Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Why fiction is better, Part II UPDATED

If you're going to end a confessional essay with the question, "Am I totally insane?," you probably do relinquish your right to object that you have indeed been called "insane."

That aside, it is an interesting question, why people do stupid things. (I would say, why smart people do stupid things - the author refers to herself as "a smart, progressive feminist woman" - but eh.) While we may not all do things quite that stupid, let alone do them and write about it, we do all do things that rationally we understand are unwise. In this self-censored self-presentation age, where everyone is constantly checking their public persona for anything that could ever be a liability, a function of hyper-confessional writing can be to shed some light on the less-photogenic aspects of our lives.

But then the question is, if the author of such a piece doesn't want her choices validated, doesn't want to serve as an example, but also doesn't want to be "shamed," well, what does she want? Or rather: what is the purpose of this sort of writing?

The purpose, I'd think, is to examine human nature in all its ambiguities. A purpose to which fiction is better-suited than the personal essay. An exploration of why a woman not looking to get pregnant is sexually active with men, without using birth control, would be interesting in a fictional character, where we could be shown-not-told the various reasons she may have come to that behavior. Readers could judge more and sympathize more if this were a fictional character's fictional uterus at stake.


I now see, via the Facebook page of the person who had linked to this initially (and who, incidentally, works for the same publication, and who makes a good case for the piece) that the author of this essay-and-retort has been subject to all manner of hate online. That, I want to make clear, is never excusable. Criticizing the article - and yes, that can include, as MSI says, the "prose" - is fair game. Sending obscenity-filled emails to the author about her life choices, no.


Miss Self-Important said...

Seems pretty clear that she does want her choices validated and hopes there is some heretofore invisible population of women out there like her, and that by writing this confession she will reveal this population's existence and maybe galvanize them to make themselves visible. A miscalculation, yes, but nonetheless the goal.

As you know, I agree with the general preference for fiction over autobiography, but this woman seems to lack in both the common sense and prose departments. How good would her fiction be? Perhaps somebody could write fiction about this. This woman, however, may be better off refraining from writing altogether.

Petey said...

I've always thought Proust was guilty of over-sharing.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"Perhaps somebody could write fiction about this."

That was what I was driving at. I don't know that this is the author we want doing so. But then again, maybe fiction is her genre?

Miss Self-Important said...

Poetry, actually, according to Google.

caryatis said...

I cannot imagine how anyone could read that and not judge the author's life choices. It's utterly unfair to her sex partners, not to mention being the exact opposite of smart and feminist.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Yes, the essay was written in such a way as to infuriate readers, feminist and otherwise. A social conservative is going to look at this and think about the premarital sex, the promiscuity (by some definitions) and the rather probable eventual abortions. Feminists and social liberals, meanwhile, are going to look at this and think that this woman is making a mockery of "choice," "shaming," etc. The only possible explanation, if we're looking for a larger political message (and I'm not sure we are) would be that this *is* some kind of indirect argument for social conservatism - here's this woman who just wants to accept her body's "natural" rhythm and potential, and if only she lived in a society in which she didn't see conception as a bad thing.

Meanwhile, flakiness about contraception does exist, even among intelligent people. Which is interesting and worth exploring. It probably has many different explanations, some applying more in some cases than others, such as: 1) The same people sometimes absorb the 'contraception is squicky and unnatural' and the 'everyone has the right to have recreational sex' messages, and are left in a bind. 2) Some people (and I'm including men/couples) don't/shouldn't want a baby but on some level do. 3) Even those who know about and can afford/get free contraception sometimes must jump through endless hoops to get the stuff.

But because the obvious response to any of these is, just use some damn birth control or don't have intercourse unless you're trying for a kid, these are ambiguities and flaws best explored, like I said, in fiction.

Britta said...

