Yvonne Roberts: Narcissism rules; enlightenment suffers
Who hasn't been entertained, horrified ("how could he/she?"), and sometimes moved by autobiographies and articles that turn the writer inside out?
Most journalists have written two or three features in their careers that are personal: often to campaign, to try to make a difference to the failing status quo. The personal story isn't the star of the show, it is the human connection to a system that needs change, for example, the treatment of dementia or cancer or mental illness.
Yet, even when the terms of engagement are so limited, a one-off, they reveal that while "the personal may be political", attach a Tannoy, and all manner of furies are unleashed and rights abrogated, not least of the children, ex-husbands, siblings and friends, the jackdaw journalist's, often involuntary, supporting cast. These people have no say over the telling of what is their story too. Their privacy is invaded, their most painful moments are exposed to the world.
Personal experience, first heavily employed by male writers, is now a major part of the depoliticised end of women's writing and occurs on an unremitting basis as the "me" in "media" colonises ever larger continents of journalism. Narcissism rules; enlightenment suffers.
Lucy Cavendish: So many issues remain hidden
I have to take issue with the "narcissism rules" comment. Of course, writing about the personal is difficult. But, for me, there are so many issues that remain hidden and I don't think they should be. When I was incredibly low, about a decade ago, I read a piece by a woman suffering from depression and it was instrumental in helping me turn my life around. Do I think she shouldn't have written the piece? Of course not.
There are many issues I would like to write about – alcoholism for one. I haven't gone into that because of the pain it might cause to those around me but, actually, I would be happy to write about it if I felt it would save one hurt, bewildered daughter. What do we do when we need information? We go and read. This personal "narcissistic" writing is part of that information. If I had a son who was getting heavily addicted to drugs, I might turn to the Julie Myerson book that featured her son's descent into drug abuse. Rachel Cusk's Aftermath might help me, guide me, support me during times of marriage breakdown. I thank them for writing these books.
Yvonne Roberts: We are drowning in a sea of memoir
I am baffled by your comment "so many issues remain hidden". On the contrary, we are drowning in a sea of articles, books, memoirs and id-lit, backed by self-help manuals and support groups, offering a potential lifebelt to every woman, man and household pet.
Personal testimony is powerful but it also has the propensity to atrophy genuine experience and turn it into hollow melodrama. While there is a constant danger that the "student" of another's person's trauma may find themselves uncomfortably close to becoming a voyeur, distant and disengaged from empathy, motivated not to change but only by an appetite for the next revelation.
All journalism is about storytelling. It is women war correspondents such as Maggie O'Kane and the late Marie Colvin have done much to turn the gruesome mechanics of battle into grim reality precisely because of the testimonies they have brought home. However, when it comes to the domestic front, "my personal story" too often cements men into the stereotype of Groundhog Day incompetents and women into serial victims of crisis at the hands of themselves and others and the alleged ill-discipline of their own bodies (too fat, too thin, too brittle, just "too"…) Is another person's recovery truly a guide to one's own?
Lucy Cavendish: Universal truths can be conveyed by Dickens or Liz Jones
I think a problem shared is a problem halved but – these relatively light-hearted sentiments aside – there is a long and perfectly admirable tradition of confessional writing. Many classic works of literature have been based on the confessional nature of the novelist – childhood, parents, school days – and their ability to weave a tale from their own experience.
The confessional lies within every genre, be it poetry to novels to travel writing. The travel writer takes the experience of those around him. Do they ask the conductor on the Patagonia Express whether or not they wish to be portrayed in a particular light in a travel book? Of course they don't but we, the reader, don't seem to mind this as we see a dinstiction between certain types of writing. I don't really hold with this distinction. Why do people look down on self-help books when they can possibly help people? Most of us no longer go to the confessional. This is not where secrets are shared and solved.
Writing, to me, is about exploring universal truths and I am not sure whether it matters if it these truths, or versions of them, are conveyed by Dickens or Liz Jones. It's just that some people are better at expressing it than others. So-called confessional writers give a voice of shared experience to those who find it hard to have a voice.
Yvonne Roberts: Mea culpa is journalism's dry rot
You are right, Lucy, the best confessional writing has a universal truth. You refer to Dickens. But often that "truth" relates not just to the state of the self but to the state of society too. Today's epidemic means the political connection to the wider world is fraying if not already broken.
It's not appropriate in every instance, but once that link is severed, so is our sense of collective agency. We are just atomised individuals with a "personal problem". Oliver Twist could have provided 800 words of misery lit. Instead, Dickens ensured that Oliver's testimony was more: it was an example of the systemic exploitation of the poor, not just one person's misfortune.
Today, mea culpa (or more precisely in Cusk's case, "You, the ex-husband are partly culpa") has become journalism's dry rot. Cheap, easily available and a fake "solution" to the man-made mystery of how to please the female reader (scare them witless by metaphorically fragging them with tales of victimhood?). And some women love it, hence the rise in confessional magazines.
But here is the final irony; recounting tales of impotence (and recovery) often demands an exercise in brute power. This is my story, Cusk says, allowing no other voices that might further illuminate. That can be the ultimate con in confession.
Lucy Cavendish: Everything that happens to us is a potential story
I do agree that the nature of this type of self-centric writing does leave little room for others involved. It is certainly true that journalists and writers are jackdaws and that some of us – and I put my hand up here – sometimes see everything in that way, something to be expressed, worked through, written about. Everything that happens is a potential story.
A friend of mine died recently and another friend said to me: "I wonder how many of you will get columns out of this?" I was shocked at that sentiment but then realised he had a point. His death was written about (not by me I have to say) – movingly, touchingly, fittingly. I enjoyed every word that validated his life. With a cynical hat on, I suppose you could say that confessional journalism has taken all tragedies and joys and all the mundane things in between and turned them in to nothing but stories, small vignettes of our day-to-day lives however dull and monotonous they are. Taken out of context, does it matter that we like eating broccoli (as someone tweeted the other day)? Does this say anything about our society in its wider form? Of course not. Fortunately, I find the broccoli is never offended.
Yvonne Roberts: The reporter has become too much of the story
Perhaps, Lucy, your final comments illustrate why much of the underpinning of journalism has become so weak: the reporter has become too much of the story. "How do I feel?" as a major driver definitely has its place: a very small place. Instead, it has become a bloated part of the mix – an extension of celebrity culture. As it does so, it is dramatically reducing the traditional role of the fourth estate. A role that looks outwards not inwards; that unrelentingly digs deep beyond its own experience. And, ideally, that makes the connections, often uncomfortable to others, that are truly revelatory.
Lucy Cavendish: Real people want real stories
I think journalism has moved on so that the inward has become as interesting as the outward – our inner emotional lives, and the fact that we write about them, reflects the genuine breakthrough that has happened in society. The world has moved on to a state where we are all more emotionally open. Real people want real stories that have meaning to them written by people they trust. They don't want journalists to be in their little world looking out, they want journalists to dirty their hands, to delve inwards and make a real connection with the reader.
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