Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On writing for those outside my immediate family

So, I have a post about parental overshare at The Atlantic, on The Sexes, which is their gender section. Woohoo! I'm going to use this post here at WWPD to address various concerns:

-Re: worried WWPD readers, yes, one is paid for such things.

-Re: Alysia Abbott, who called my argument "provocative but weak," because all memoir involves telling others' secrets, I'm going to have to concur with my editor(s?) that my point was that writing about your own children is different because 1) he or she is a minor, and 2) he or she is your minor, with the very specific power dynamics that entails. Parents know more about their kids (kids not knowing how to properly self-censor, kids not knowing what's the difference between public and private or which off-hand remarks would have huge significance in the adult world, kids having their medical care dealt with by their parents) than adults normally do about other adults. They are also relied upon to protect their children and their children's privacy.

But as it happens, yes, I find all overshare (by which I mean other-people's-dirty-laundry-memoir-or-blogging) somewhat problematic. The Well blog's "fat dad" series is an example that jumps out. All overshare asks that readers only weigh in to celebrate the author, because anything else would be mean to this real person, whose skin is thin (even if massively famous and influential) and whose feelings would be hurt if we didn't speak in terms of 'courage.' (WWPD readers know that for all the first-person you get here, my loved ones' dirty laundry doesn't enter into it. Everything I self-censor here will get radically transformed and channeled into WWPD: The Novel.) I cringe when I read plenty of no-children-harmed confessional writing.
But another adult a) can maybe defend himself, and b) is assumed to have his own take on whichever events, unless he's consented to this version, which he can, because he's an adult. (Also, as Jillian Keenan pointed out, the law is different for adults.) When an author writes about an ex, say, we assume the ex has his own take. While it's nice that Abbott was glad her own father wrote about her, and went on to write about him, we can't assume that a) because not every child minds, it's OK, or that b) every child written about without consenting to it - and they can't consent - will later have a platform for setting the record straight.

-Re: John Schwartz, who tweeted, "are you really suggesting I wrote my book so I could get 'parenting accolades from strangers?' Really? Have you read it?", I'll give the long version of what I attempted to tweet in reply. My first reaction to seeing that tweet was the predictable impostor-syndrome one: OMG he's so right, I totally shouldn't have written that post without poring over his oeuvre. Then I thought about it for a moment and remembered that I'd never claimed to have read the book, and made no arguments that depended on my having done so. I was reacting to the Terry Gross interview with Schwartz and his wife, which itself spilled plenty of details about their son, and which I definitely did listen to. Also some reviews. All of which made it clear-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt that this is a memoir about a real-life identifiable child's homosexuality and suicide attempt, one written in the parent's real name and that just happened to get the author, a writer, some fawning press. These facts are not in dispute. Unless there's a conspiracy to misrepresent the book's general point, and the publisher is even in on it. It's also clear from that interview that Schwartz's son was involved in the project, supports it, and wrote part of the book.

I'm not entirely sure Schwartz's tweet doesn't support my thesis that parent-memoirists a) are self-promoting, and b) want to hear how selfless they are, but ego and caring about your kids aren't mutually exclusive. I don't think it's right to write about your kid's suicide attempt using real names, I don't think a kid can possibly know what it will mean down the line for others to know this about him, and I also am happy to believe much of Schwartz's motivation in writing this book was to help other families like his. Parental overshare can be well-intentioned and about making parents look good. What would the book have lost, for example, had it been anonymous? Are we really to believe that the problem with this is that an anonymous version wouldn't have properly attacked the stigma of this situation, and that that was all? What I was "suggesting" wasn't that this was the only or even the main motivation, just that it might have entered into it.

What I take away from this back-and-forth, and it is actually quite useful, is that in the future, I will be abundantly, painfully, spelled-out clear which documents I'm reacting to. As in, if I could redo the post there, I'd describe Schwartz as having given an interview about his son, and mention as an aside that a likely-related memoir apparently exists, and it was on the occasion of that publication that he was giving this interview. And if this had been a longer article, sure, maybe I'd also read and discuss the content of the memoir. But I'm also quite happy with the post as it stands.

