Saturday, September 20, 2014

A placeholder post

Hadley Freeman is always right. But sometimes she's extra-right, as with her column on the pressure on female writers to get personal. It's a variation of a point others (myself included) have long been making, but Freeman nails it:

The book publishing world has, for some time now, become wholly memoir-ified. Nothing gets a publisher’s chequebook out faster than a memoir, to the point that nonfiction books that are ostensibly about a specific subject (butchery, say, or George Eliot) are now styled and sold as memoirs (respectively Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession by Julie Powell; and The Road to Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead.) Everything must be seen through the personal lens, the theory goes, and a personal story gives the reader a narrative to follow, because the disintegration of a woman’s marriage is far more interesting than some boring old butchery. Make the writer a celebrity and the book will sell itself – ta da! 
A book is not worth buying, it seems, unless the writer discloses something shockingly personal about herself – and it is, almost invariably, a her.
[I]t is a thin line between the long overdue validation of women’s lives and telling women that the most interesting thing they have to offer, and that all they can be trusted to write about, is themselves.
What can I add, apart from go read it?

One thing, I suppose, is that there's a blurring that goes on, where women are urged to write about gender-related topics that aren't about themselves specifically, but that kind of lend themselves to that interpretation. Either to a personal hook (which sometimes works but sometimes feels tacked on) or, more frustratingly, to reader interpretations along the lines of, if she's writing about contraception, she's writing about her contraceptive choices! Or, if it's something the woman maybe can't personally relate to - a thin woman writing about plus-size fashion, or a woman without kids writing about parenting - then she lacks the authority to write something on the topic, in a way that having never been to China and not knowing Mandarin or Cantonese wouldn't stop someone from writing an op-ed about China. And... there's no way for me to proceed with this thought that wouldn't, ironically enough, lead to a personal essay. Which is what Freeman ends up with, but it is, it seems, inevitable.


Anonymous said...

Yes, but where is the demand coming from? This is a strictly by-for situation, but Hadley doesn't seem too keen to explore that angle (and neither do you, for that matter). The result is that demand for the "confessional" is put down to some non-specified blob of a demographic, even though we all know who is reading all this stuff. I'd also say that sociobiology/evopsych could explain this apparently perplexing phenomenon in about five minutes, but the op-eding class doesn't go in for biodeternism, so they'll continue to wonder why one half of society needs a visceral, emotional connection to the subject at hand. We really do live in an amusing world.

caryatis said...

"Having never been to China and not knowing Mandarin or Cantonese wouldn't stop someone from writing an op-ed about China."

Wait, wouldn't it? I certainly would give more weight to the opinion of the China expert.

The growing shamelessness and narcissism of the culture probably has something to do with the popularity of the personal hook. I've noticed that nothing bad ever seems to happen to people. Nor do they do anything bad. Every personal story is a Hollywood story, with hero/victim, villain, and happy or at least redemptive ending.

(Fascinating example: this woman writes, apparently under her real name, about her complete failure to control her spending and her lack of plans to fix this. She strains to make the credit card company that forgives most of her debt into a villain, and tries for a happy ending.

But those are gender-neutral explanations. It may indeed be, as Anonymous suggests, that since relationships have always been more important in women's lives, they tend to pay more attention to personal stories.

On the other hand, the population of people who regularly read nonfiction with no personal hook is really quite small. For instance, I recently read "Command and Control," a book about risk mitigation and managing America's nuclear arsenal. It's a very male topic, with all male characters, and I don't recall learning anything about the author's personal life. But almost every character is briefly sketched out, and their experiences, thoughts and feelings are suggested, as they should be, to convey the import of a possible nuclear accident and the difficulty of dealing with complex systems. Readers of this book will be overwhelmingly male, but even men are overwhelmingly not autistic, and men relate to stories with heroes too.