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The Observer is the Observed - Who's Watching the Ego? (J. Krishnamurti)

For a while after Bushnell's extraordinary success, the publishing industry assiduously attempted to sniff out the next Sex and the City and a motley assortment of chick lit writers of varying talent found their books marketed with bright pink covers and an illustration of a pair of sparkly Manolo Blahniks. She paved the way for good and bad things. She opened things up for female writers but she also gave rise to this chick-litty stereotype of the single girl having a romantic storyline.

That kind of stuff bores me, to be honest. There are only so many ways that that story works out. But Bushnell was also at the vanguard of a different type of confessional writing, one that was both unsentimental, smart and unapologetically female; that did not shy away from uncomfortable truths or from tackling the subjects women previously only talked about behind closed doors.

Now, 17 years after the first "Sex and the City" column was published, a new wave of confessional writers is picking up where Bushnell left off. As well as Emily Gould, there is year-old Meghan Daum, an acclaimed newspaper columnist whose third book, Life Would be Perfect if I Lived in That House chronicles her obsessive fascination with real estate and has just been published in America. Sloane Crosley, 31, whose first collection of essays, I Was Told There'd Be Cake , became a New York Times bestseller has also just written her second book, How Did You Get This Number , in which she tackles a dizzying array of subjects from living with an anorexic flatmate to buying stolen upholstery as a means of getting over a heartbreak.

And the film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling memoir, Eat, Pray, Love , in which she charts a year travelling around the world after the failure of her marriage, opens next month, starring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem.

True confessions in new women's lit

According to Neill Denny, the editor-in-chief of The Bookseller , the sudden rash of confessional memoirs is partly attributable to the rise in popularity of blogging and reality television. The world of the web has definitely opened up the market in a way that wouldn't have been conceivable 15 or 20 years ago.


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The things people would have written in a diary for themselves, they are now writing in a diary in a book. That has combined with a big tectonic shift in our society talking openly about sex and I think it has been led from America. In the UK, we are still slightly discomfited by the idea of baring all in a confessional essay, partly, one presumes, because we are restrained by a sort of cultural prudishness, but also because we do not wish to appear self-indulgent.

British writers who address the experiences of modern women tend to do so in a fictional format, following the example of Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary , which also started off as a newspaper column. In America, says Meghan Daum, there is more of a tradition for non-fiction examinations of what it is to be female, inspired not only by Bushnell but also by writers such as Joan Didion. I try to let the reader feel like they are learning everything about me, but actually my goal at the end of the piece is that they know everything about the narrator but nothing about the author.

According to Daum, one of the major problems with dubbing a piece of writing "confessional" is that it now immediately gets lumped in with the breathless prose of sub-standard chick lit. Bridget Jones's Diary I consider to be a brilliant, hilarious, subversive book, but a lot of people knocked it off and reduced it and this chick lit genre emerges and there's no meat or nuance there at all.

In many ways, says Daum, women's confessional writing is a victim of Bushnell's success: Because something is relatable, there's not as much emphasis on craft, and publishers know that more women buy books than men. In fact, the allegation most often levelled at a confessional essayist tends to be that they are writing in a trite and essentially superficial way about themselves: In an article for the National Review last year , journalist Katherine Connell wrote that: And when a woman does this kind of thing — particularly a young, attractive woman — there is often a critical presumption that they are nakedly selling themselves, rather than analysing anything more profound.

Too much information? The writers who feel the need to reveal all | Books | The Guardian

It implies that what these women are doing is just sort of spilling out whatever they have in their guts and that there's no craft involved in the writing. When Gould wrote a lengthy article for the New York Times in about her compulsion to reveal details of her private life online — she coined the term "oversharing" — more than 1, irate comments were left on the Times website condemning her "self-exposure" and calling her everything from a "moronic juvenile" to an "unfeeling, self-absorbed unsavoury clod". It did not help that the article was illustrated with a cover photograph of Gould sprawled suggestively across a bed — a decision she now says she regrets — but, still, it was hard to imagine that a male writer would have attracted quite the same level of vitriol.

I mean, dressed up in what? Partly as a consequence of her New York Times experience, Gould decided "very consciously to let go of whether or not anyone likes me". In And the Heart Says Whatever , she deliberately resists the urge to mould each story along a neat, narrative arc with a cleverly packaged ending. That's not to say I'm prickly or hard to get along with, I just want it to be OK for women to be complete people, to have sides to themselves that aren't whitewashed or palatable. So it is that Gould writes unabashedly in one chapter about having sex with a year-old boy when she was She is honest, too, about her own shortcomings: I am the same person.

I would do it all again.

In the same vein, Meghan Daum sees her writing as a corrective to the tradition of women's magazines that talk about relationships, diet or body image in a redemptive fashion, plotting each minor self-improvement along a wider trajectory of personal growth. Sloane Crosley's books, although different in tone to those of Gould and Daum — she self-mockingly writes of her own comic misadventures in a manner heavily influenced by David Sedaris — share a similar aspiration.

It's just the same story. It's like taking medicine with apple sauce. The label 'confessional' makes me alarmed because although my writing is confessional, I think you have to write something that's structured and is an attempt at art, even if it's not a successful attempt. It worries me if you just write a diary or a blog and then publish it. You can't just hand it over and reach literary absolution because you've confessed everything.

Too much information? The writers who feel the need to reveal all

After the publication of her first anthology in , Crosley was touted as a 21st-century Dorothy Parker. For Daum, who spent much of her 20s in Manhattan before moving to Nebraska the New Yorker essay she wrote about the move earned her comparisons with Didion , the framework of a confessional essay enables her "to use myself as a vehicle to get into the layers of a subject".

To begin with the least convincing:. Emotion on the page is always manufactured: In conversation or on chatshows, people do come out with unscripted remarks. But everything we write is filtered, even diary entries, and words intended for publication are filtered several times.

So it can be helped. Published confessions are never involuntary.


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Owning up to problems, faults and misdeeds as a way to win friends. Show your achilles heel and, rather than shoot a poisoned arrow at it, the reader will feel protective and on your side.

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Confessional literature always involves strategy — a judgment about what the impact on the reader will be, even if that judgment sometimes proves to be a misjudgment. It is always a matter of calculation. Vulnerable, derogatory or mildly deprecating self-presentation is sometimes part of that calculation. Goody-goody narrators rarely win our sympathy: Books have to make their way in the world, and to be noticed it helps if the story is sensational. As his case shows, though, the shocking facts had better not be shocking fictions, or you risk being rumbled.

Sometimes the facts are shocking, without any embroidery. But the metaphor quickly shifts from realistic portraiture to theatre: And to be reliable: Good journalism works like this too, reporting from the frontline or recounting first-hand, from personal experience, what it is like to be in a war, say, or a prison, or, in the case of Primo Levi and other Holocaust survivors, a concentration camp.

Few of us are witness to such dramatic events. Set it down in words.