-Not everyone is, however. Re: the Atlantic commenter who wrote:

I implore Ms. Bovy to please overshare with us--namely, what exactly qualifies her to a) piece together this rather loose, selective argument, b) to conflate Liz Long's misguidedly sensationalist blog post with Beth Boyle Machlan's beautifully rendered and respectful essay, and c) borrow from all respective sources here with a lack of appreciation for or obligation to context? This is all very much half-baked and I expect more from The Atlantic, frankly.
My vast experience reading women's/gender/lifestyle articles made me expect things of this nature (the "I expect more"), as does my argument about parental overshare, namely that it's just about impossible to question parents' right to write poignant, lovely, sensitive, touching essays in which they demonstrate what wonderful people they are. My argument was precisely that parental overshare cuts across a wide range of contexts. What unites it is that a real-life identifiable child is discussed in ways that no one would ever write about someone who wasn't their child, at least without permission, and more on what that means in a moment. Re: Machlan, though, this is an easy one. She narrated for us her kid's therapy session! How is that "respectful"? I can hardly think of what would be less respectful.

-Thinking about this topic more, I'm starting to wonder if maybe the parental-overshares where the parents 'get their kids' consent', where maybe the kids even help write/promote the book, are worse than the humiliation-potential variety. If the kid hasn't 'approved,' then we can assume the kid is silently disputing the facts, coming up with his own narrative. It's like the kids dressed up in "Obama" or "Romney" gear - props for the parents' own ideas. Or even worse - lots of kids might consent to being written about precisely because the glory of being in the press themselves is appealing in the short term.

-Oh, and on the wild off-chance that I publish anything again, now that I've crossed the notorious Parental-Overshare Lobby, don't expect a full WWPD overanalysis of the experience. By then I hope to have the confidence in such matters that I don't feel compelled to explain myself and just generally apologize for having entered the public discourse.


Petey said...

"By then I hope to have the confidence in such matters that I don't feel compelled to explain myself and just generally apologize for having entered the public discourse."

But isn't this just another form of second-hand overshare by strongly implying that your parents didn't give you the self-confidence to let the slings and arrows of outrageous twitter roll off your back, thus forcing you to take arms against a sea of troubles?

Petey said...

"But as it happens, yes, I find all overshare (by which I mean other-people's-dirty-laundry-memoir-or-blogging) somewhat problematic."

While I've always 100% agreed with you on the 'age of consent' second-hand overshare issue, when discussing friends/relations above 18, I think it's far more of a grey area.

For example, here's a piece from today I find utterly un-problematic on the issue you're focussing upon.

And in general, the permission to write particularly parental second-hand overshare seems almost an offspring's right to me, though anything can be taken too far, either with or without intended malice. I haven't read 'fat dad', but as I say, I think a piece like the one I link to above seems kosher.

Agree? Disagree?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Official WWPD policy is you look at the thing I link to ("fat dad," in this case) before asking my opinion on "old mom." (Half-serious! If only WWPD had such structure.)

But it seems we agree that writing about the over-18 is always "gray area." The thing to consider is that a great deal more self-censorship when it comes to writing about (still-living, still-reading) adults. There's just not the same sense of entitlement, that this other human being's story is effectively one's own.

Petey said...

"Official WWPD policy is you look at the thing I link to ... (Half-serious! If only WWPD had such structure.)"

We are aware of all internet traditions.

I both approve of and conduct myself according to the Official WWPD Industries Corporate Bylaw here, half-serious or not. I did click the link. But it's a whole goddamn series. I could pick out one post at random to see if I agreed with you, but then I might be getting the wrong point on the flavor of the whole series. You can see what my commenting dilemma was...

Flavia said...

I've been out of town, but just wanted to say, belatedly, kudos! This is one of my favorites of your recurring arguments, and I'm glad it's getting a wider audience. Even if not a uniformly receptive one.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Thanks Flavia! It's tough to tell what the reception is - on Twitter, it's more positive, in the comments, mixed/negative. But overall, after spending so long thinking about this issue, it's been great to see what so many others think about it.