I read something somewhere (Atlantic? NY Times?) about the trend of women who want to be writers but have no noticeable writing talent, so instead they try to be shocking or controversial. However, they don't actually want to deal with the often negative consequences of that, they just want to be seen as shocking or controversial. In addition to the general insanity of how she thinks and rationalizes her life, she also answered every negative comment with a hyper defensive response, which is also kind of insane, if you're blogging on a public platform.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I don't remember seeing this article, but I think that's only part of it. There are also publications themselves, which steer/frame articles in a certain direction. My sense is that writers who might not otherwise go that route can get kind of pushed into confessional writing, because that's what brings traffic. If you're kind of prodded into making a story more personal than you'd have liked (not that I think that's what went on here - there's no not-personal angle to that story!), then you might find yourself too thin-skinned for the inevitable response.

And then there's yet another angle - and this one I've experienced - which is that readers are now primed to view anything written by a woman, in the first person, about a "lifestyle" topic, as confession. I've written things that were not about myself, that I never claimed were about myself, only to get comments that assume whichever dynamic I was describing was surely autobiographical. And then you can't exactly correct readers, because then you are bringing your personal life into the conversation. But if you don't, then you've effectively 'spilled' something that isn't even true.

Basically, I think the move towards confessional writing can, yes, get crummy writers an audience that in some artistic-merit utopia they wouldn't have. But it can also amount to exploitation - confession sells, so we have to imagine that not everyone confessing is doing so out of exhibitionism. A publication might understand (and a writer might not) that more people will click on something if it seems controversial and if the writer comes across as a horrible person.

caryatis said...

Britta, good point. I would add that you call the site a "public platform," but that's probably not how the author saw it. Yes, it's public in the sense that anyone can pull up the page, but a lot of sites (and I've noticed this before on Blisstree & The Gloss, obviously more political sites too) develop a sort of insularity, where it's largely people who agree with each other talking about topics where the correct opinion is already known by all. Outsiders might see the site, especially when linked to it, but are unlikely to be regular commenters. Hence the authors might start feeling like they're talking to their own community, and be surprised when a strange and more hostile or objective point of view intrudes.

Hilariously, the author has another post about resisting her family's pressure to have children.


Sigivald said...

That said, I cannot rationalize using birth control—a pretty serious controller of my hormones.

You'd think that, being a "smart, progressive feminist woman" she'd have heard of a non-hormonal IUD, too. (Or a frickin' condom.)

Turns out there are birth control methods that address her concern (all the stated ones referring to the "medication" or "body modification" aspect of hormonal methods).

Now, maybe she has some other reason to avoid those methods - but it ain't stated, is it?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


You're addressing Britta, but I will take my bloggy prerogative to answer you anyway. What you say re: private-seeming but technically public online environments is absolutely true. But there's no reason not to have some sympathy for writers who suddenly face an onslaught of "more hostile or objective" readers. Not every piece of writing stands on its own, as it were. Sometimes an essay will make sense within the context of a site, but will come across as wacky to a broader audience. Different online communities have their own terminology, their own conversations.

If I'm sympathetic here, it's because exactly that has happened to me. I once wrote something here (plenty innocuous and not autobiographical) that was taken out of context and then came a pile-on from some hugely popular blog I may well have learned about from that incident. All these people I didn't know - and, as I recall, one I actually did! - utterly despised me, and had all kinds of theories about my life. It certainly struck me as more hostile than objective. Some parts of the internet really are about hateful pile-ons, as opposed to putting fresh/cynical eyes on things.

Now one might say, that's the risk you run writing anything online. (Which it is.) And a site that's actually an online publication is different from schmoe-on-the-internet. But there's a spectrum, from Amy Chua promoting her book and being upset with how the WSJ excerpt was received, to someone writing for a very niche site with a very particular voice, probably not being paid much to do so, all of a sudden attracting a broader-audience pile-on.

That said! From the comments there, it doesn't seem like these weren't regular readers, just readers appalled by the article itself.

caryatis said...

