Emily Gould still finds it irritating when she gets stuck behind a group of women walking four abreast along a New York pavement, intent on imitating the infamous Sex and the City line-up. “Really, two of you should walk behind and allow other people to walk past,” Gould says with a groan. “It’s one of many things that upsets me about Candace Bushnell.”
But for all that she might get annoyed by those high-heeled women on the sidewalk, without Sex and the City, there would arguably have been no Emily Gould. The 28-year-old has just published her first confessional memoir, And The Heart Says Whatever. In 11 pithily written essays, Gould, a former co-editor of the Gawker gossip website, charts her experiences as a young adult in New York, working in jobs she loathes, facing up to failed relationships and going to parties attended by people she dislikes. Her debut has already attracted praise from the likes of Jonathan Franzen, while Curtis Sittenfeld, the author of American Wife, has hailed it as a modern-day version of The Bell Jar. Gould is one of a new generation of female confessional writers who, according to Sittenfeld, “speak, in our often phoney and cheesy culture, to the truths of women’s lives”.
Before Candace Bushnell, books like Gould’s that sought to capture the dilemmas and dichotomies of modern womanhood with a wry, humorous honesty, were almost unheard of. For decades, the experiences of ordinary women had been largely overlooked by the literary world: either it was recounted in fictional terms (as in Mary McCarthy’s The Group) or it was relayed anonymously by feminist polemicists and social historians (Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique). Bushnell changed all that. When she started writing her first-person columns for the New York Observer in 1994, she won a considerable following for her acerbically witty portrayal of the Manhattan singles scene, with its Martini bars, non-committal men and cruel, almost Whartonesque mating rituals. The newspaper columns based on the sexual experiences and romantic intrigues of Bushnell and her three friends became a bestselling book, which in turn became a hit television show and then spawned a film franchise that has evolved into a multi-media juggernaut of product placement and tie-in beauty products.
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. “Sometimes great parents have really terrible children and it’s not really their fault,” concedes Gould, who lives in Brooklyn. “I think that’s what happened with Candace Bushnell. 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 40-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.
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. “It’s the idea that everyone’s got a story to tell and everyone is a star, a media brand in their own right,” says Denny. “It’s the Big Brother phenomenon, where we are led to believe that our own stories are valid and have resonance. 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. 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. “American writers of that type are prepared to lay more on the line,” agrees Denny. “The British are good at producing plenty of gripping, hardcore misery memoirs or they tend to write confessionally about the past.”
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. “Joan Didion is incredibly veiled and meticulous,” says Daum, a graduate of Vassar College who now lives in Los Angeles, where she writes a weekly column for the LA Times. “She keeps the reader at arm’s length even though she gives the impression of being totally candid.
“To me the word ‘confessional’ is problematic because it connotes a kind of over-sharing or perhaps unconsidered sharing. 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. “I think in the realm of fiction women have painted themselves into a corner. 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: “Publishers tend to be more willing to take personal work that is not as good because you know you have an in-built audience of female readers. 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: the literary equivalent of navel-gazing. In an article for the National Review last year, journalist Katherine Connell wrote that: “Excessive self-regard is the essence of this type of confessional writing, in which significant others figure only as supporting actors in the author’s personal drama – as stepping stones on the road to their self-actualisation.”
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. “If a woman writes about herself, she’s a narcissist,” says Emily Gould. “If a man does the same, he’s describing the human condition.” Or, as Erica Jong, the author of seminal feminist novel Fear of Flying (published in 1973), once put it: “It’s often called confessional writing by male reviewers, but I think the word confessional in this instance is a put-down. 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 2008 about her compulsion to reveal details of her private life online – she coined the term “oversharing” – more than 1,200 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. “Yeah,” agrees Gould. “And there was one review of the book that was headlined ‘Emily Gould: all dressed up and nowhere to go’. I mean, dressed up in what? In words?”
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. “I don’t tie everything into a little bow and say: ‘That’s what I’ve learned’,” she explains. “I think a lot of women writers go around apologising, saying: ‘Oh stupid me, oh the goofy things I did when I was young and didn’t know any better’ but I set out specifically not to do that… I think a lot of the stories I told were about having agency, about what you’re going to do with it and maybe you’re going to do something bad. 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 14-year-old boy when she was 17. She is honest, too, about her own shortcomings: “I can look back and recognise the things I’ve done and said that were wrong: unethical, gratuitously hurtful, golden-rule-breaking et cetera,” she writes in the introduction. “But I did these things because I felt the pull of a trajectory… I would be lying if I said I was a different person now. 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. “I tend to be very honest and my goal is to identify something people think but are afraid to say,” explains Daum. “That’s not the general cultural expectation of women.”
