Jenny Diski once told me that more women need to share their stories. It’s a radical act, a way to see past the drone of white male chorus, like finally spotting an oasis within a desert of cocks.
Diski is a personal hero of mine and, quite honestly, should be for others. Her raft of non-fiction and fiction work is staggering in number and quality. Through years of books and columns for the London Review of Books, she has mined her life with a characteristically cool forensic application, dissecting personal events to raise questions and push them through a marathon.
Diski has previously lamented that her policy of not indulging interviews that mine her life instead of her craft has cost her professionally – that only the personal sells, not the interrogation of the personal.
She’s a Cassandra in a sea of confession.
Part of that sea is Bustle, an online publication that declares that it ‘is a new force in media that delivers everything you want to know, see and read – right now’. It’s the sort of bland mission statement that smells of sandwiches pooling on a plastic plate in a conference room, where consultants discuss clicks and customers.
They’re commonly known for two things: the sort of ‘this just happened on the internet’ style of churnalism and publishing a lot of first person essays. Narratives like ‘Why my ADHD diagnosis took 28 years to get’, ‘Why I’ll never wear foundation again’ and ‘How marijuana helped my binge eating disorder’.
This form of first-person confessional is as cheap as it is compelling. Bustle know this, which is why new employees are given a 46-point survey so they can pre-confess their confessions – their sexual orientation, their drug history, religion, and racial background. According to Bustle’s deputy editor, who has now hidden the survey, the results help editors commission writers.
The survey is presented as ‘optional’, in the way many things that aren’t actually optional are offered to workers to ascertain aspects of their life no employer has a right to know – do it or get branded as troublesome. We (and that’s shorthand for women) are categorised not by what we know and can do, but by labels to effortlessly shuffle us around on a spreadsheet.
But such a survey is almost understandable if your business motto is ‘shortsighted privacy-breaching editorial quest for content’. Publications like Bustle and others know what’s profitable for them in an increasingly unprofitable industry: confession.
As a writing genre loosely linked to the evolution of opinion editorial, confessional writing offers as much convenience for readers, writers and publishers as it does problems.
It’s cheap for publishers, who don’t have to cultivate writers but do have to boost their audiences. If they pay anything at all, even above a small token, they can still evade per-word rates or full-time employment costs by offering flat fees.
They’re bolstered by a readership that wants the relatively benign thrill of first-person stories which tie into the Identifiable Victim Effect, where we’re more likely to offer aid to an individual whose story has inspired us rather than 500 going through the same. In this framework, we’re more likely read one person’s experience than delve into theories about whether this is a widespread phenomenon, what kind of structures might have created it and whether there’s anything we can do about it.
It’s compelling for writers, especially those who want to break into publishing, and who haven’t been able to enter the industry either due to circumstance or various layers of structural prejudice. I’m one of them – finding my way in through personal blogging before publicly maturing through opinion editorials and confessional pieces. But even as someone who has benefited from this system, I’ve watched how the system has slowly but surely devalued what used to be a progressive medium for women, and devalued women’s writing and writers more broadly as a result.
Confessional pieces promise a utopia of representation – with a vague trickledown rationale that the more confessions published, the broader the representation of people and their experience, thus dismantling the testosterone-soaked whitewashed mainstream. They also tap into the concept of consciousness raising, a technique used by feminists where women shared personal stories to examine how oppression influences their lives, where the more stories shared, the more women could see they weren’t isolated but under the weight of a system.
But the majority of work published is largely restricted to the experiences of white, middle-class women and herded off to ‘women’s sites’, presenting them as a niche audience rather than a sizable portion of the status quo. While women’s sites may claim the best of feminist intentions, it is worth questioning these publications and their role in financially exploiting the women they claim to (partially) represent, paying flat fees for freelancers without annual leave or superannuation, often accompanied by restrictions on where they can be published. Not only are we not getting actual representation, our work is quartered away from what is considered news important for every reader – even if the odd stray confessing woman does turn up in the op-ed pages.
It’s as much a move for ad revenue as it is a gendered indictment, where ‘the personal is political’ . . . and profitable. But it’s also partitioned. When a man writes a confessional, it’s considered a gender-neutral essay with the sheen of credibility that patriarchy often affords masculinity. Yet women’s are viewed with less merit, not read as widely or considered to hold the same professionalism.
The very fact women’s stories are not considered fully mainstream or professional is the strongest admission that we refuse to listen to women, despite the denials of publications who say they publish based on merit. The lesson is that men can occupy both the personal and professional without their gender influencing judgement, whereas women are expected to choose between the two and even then are still not able to occupy the same wide broadcast.
Part of that is due to the evolution of the confessional and online publishing, where bloggers could present their views and experience without dealing with mainstream media. It’s quick writing that isn’t obligated to show wide-reading – it’s a land where an experience trumps expertise.
As with most grassroots movements commodified into benign products, confessional writing has been turned from a form of expression into a palatable click. While there is an abundance of writers like Jenny Diski using the personal to explore politics and philosophy, editors are commissioning writers to ditch the exploration in favour of evoking experience. The lack of objective analysis in confessional pieces ties into expectations within identity politics movements where experience is considered enough to counter an argument, missing nuance and thwarting our ability to build a collection of progressing thought.
This could be considered radical in isolation, were it not for the fact that confession pieces tend towards performance rather than analysis. When editors restrict where writers appear and what they have to say (numerous mainstream publications insist on ‘loyalty’ in spite of the fact that they are hiring freelancers for low-paid piecework) it is a form of tokenism – one where you can only write about the issues with which you personally identify.
Its impact on how we discuss and react to society remains relatively unmapped but has troubling implications. If all we offer readers is unquestioned identity, the only thing readers will understand is that identities exist. Not the systems that shape these experiences and identities; simply that they are. This leads to an expectation that only those with lived experience can write about particular issues, raising the issue we don’t recognise a woman’s ability, only her experiences – effectively reducing the writer.
Identity is now the writer’s big-ticket item to sell, as evidenced by the popularity of sites like Bustle, xoJane, ArtParasites and other feminine-hued publications, pumping out innumerable tonally homogenous articles that are quick to write, quick to sell and quicker to forget. But the costs to this form of writing, and to the writers creating it, are growing.