Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On the Uses of Confessional Lit

Superior kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

A comment from Jenny Block on my blogging and narcissism post raises an obvious but important question: Well, why do we read this stuff anyway? Why do we provide the sort of bloated audience that makes it worthwhile for magazines to put Emily Gould's or Philip Weiss's navel-gazing on their covers? Jenny further asks where we draw the line between good, affecting memoir and self-indulgent TMI.

Hmm. I can think of three reasons why I read confessions and memoirs. And let's be clear: I'm a huge sucker for the confessional genre, including its excesses.

1) Well-written confessional lit makes me feel less alone with hard experiences and sometimes-taboo feelings. Here, I'm thinking mostly of the burgeoning literature on motherhood. Susan Maushart's wonderful The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It is both analytical and experiential; it made me realize I wasn't just nuts when I had a hard time staying home with my highly demanding first-born. Andrea Buchanan's Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It made me laugh and reassured me that it was okay to just chill out once in a while. The writers at Literary Mama beautifully explore some of the less-well-mapped terrain of maternal experiences, usually from a first-person perspective. I could spend the rest of the day extending this list and making similar ones for sexuality, marriage, health, and so on.

While there's usually an element of confession in these sorts of memoirs, they don't feel like a guilty pleasure. They feel like a way to stay a little saner, kinder, and happier than I might otherwise be. They can also be politically powerful in much the way feminist consciousness groups used to be. They can push us to consider how our supposedly personal little problems might actually be systematic and if not completely socially constructed, at least socially exacerbated. Such is surely the case with motherhood as a largely privatized enterprise.

2) Confessional lit gives me an almost anthropological pleasure in seeing how other people live differently from me. Okay, that's mostly a fancy way of admitting I'm nosy. I'm fascinated by the glimpses I get of my students' lives in my women's studies classes. Though I obviously keep a professional lid on my nosiness and respect their privacy, I still get to learn a lot about them. Much of this fascination comes from their inhabiting the next generation from my own. They give me a peek into the future. They show me different ways of thinking.

Jenny's own writing on her open marriage definitely falls into this category for me. Her domestic arrangement is pretty different from my own, which is outwardly pretty conventional: a husband, two kids, monogamous heterosexual marriage, and a charming (if messy) house in the kind of friendly, front-porch neighborhood that supposedly went extinct by 1970. But then there's my inner life, which is politically quite radical and emotionally turbulent, full of unruly desires and ideas. If I look calm on the outside, it's only deep cover for my restless soul. Reading about how people live out very different choices satisfies my own curiosity, sure. But maybe it also helps me reconcile my own duties and desires by vicariously experiencing other people's less constrained lives.

3) On a base and prurient level, confessional lit lets us feel superior. I react that way even to the grand-daddy of all confessors, St. Augustine: Didn't he realize what a tortured hypocrite he was, trying to dissuade everyone else from sexual pleasure after he'd got his own? People got so riled up about James Frey fictionalizing half his memoirs partly because that sense of smug superiority relied on his exploits having been real. As I read about Emily Gould's exploits and Philip Weiss's inchoate desires, I was looking firmly down my nose at them - more so with Weiss, because he comes across as the sort of sexist pig that ought to be a feminist strawman but sadly isn't. I'm not particularly proud of any of this, but I'm guessing it's a common response.

I think an element of condescension often enters into our response to memoir, even if we're reading mainly in one of the first two modes. To use Jenny's work as an example again: It provokes a lot of judgmental comments. I'll admit that when I read her piece linked above, I too wondered whether her husband was really on board with opening their marriage, or if he went along because he saw no other choice. In the end, I realized that only they can judge that. But plenty of commenters felt they knew enough to condemn her on that score and many others.

Similarly, lots of writing on motherhood provokes judgmental, patronizing reactions. I'm not totally immune to them, either, even though I think I have immense reservoirs of sympathy as an imperfect mother myself. Mothers are just soft targets, I'm afraid.

In the end, I'm not arguing that the confessional genre is illegitimate just because it's possible to read most memoir while straddling a judgmental high horse. But I'm realizing that we'd do well, as readers, to be aware of when we're starting to wallow in our own superiority. As a writer, I suspect that we need less writing of the sort that is an outright invitation to read in this third, judgmental mode. And maybe this suggests one tentative response to Jenny's second question: As long as memoir can be read in the first two modes - as long as it advances our self-knowledge or our understanding of others - it probably has enough redeeming features to survive those readers who will insist on using it to build up their own egos.

I'd love to hear what others think about this, so please add your ideas in comments!


Jenny B said...

This is fabulous. Funny you should mention Literary Mama and Andrea. I have an essay in Andrea's book, "It's a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters" and two essays on the site. I think you and I may be on the same page (no pun intended) when it comes to memoir.

Thank you for doing this. It's definitely a conversation that needs to be had.

Jenny Block
Author of "Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage"


Sungold said...

Hi again, Jenny. I'm hoping to get a chance to read "It's a Girl" and the companion volume for those of us who are mothering boys. Maybe this summer while I'm off teaching?

I have two sons and sometimes think it's just as well that I didn't have a daughter because I think I might have been too tempted to view her as a mini-me.