What is female confessional literature?

Karl Ove KnausgårdIn the Hedgehog Review’s newest issue, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has a piece on confessional writing and confession at large. She begins with Augustine’s Confessions as a model for confession in the most redemptive sense of the word: a full accounting for the purpose of ridding one’s self of sin. But now, she argues, confessional literature is a consumer product and (usually) female writers are the commodifiers and the commodified.

Today, when confessional literature is indeed everywhere—when there are whole industries dedicated to the production of it—the type of person confessing is increasingly the same: female, often young but sometimes not, enacting a kind of failure and misery to an audience that demands the performance but often despises the performer.

Why would the audience despise the writer-confessor? Bruenig notes there is a type of confession that draws attention to the observer, as if to say, “Is this what you wanted to see?” It is an astute observation, and it’s in line with Bruenig’s characterization that the genre is full of young women who, as a population, are used to being looked at. Indeed, we should not be surprised if young women, who live with the expectation that they are the observed, would incorporate that experience into their writing.

But Bruenig is suggesting more by her examples of today’s confessional literature: authors Emily Gould and Marie Calloway. If their work has anything in common, it’s a mixture of self-consciousness and shamelessness. Bruenig proposes that the unsympathetic reception to women’s confessional writing shapes their tone: “…their use of the confessional form isn’t so much related to the stories they tell as to what the responses to them reveal: We live in a time of endless desire for women’s exposure, yet also detest and ridicule the exposed. We are obsessed with youthful beauty and sexuality, but our obsession is finicky and mercurial. It loves to look and hates to be seen.”

If such a response from the audience exists, and I think it does, it’s the same repulsion we hear in knee-jerk rhetoric against selfies. As Sarah Gram writes, “…the disgust at the moral failures of kids today, with their iPhones and their Instagrams is a gendered disgust — it is disgust for bodies whose worth is determined not by those who inhabit them, but by those who look at them.” 

Of course, such disdain ignores the complexity of self-representation. Each piece of writing or each photo can do something different, and it’s the responsibility of the reader and viewer to pay attention. Confessional writing can show off. It can absolve, like Ted Hughes’s confessional poetry which, after his life’s tragedies, was both reckoning with himself and propping himself up. It can entertain, acting like a cocktail party anecdote. Confessing can also jostle open social space by making women’s interior lives visible. In those cases, what looks like shamelessness is part of the point.

Bruenig is spot-on about our ambivalence to confession, particularly when it’s coming from women; I too have seen Serious Literary Types raise an eyebrow at first-person narrative essays by women as though it was, by definition, evidence of vanity and triviality. When sold or produced as a genre, Women’s Confessional Literature can be a cynical enterprise that capitalizes on voyeurism. But while there are some trends in one strain of that writing (that seeming-shamelessness and self-consciousness, perhaps) it’s a distraction of a category.

To be sure, writers can write cynically too. There will be those who jump on the chance to share a titillating first person account to get a byline and a pay cheque. But confessional writing has a longer history, and a more nuanced present than that. Two of the last year’s most successful confessional books were Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams and Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering. Neither is wry or ironic, rather raw and sincere. We wouldn’t call Mary Karr a Female Confessional Writer, we call her a poet, memoirist, and a good writer. Put “female” and “confessional” in the same sentence, and we’re not necessarily talking about anything related to Sylvia Plath.

Maybe it’s best for critics and writers to worry less about the confessional category (particularly by women), and ask what each piece of writing is doing. Even if women who write confessional work are sometimes part of an industry that doesn't care about them, it does the reader, the writer, and the critic no service to participate in the cynicism by focusing on the writing as mainly products of that environment. I don’t think this is what Bruenig was doing, but the obsession with women writing about themselves as a category—as though women invented it—explains the hand wringing over the over-discussed Lena Dunham. For example, if pundits had focused less on whether Dunham’s subject matter (herself) was suitable, they might have noticed more quickly that Not That Kind of Girl just wasn’t a good book. (She’s a better screenwriter.)

Self-revealing prose fails when it is isn’t thorough enough to go beyond artful presentation. Bruenig praises Augustine’s Confessions for taking us “through the circuitous trails of sin and redemption, so that we might make our own way better.” To find one’s way through, if not to an end at least to somewhere else is the intention of a confession made in good faith. We should approach confessional work, instead of worrying if the genre is corrupt, asking: Is this true? Is it true in the sense that good fiction is true? If so, the writer, and the reader in recognizing themselves, has confessed enough.

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Maria Bowler is the former assistant digital editor of Commonweal. 

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