcing, Cusk is horrified to discover her rights as a mother aren’t enough to allow her primary care of the children. Cusk was roundly criticised for this moment in the book - oblivious, nasty and domineering.

But you only know this information because Cusk gave it to you. She realises her sense of injustice is perverse. She is exploring a wider point about how ill-equipped early attempts at feminist living are for the emotional bonds of motherhood. She is thinking not just about what the moment means for her but what it means for everyone else, too. If you think she’s selfish because of this anecdote I have to wonder how well you’ve received the gift of confession. Because personal writing, more than anything else is a favour of empathy.

Of course, the gift of confession may not always be given willingly. All personal writing walks a line between telling your own story and telling someone else’s but few wrestle with more vulnerability than women writing about motherhood. Children are utterly powerless about their depiction, at least until they grow up. Rebecca Walker’s memoir, Baby Love is about embracing motherhood and confronting her own famous writer mother’s ambivalence about the role. It came from resentment but has gone on to cause a rift between them that continues to this day.

Among the most contentious personal essays by mothers in recent times is Liza Long’s piece about her son’s menacing and violent behaviour that she compares to mass murderers. Her son, a child with neurological disabilities gets no say in whether he wants to take part in this confession. That disability has a long history of loss of agency only makes this kind of memoir writing more troubling. If ever there might be a case of oversharing, is this it?

I’m inclined to go gently in condemning even this kind of women’s writing. That women should have been forced to specialise in domestic work, that this work should make women’s fates so precarious and that it should also be considered too private for writing about seems to me no accident. Because, I note that Long’s essay is ultimately a political essay making the case for public health care. Just as we need to retire the accusation of oversharing from women’s personal writing we need to see the serious note in so much of what is considered trivial about women’s lives.