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. “I think different essays of mine have different points to them and are crafted in different ways, which is why I hate Jane Austen,” says Crosley, who lives in New York and works as a publicist for Random House, where she represents authors including Dave Eggers, Toni Morrison and Jay McInerney. “Has anyone noticed that she’s just changed the names in Emma and turned it into Sense and Sensibility? It’s just the same story.
“You want to say something larger, to say something cohesive, to impart a truth in a way that is beautiful. 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.” Crosley’s first piece of confessional writing sprang from an email she sent to a group of friends recounting an incident where she got locked out of the same apartment twice in the same day – the email found its way to an editor at the Village Voice who encouraged her to rework it as an article. After the publication of her first anthology in 2008, Crosley was touted as a 21st-century Dorothy Parker. “Those comparisons are flattering but not accurate,” she says. “I know I’m not Dorothy Parker but I also know there’s another layer to my writing and that it’s not just about shoes.”
For Daum, who spent much of her 20s in Manhattan before moving to Nebraska (the 1999 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”. But, she adds, the subject “has to be something universal”; it has to carry some kind of meaningful weight beyond how to make the perfect Cosmopolitan and it also has to be truthful to the extent of making the author look bad. In My Misspent Youth, Daum admits that her stories are “all about the way intense life experiences take on the qualities of scenes from movies. They are about remoteness. They are about missing the point.”
By giving the impression of accessibility and writing about topics that can be easily related to by the average female reader, the new generation of confessional writers seeks to communicate different depths of experience that take the reader beyond the stereotypical tale of a single woman obsessively on the hunt for the ideal mate. For all that Candace Bushnell might have broken down barriers for female writers by writing with clear-eyed candour about previously taboo subjects, Sex and the City was, essentially, shaped by this same, age-old assumption that a woman’s life could only ever be complete once she had settled down with the perfect man.
“I’m more interested in a narrative that doesn’t put a man at its centre,” explains Gould, who says she made a conscious decision to concentrate on “the characters on the sidelines” – the personal assistants who never get asked for their opinion or the glassy-eyed waitresses whose job it is to flirt for tips. “It’s quite scary to men to know what that person is thinking. It’s much more convenient to imagine that they aren’t really people.”
In the same way, one imagines it might be easier to dismiss the work of female confessional authors as being somehow facile and glib because, on the surface, they deal with the small moments of everyday experience rather than dealing with the grittiness of big ideas. But this would be to do them a disservice. By engaging with their readers and speaking to them on their own level with humour and candour, Gould, Daum and Crosley seek to illuminate broader truths. They might not always succeed but at least they aim for something bigger; for something that is hopefully a little more nuanced than the endless search for Mr Right and a world viewed through the bottom of a Martini glass.
Grin and share it: American confessional classics
Candace Bushnell Sex and the City (1996)
After four outings, Bushnell’s Sex and the City column, started in 1993 in the New York Observer, was bought as a book and in 1996 sold to HBO as a series. Charting the shopping and mating rituals of Manhattan’s female socialites, it became not only a bestseller but an era-defining work responsible for introducing lingo such as “toxic bachelor” to women worldwide.
Extract “I like my money right where I can see it… hanging in my closet.”
Elizabeth Gilbert Eat, Pray, Love (2006)
Aged 34, reeling from a disastrous divorce, journalist and author Gilbert set off on a year-long trip to Italy, India and Indonesia. Her engaging and brutally honest memoir charting her breakdown and recovery became a global phenomenon, endorsed by celebrities from Oprah Winfrey to Sophie Dahl to Julia Roberts (who stars in the forthcoming film version).
Extract “Having a baby is like getting a tattoo on your face. You need to be certain it’s what you want before you commit.”
Nora Ephron I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman (2006)
Best known for depicting the trials and tribulations of women in screenplays such as When Harry Met Sally…, Ephron has also written several highly successful essay collections on womanhood. Her latest, a New York Times bestseller that began life as a Vogue piece, is a frank exploration of ageing in a society that prizes youth.
Extract “You can put make-up on your face… you can shoot collagen and Botox and Restylane into your wrinkles and creases, but short of surgery there’s not a damn thing you can do about a neck.”
Julie Powell Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen (2005)
Bored of working in dead-end New York jobs, in 2002 Powell began a blog chronicling her attempt to cook all the recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. As much a diary of her private life as a document of her struggle with lobsters and lard, the blog gained a huge following and became a hit book, then a film written/directed by Ephron, starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.
Extract “It was not until the second harvesting (they actually call it ‘harvesting’; fertility clinics, it turns out, use a lot of vaguely apocalyptic terms) that I realised I had polycystic ovarian syndrome, which sounds absolutely terrifying, but apparently just meant that I was going to get hairy and fat and I’d have to take all kinds of drugs to conceive.”
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