Phoebe, I’m not without sympathy on this issue. It’s as if you were having a conversation with a circle of friends, and a stranger walked over to tell you you were an idiot. But sometimes, you know, you are an idiot. Generic “you.” Although whatshername is defensive now, maybe she needed to hear just how bizarre her behavior sounds to other people not in her bubble. And then I think the nature of the internet is that it’s easy to come to see people as not so much people but embodiments of ideas or social trends you don’t like.

I’m curious about what attracted the pile-on for you. Specific “you.” Was it the Megan McArdle link?

caryatis said...

I like this comment by TomBlunt:

I get that she wrote a personal essay, but as I said upstream, there are many people out there who rely on anecdotal claims to affirm their own (not always good) choices, so it makes tons of sense for people to want to "correct" her statements.

If in doing so they are unduly condescending or snide, that's too bad, but there's something about this confessional style of writing for a very public audience that can be incredibly infuriating. It's almost the worst way to engage a serious topic, because the author gets to duck behind "guys this is just MY OPINION" whenever it's convenient, even though they're the ones who knowingly initiated a controversial discussion.

If your essay is about you, then be prepared for personal comments. If it's about the issues, be prepared to debate the issues. If it's about both, be prepared to take all comers.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Agreed -sometimes it helps to hear how you sound. Generic "you" from me as well.

McArdle? I'd forgotten about this, but yes, Google tells me she's quoted me twice, both in a contrarian but not what-an-idiot way, although in both cases commenters were happy to round up to what-an-idiot. They're not so nice to her, either, though, looks like.

But no, it was this post. Rereading it now, I see how the very first sentence was a fine case of, it worked in my head, the head that had already written the whole post, but it doesn't stand alone very well. And I can't say this is a post I think, wow, I was particularly insightful that day. It wasn't particularly... deep.

And I have since learned that referring to wearing children's clothes is something read as bragging about being modelishly-built, when what it actually says in my case is that I'm too short for regular women's clothes. Not too narrow for them, I assure.

So I get what was being latched onto, but the gist of the post still strikes me as reasonable. I was saying that the political choice to have the Obama girls wear J.Crew to the 2008 inauguration was, well, political, populist, a move to seem relatable.

Although the way I wrote the post doesn't put this up top, it's clear from the second paragraph that I was responding to an accusation in Slate that the Obamas had spent too much on their children's clothes for the occasion, because their coats "cost close to $200," which is, granted, not cheap. But I thought this was kind of silly - this is an upper-middle-class family getting dressed up for one of the biggest days in American history. My feeling was, damn straight they should be able get dressed up for this - as fancy as J.Crew or even fancier. And it had struck me as kind of gratuitous privilege-talk to criticize the Obamas for having their daughters dress up to the extent that they did, on that particular day.

Basically, then, it's a post that would have worked better had I reversed the order of the paragraphs, but that wasn't earth-shattering either way.

Well. A blog with many very devoted commenters (not a publication, more like an online community, I think, and I'm not going to dig for the link) decided that I was rich beeyotch of the century, that I personally have a closet in which J.Crew is on the low end of the haute-ness spectrum. It became about how I had this limitless clothing budget, how I sneered at the peons who had to wear normal clothes, and was a skinny braggart to boot. They made it very clear that they despised me.

And there I was, a grad student with raggedy grad-student clothes (which have only gotten more raggedy), the nicest of which, it seems, must have come from the sale rack of J.Crew. These commenters had rounded up my knowledge of the existence of clothing more expensive than J.Crew to some kind of comment about my own wardrobe. According to the commenters, I really had it in for the Obama girls, which, no. I wish I had the wardrobe they imagined I did, but alas.

All told, while the post could have been better-written, the response wasn't particularly constructive. I see, rereading it, why someone primed to call out cluelessness on the internet wherever they saw it might have found enough material in that post (esp. if taken out of context) to make the author of said post the target of that hour's pile-on.

