When first-person writing is a poorly-disguised 'fumblebrag'

"It just makes me a little sad that women writers are being anointed for trumpeting their despair."

"It just makes me a little sad that women writers are being anointed for trumpeting their despair." Photo: Stocksy

There's a new device sweeping Silicon Valley and it has nothing to do with technology. Former software strategist Caleb Garling calls it the 'fumblebrag', a pivotal moment in your success story where you almost lose it all. But, unlike the great narrative devices of literature (and HBO TV), this brush with failure builds neither character nor suspense.

It's a faux fumble, existing only to provide the ending – and narrator - with greater glory. For example: "I was all set to present my award-winning dissertation before the MIT professors in the TED audience when I realised – I left slide 59 at home! This was the crux of my innovation. But phew! My assistant had a copy." Cut to standing ovaish!

Like the Humblebrag that preceded it, the Fumblebrag, argues Garling, is nothing more than an excuse to boast. It's designed to anoint the speaker with a unique specialness. The Dude has defied the odds!

Okay. Let's stop for a minute to consider a couple of things here. You know we just had Easter, right? You know why, right? Because everyone loves redemption. It's cosmic proof that while bad stuff happens, good will always prevail. It was Martin Luther King who said "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice".


The other thing about the fumblebrag is that it makes the success story relatable. Nobody wants to hear the tale of a person born into wealth who trod the narrow path to glittering success.

But, while everyone owns up to past failures in the tech industry, and in TED talks everywhere, rare is the person willing to share the stumbling blocks they're facing today. As Garling writes, "no one wants the presenter to say 'so now I live with my parents' and drop the mic".

Part of the conundrum is that Garling is writing– and has worked in– a competitive industry worth billions of dollars. So minor glitches count more than they should. It has to do with our need to share, which is always competing with our need to brag. The tech business also has a high population of bros. And men and vulnerability make for uneasy bedfellows.

Yet, I must confess that in this age of the over-share it is ironic so many of us women writers tell ourselves we're helping "others" by penning our stories when the reality lies somewhere between a desperate need for social media cache and the chance that we'll be anointed the new Elizabeth Gilbert – sorry, Brene Brown– excuse me, Cheryl Strayed. I've shared on this website that I was a bully, and that I loathe my appearance and once had a seizure at work. Hey, who speaks French and is guilty? Moi!

But, while the dudes in Silicon Valley are marching through failure toward applause and the creative high priests giving TED talks are preaching the value of self-belief against all odds, women writers appear to be rewarded for sharing their "brave" journey THAT WILL MAKE YOU CRY.

It sounds more authentic, so why does it feel so hollow? It feels to me that, in our quest for intimacy, we took a sharp turn into self-pity. Which is fine. Hey, who doesn't love catharsis? Sylvia Plath, ammiright?  It just makes me a little sad, I guess, that women writers at this particular moment are being anointed for trumpeting their unique despair.

I think it has something to do with how pity functions for women. Men, in the main, are uncomfortable with sympathy as currency – whether giving or receiving. Women, generally, accept it. Some of us feel especially powerful doling it out. Maybe powerful is the wrong word. Maybe they just feel safer. For, you see, sorrow for a poor love gives the insecure woman a momentary break from envy. For she who must be pitied can no longer be competition. (See notes on 'smug marrieds', Betty Draper, et al).

But here's the problem: in our internet age stories can only go so deep. Dr King said the arc was long and his legacy proves it. But here we've reach peak 'middle-class lady sads'. We're breaking open our laptops to TELL THE TRUTH in a moving way that's also under 1000 words, so … sometimes the only thing we end up divulging is our privilege. We're all familiar with the headlines.

"I gave up high heels for a year and now I'm closer to my sponsored child!"

"I let my hair go grey and now feel liberated and sexy".

"The acai berry overdose that almost killed me."

Our pain is real. But our perspective, just like those tech bros and TED talkers, is a little grainy. We're not in it for the long game. How can we be? The deadline looms! The narrative must hit the right notes. So we fold in a #fumblebrag because we have this huge pressure – or need – to engage and no more moving stories left to tell.

We say to ourselves that we're blazing a trail – clearing a path so nobody has to feel alone – and that's important and true. My fear is that we, the lady writers who expose our (minor) flaws, are lighting the path for others to follow not just into faux disclosure, or cherry-picked privilege, but deep into the heart of our dark, narcissistic ambition.