Two things, variations on a theme with other variations, to confront and subsequently integrate:
Theme: writing in the first person, especially on the internet, this very tricky series of tubes. Telling the truth in the first person (having a point, not getting bogged down in the rapid-response cycle, not ending up thinking it’s all about you). Young women who write, and the teeth of the New York media beast they (we?) court and flee.
When I first conceptualized this blog, the idea was to never, ever say I. My thought was (and is) that a self is as much, if not more, itself when it is inside looking out as when it is inside content to stare at the other parts of the inside (maybe in hopes of rearranging the furniture a little, cleaning things out a bit). I thought also that, given that much of my writing has been introspective and that I am trying to be a grown-up, it might be good for me to practice turning my gaze outwards.
I find the first person easy, I guess. Fact-checking, certainly, gets simpler, and organization, too: all you have to do is say what you’re thinking as you’re thinking it. It does not require, as does writing about a response to something, first figuring out what I think and want to say. It only requires opening the floodgates.
I write pretty well in the first person, because I don’t stop to think very much while I’m doing it and that, for whatever reason, works. When I write in the first person, I tend to write in rushed, tumbling sentences. Sometimes the sentences tumble and rush over each other, sometimes within themselves. Often, I like those sentences better than the stiff, overworked ones I can turn out while writing about, say, Hamlet. I’m not as good at this new form as I am at short-form self-examination (exposure?), and it’s hard to resist the urge to do only what you do well.
But it’s also tough to differentiate writing in the first person and making oneself the primary (if not exclusive) subject of one’s writing, and that’s somewhere I just don’t want to go. There are many writers who make careers of picking their scabs in public and fingerpainting with the blood. Once they are bled out—then what? Most of these writers are women, and I wonder why writers who are men don’t have to undergo this microscopic examination to find recognition, audience, career. I’m generalizing wildly here, but I think we have a higher tolerance for men who say, It is this way, rather than, This is how I feel. I have for nearly my entire life, adult and previous, put people off (people who already like me, even) by saying, It is this way. They ask me why I treat my opinion like it’s fact, and I say, Well, it’s my opinion. I think it’s true. I wonder why the disclaimer part, the “Well, this is just me,” the “I think” part, can’t be applied by the listener: isn’t it assumed that if I say things, they’re my opinion? Couldn’t you take that with a grain of salt without me having to provide the salt for you? The point here is that I think we are more insistent on seeing women’s insecurities than men’s. We forgive men their personal failings (the wives abandoned, the bottles fallen into) if they will give us interesting things to think about, but from women we want relentless, eternal self-scrutiny.
Anyway, because of how much less they tend to be their own subjects (there’s a difference between Keith Gessen’s thinly-veiled autobiographic writing, or Paul Auster naming characters “Paul Auster,” and the naked I of Emily Gould, et al.), men writers can be a lot less vulnerable to attack than women writers. For the women who memoirize, who write dominantly or exclusively in the first person, their product is inextricable from its producer: they are, in the least judgmental sense, self-dramatizing. The story they are writing is their own. This fact hides the craft of what they do, and makes ad-hominem attacking far easier, whereas Keith Gessen, say, can tell you to go fuck yourself (and has!) because he wrote a novel, asshole. Criticism of the novel doesn’t stick to the author as a human in the same way that criticism of a memoir (or a personal essay) does. A novel is less cramped: there isn’t a direct line, an intimate proximity, between author and novel and reader. A memoir (or a personal essay) is read in a self-helpier way than is a novel. You read to empathize, for insight about your own life via the author’s, to stimulate your own introspection. (Or you read because you need to know where the soft underbelly will yield to something sharp.) It’s sort of like the difference between Art and Craft before feminist art jumped in and started setting things straight.
So I don’t want to join this club of confessional women writers–it’s scary and maybe a little bit masochistic, and it doesn’t satisfy my preference for a kind of intellectual rigor (not to say that’s not inflected by the aforementioned arts-vs.-crafts trope). But there’s a place for the first person–a balance in which the producer can inform the product without overwhelming it–and I haven’t found it yet. Sarah Manguso has found it, mostly: in The Two Kinds of Decay, she does a really good job of drawing on her own experience without sacrificing aboutness, the sense that her point is more important than she is. I would hope to follow in her footsteps in this sense. I do have a hunch that the fact that I am a woman makes it harder, but in this particular case, I am more concerned with navigating this channel for myself than I am about figuring it out in a way that makes me capable of explaining it. The trick (a tricky one) is to bring personality to your writing without making the personality the point. It requires a certain confidence (both writerly and human) that’s tough to achieve.
So much of it is in the fine-tuning of tone–stylistically shutting the door between product and producer (again exemplified by Sarah Manguso, whose tone makes it so clear that she’s not just performing herself in an entertaining way)–but some of it isn’t. Some of it is about the market (Bridget Jones and all her successors continue to sell), and some of it is what we currently expect from young women, especially young women willing to expose themselves to criticism in a public sphere. There is something nasty about the way we continue to eat up these memoirs of self-immolation and essays of self-doubt. There is something about it like a virgin sacrifice (without the virginity), the way we expect young women (and James Frey, sort of) to keep on flinging themselves into the fire so that we may go on doing what we have been doing, which is building them up and tearing them down.
No one wants to be torn down, but it’s hard to resist the impulse to position oneself to be built up. And to come full circle, that’s what gave people pause about Jess the twenty-year-old partygoer’s remarks about her experience. They felt like she was just getting in on the game, lobbing a brick as a way of announcing her presence. I disagree; I think her posts on this subject are thoroughly sincere. I think she is trying to tell the truth. But the reason that some people reacted badly is that she speaks (writes) in the same idiom as the people whom she’s criticizing. And so it’s easy for people to think that what she wants is what those people already have.
I hope that in Paris, she will find a new idiom. I hope that through experimentation (or expatriation, if that proves effective), I will, too. There are role models, but not a lot of guideposts for those hoping to follow in their footsteps.