But what was accomplished? Am I a better person or writer for having a horde like that in the back of my mind? I suppose it launched a new interest for me, namely the existence of a portion of the internet dedicated to pointing out cluelessness. But that's about it.

Petey said...

OK. I'll take the Contrarian POV™ here.

1) Look at the earliest modern "novels" - aka early 18th century English fiction. There is an insatiable desire to present these fictions as "True Stories".

2) Look at the modern day. Folks love heavily scripted "reality teevee". Folks love memoirs over "fiction". See the whole James Frey imbroglio, for example. Dude wrote a fiction that he attempted to present as memoir for understandable commercial reasons.

Summary of points 1) and 2): There is a desire for "True Stories" over fiction, even when the "True Stories" really are fiction.

3) What the hell is wrong with the linked piece? And what of that wrongness would be solved by presenting it in fictionalized form? It's a memoir that isn't presented as an evangelical effort to convert others to thinking it to be the "correct" view. It's a memoir that the author herself understands to be highly problematic. Why do we have a problem with her presenting it in memoir form, rather than fiction? We can certainly disagree with her POV, but she's not really asking us to agree with her. So, again, what's really wrong here?

Petey said...

"But what was accomplished? Am I a better person or writer for having a horde like that in the back of my mind?"

Just so you know, had you published that post a week later, it would've been no problem.

But you wandered into a real-time highly charged symbolic event with a post that was pretty perfect to generate a Two Minute Hate.

In other words, you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and should take no further lessons from the episode than that, IMHO.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


You're absolutely right that the first "fiction" presented itself, and was received, as fact. One of my classes in grad school was largely about this very issue wrt Balzac. I remember finding this topic plenty compelling, and still do.

But my point isn't that the value of a return to fiction is that fiction-as-we-know-it-today always existed, let alone that it was the official genre of Then. Fiction is a particular genre with a particular history, and I'd like to see a return to the variety of fiction where we're meant to believe that the character Philip Roth, in a novel by Philip Roth, isn't actually the author.

In other words, yes, these days there's a preference for "true life," and there was in the past as well, but there's no essential reason that must be the case, given the popularity in the past (and in the bit of the past my own anachronistic brain occupies) of sitcoms, novels.

Re: why is this a problem, well, there's the author herself, who's clearly quite upset about all this. As are plenty of authors of less controversial personal essays, when the mob arrives. Then there's the value of the conversation the article provokes - the value of fiction is that it shows you something about human nature. The personal essay shows you something about a particular person, and can be readily dismissed with 'this person's a fool.'

caryatis said...

Phoebe, wow, I would not have expected the J Crew post to be so controversial.

Re: why should this have been fiction, from the reader's point of view, fiction tends to be better written. The essay has no structure or plot, no attempt to tie into larger themes, leaves a lot of unanswered questions--just typing out stuff about her life as it occurs to her. I don't know whether the author could be a great novelist, but if she was writing fiction she'd at least TRY HARDER--have more than one character, show the character changing as things happen to her, not unquestioningly accept that character's choices...

Plus people feel more of a need to jump in with advice when they perceive bad choices being made in real life in real time. I might be frustrated by the zombie movie character who keeps throwing away her weapon, but I don't think it's my job to tell her she's an idiot.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


It's difficult to pin down what, exactly, would make the essay better if it were fiction. Setting aside whether the author is or is not a fiction writer (MSI has Googled her, and apparently she's a poet, which I think makes her more qualified to write fiction than, for example, I am), let's focus on the essay. If it were fiction, would it be better? Must fiction have more than one character? (Here, though, there are other characters, no? Her boyfriend?)

It's interesting, I think, to imagine how we'd view it differently if it were the exact same text, but labeled "fiction." The all-else-equal scenario. Even if just that one detail were changed, I think there'd be a different response. How so?

-This would be a first-person character, so those put off by the tone/prose/perspective would not immediately dismiss the text.

