Why Does Women’s Confessional Writing Get People So Riled Up?

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It feels so weird to write this sentence, but Katie Roiphe is completely, totally right: if Karl Ove Knausgaard were a woman writing as meanderingly and passionately about the minutiae of life, the reviews of My Struggle would be much different. Certainly, as Roiphe observes at Slate, “what in a male writer appears as courage or innovation or literary heroics would be read, in a woman, even by the liberal, enlightened, and literary, as hubris or worse.”

For a very current comparison, let’s look at David Shapiro’s You’re Not Much Use to Anyone (July 22) and Emily Gould’s Friendship (out now), both works of fiction that are rooted in some obvious details of the author’s autobiography, particularly their past in blogging. The books are similar enough in spirit (and location: Brooklyn, of course) that Interview Magazine had Shapiro and Gould sit down and talk to each other. On his decision to make the book fiction, rather than a memoir, Shapiro notes: “The whole book is so embarrassing, and knowing that there a substantial number of parts in it that aren’t true made the whole thing feel less embarrassing.”

So far there has only been one review of Shapiro’s book, at The Awl, where Shapiro’s previous blog, Pitchfork Reviews Reviews, is discussed in loving terms and he’s compared to Knausgaard:

He reviewed Pitchfork album reviews in a piercingly strange and touching voice — flat, declarative, obsessive, a bit breathless — that made it wildly compelling. But Pitchfork Reviews Reviews was only partly about Pitchfork reviews. The true subject of the blog was the anonymous young man who wrote it—his insecurities, his fears, and his triumphs of experience and understanding as he made his way through the various milieus of New York. It was weirdly elegant, tender and funny because of the author’s willingness to share uncomfortable details about his own life… once in a while, the author of Pitchfork Reviews Reviews would really spill, and it was mesmerizing.

The reviews of Gould’s book, published last week, also delve into the author’s blogging past — in her case, at Gawker — in detail, although their tone is quite different. The most high-profile example is New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani’s review, where the critic spends a third of her mixed and mildly positive assessment rehashing Gould’s public time on the Internet, and seemingly scolding her for it:

“Overshare” was chosen by Webster’s New World Dictionary as the “word of the year” in 2008, and no one overshared more that year than the blogger Emily Gould… In a very long, often very irritating cover article for The New York Times Magazine that May, Ms. Gould — a former editor at Gawker and a compulsive personal blogger (“Emily Magazine,” “Heartbreak Soup”) — wrote about her almost biological impulse to post her thoughts and experiences online… The magazine article elicited more than 1,200 comments, many of them dismissive or disgusted — with both her and The Times. One reader referred to her as a “snarky little trollop.” Another wrote: “Wah … wah … wah … I need attention … I’ve tattooed myself … now I relentlessly blab on my blog … PLEASE pay attention to me! PLEASE!!!”

Does it have to be so easy to prove Katie Roiphe right? Does the cruelty of anonymous negative comments on a years-old New York Times Magazine piece really provide novel insight into Gould’s writing?

I wonder what it is about the personal and the confessional in writing that brings out the critical pitchforks and knives, aimed at everything but the writer’s actual words — particularly regarding the truth about women’s lives. It’s a double-edged sword, it seems: women, particularly women in their 20s, do have a quick road to publishing success when they are writing about their young and modern lives, particularly when there is the whiff of sex or scandal.

Who hasn’t looked at someone’s confessions in the likes of xoJane (sample headlines: “I Fell in Love With a Junkie, ” “I’m an Atheist and I Pray for People”) and entertained some dismissive thought about the content — or the way the writer’s secrets come illustrated with a photo of the writer herself? Is it a coincidence that xoJane happens to be a site written mostly by women, for women? Where’s the male equivalent? (Beyond “most of Western literature,” obviously.) Whether that tendency towards confession, in an economy that encourages it (at least in the form of an underpaid blog post), leads to a career that will last beyond, at best, a book’s boom-and-bust cycle is another question. That honesty isn’t valued as the truth, much of the time; it’s judged as merely a look-at-me narcissist’s cri de coeur.

New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny writes about this paradox in women’s writing. In Penny’s experience, and based on what she hears from younger female writers, women can pay their rent by “confessing,” in a very specific way — by writing a palatable, semi-feminist take on what it means to be young and female in the context of fashion, dating, and dieting, writing that’s “still fluffy enough to sit within the ‘women’s pages’, which are usually part of a paper’s lifestyle section by virtue of not being considered serious politics.” This pressure meant that Penny, who’s been working long enough to be name-enough to say no to such opportunities, started her newest book, Unspeakable Things, with a initial draft that had no personal content. It took re-readings of writers like James Baldwin to put the personal back in, to add the perspective of experience and to make those examples from Penny’s life political.

I don’t like living in a world where women who write have to contend with such mixed messages, where their experience can only fit in one little slot, and if they dare to dive into the messy and the mundane, they’re taken to task for creative solipsism. I wish I had an answer to why that’s the state of things. Perhaps it’s due to the profound communication between reader and writer that’s implicit in the best confessional writing; a model for how to be human, how a person should be, to paraphrase Sheila Heti.

In an essay published in The Guardian, Leslie Jamison, the author of The Empathy Exams, discusses the weight of reactions to her wonderful book. She talks about emails she’s received, where people write about their “desire to be seen,” in essence: Hello, stranger. In your essays, I see me; I’m here, and this is my experience. Jamison is honest in her essay about the pressure arising from the need of people to share their experiences, their feelings, their empathy with her — and how, in total, it’s a bit too much for one human heart to bear.

Perhaps some of the stress, the vitriol, the how-dare-she? regarding women’s confessional writing comes about from the fact that when the confessional clicks, when it’s written well, it’s mightily powerful. We can see this in Jamison’s record of people’s reactions to The Empathy Exams. We read confessional writing for the sake of some potential holy, transcendent experience, proof of our messy, human existence — and when confessional writing falls short, it’s a balloon shriveled up on the pavement.

We do live in a golden era when it’s easy to write your story, and there’s so much confessional writing out there that it’s easy to paint all of it with a dismissive lens, as millennial narcissistic self-indulgent solipsism that’s not anywhere to close to the truth. Women writing in this fashion get an unfair amount of this vitriol. Their existence comes into play before the power of their words — as if everything they write has “as a woman” at the beginning — and by looking only at the author, you’re losing stories and voices.

Is there a way for people to tenderly look at confessional writing, without even considering who the author may be? Confessional writing is as old as St. Augustine and Sei Shonagon. There’s honor in it. More often, we need to take it as it is, to look beyond the author’s gender or other demographic signifiers to the most important thing: the human life and the human experience in the words on the page.