-The issues brought up could be examined more sympathetically. People sometimes do stupid things, often for complex reasons. That's right there in the text, but because there's a real woman (and boyfriend, and potential pregnancy) at stake, it's almost impossible not to look at this as black-and-white.

-People would like or dislike the work, not the author. I mean, to some extent - some hatred-of-fiction rubs off on the author. But it wouldn't be so dramatic. It would be about something she wrote, not about her.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Oh, oh! I just found a lovely example of something getting put before a new audience and getting an interesting response. Mindy Kaling wrote a comic essay for the New Yorker, which the Daily Mail is presenting as a story about Kaling's innermost desires, deepest convictions. Sample commenter response: "And this is why Mandy [sic] is 33, and single."

Britta said...

If your essay is about you, then be prepared for personal comments. If it's about the issues, be prepared to debate the issues. If it's about both, be prepared to take all comers.

This seems about right. One can't put one's ideas/life out for discussion in a public forum and then not be prepared that many people will react differently than you thought they might. Also, people are assholes, especially in anonymous or semi-anonymous blog comments. Even if they're not trolling, pretty soon it's not worth engaging with people who are hostile or rude to you. (generic) Also, in fairness, writing is a skill that's relevant to blog comments too. It's often hard to be nuanced, portray sarcasm or humor, or to know how the tone of what you've written sounds. I've read things I've written that sound more didactic, pedantic, blunt, or hostile than I meant them to. I also think that with writing, a lot of the stuff that goes unspoken (tone of voice, gesture, expression) has to be expressed explicitly, which is much more work. With a blog comment it's usually not worth putting in all that work, so it's easier to skip nuance or tone modulating and just make the point.

There are some political/feminist blogs I used to read and now don't because the blog comments were mean-girl witch hunts, with a core clique of commenters making inside jokes and shaming anyone who didn't use the right lingo or who varied slightly on the minutiae of an issue, to an almost parodical degree. I wonder if these people, who claimed to fight for social justice, are as repugnant in real life, or if it's a Jekyll/Hyde type thing.

caryatis said...

“With a blog comment it's usually not worth putting in all that work, so it's easier to skip nuance or tone modulating and just make the point.”

Agreed. I think on the internet, there’s a reluctance to be seen as trying too hard, both with writers and readers. So even if your natural writing style is nuanced and dilatory, the internet will push you towards being short and punchy. But short and punchy is likelier to be misinterpreted or found offensive. Phoebe of course boldly resists this tendency.

“I wonder if these people, who claimed to fight for social justice, are as repugnant in real life...”

The internet ruined one of my real-life friendships. Well, internet and politics.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"One can't put one's ideas/life out for discussion in a public forum and then not be prepared that many people will react differently than you thought they might."

Here's where I think scale enters into it. If you're someone who's not a professional writer (in which case, not relevant to that essay), if you're using your blog essentially as the anchor for a message board, it may not even occur to you that anyone cares. Either you don't set up password protection because you're not that tech-savvy, or, more likely, because it never occurred to you in a million years that more than three people were reading. And this used to happen quite a bit with Gawker - they'd find someone online they thought particularly mockable, and would find public (I think?) info about this person. The person wouldn't be a public figure in the traditional sense, but the mocking-worthy information was stuff they'd put out for all to see.

And it's complicated. There's a lot more that one has a right to do online than that one ought to do.

Petey said...

"Re: why is this a problem, well, there's the author herself, who's clearly quite upset about all this."

And this is why everything on the internet that is put out there for free should be published under a pseudonym...

Petey said...

"Oh, oh! I just found a lovely example of something getting put before a new audience and getting an interesting response. Mindy Kaling wrote a comic essay for the New Yorker, which the Daily Mail is presenting as a story about Kaling's innermost desires, deepest convictions."

I finally noticed this, and that is very, very funny.

Next up, they'll think The Bob Newhart Show is a documentary about Bob Newhart's life.

There apparently is no fiction whatsoever if you go by your real name, for those churning out British tabloid material.