Friday, 7 September 2012

Why I Loathe Confessional Writing

I have a confession to make: I despise confessional writing. I know it's awful of me as a weak liberal, but I loathe pieces in which the author ruefully acknowledges that that it was awful of them as a weak liberal to do whatever slimy thing they've done. When I was reading Lionel Shriver's piece on how, when a friend of hers got cancer, she abandoned her, but isn't proud of herself, I abandoned reading pieces by Lionel Shriver. Awful of me, I know, but I was too weak. I wasn't brave or unflinching, to give two of the buzz-words that are applied to this kind of writing.

A difference between right-wing hacks and liberal hacks is that while the former do little to persuade even themselves that they're anything other than malodorous, the latter think that saying something abhorrent or doing something abhorrent is redeemed if you pontificate upon how abhorrent it was of you in your piece, and how all of us - not just the author of the piece - are complicit in this abhorrence, for this is an abhorrence symptomatic of our times.

Anne Enright's endlessly detestable piece on the McCann family for The London Review of Books - available here but currently subscription-only at its home at (not the first time it's disappeared from there) - is a paradigm. From the words "distancing yourself from the McCanns is a recent but potent form of magic and disliking the McCanns is an international sport", the piece assumes we are all complicit in the author's obnoxiousness. Praised by Sam Leith ( ) as "spot-on" and "darkly funny", it gives us the horrible image of Enright using Google Earth to study the hotel in Portugal in order to work out how the kidnapping was feasible while chatting with her husband about whether the McCanns were wifeswappers and staying up late at night to look for further YouTube interviews with the couple.

I disliked the McCanns earlier than most people (I’m not proud of it). I thought I was angry with them for leaving their children alone. In fact, I was angry at their failure to accept that their daughter was probably dead. I wanted them to grieve, which is to say to go away. In this, I am as bad as people who complain that ‘she does not cry.’

Actually, she's worse: those people who say such foolish things don't put them on paper for others to see, including the victims. 'Literary' prose stands revealed in this piece as no better than corporate jargon or tabloid-speak: it has its own set of cliches, it panders to the expectations of readers used to this sort of thing, it relates only to itself and not to other human beings or the outside world, it occupies a specific slot within the media, it's deeply callous. The final sentence is "Then I go to bed and wake up the next day, human again, liking the McCanns", concluding a pattern that Enright has woven throughout the piece, which is there to tell us this is an essay and not a column, as the smudgy sheen they put on videotape in late-90s-onwards tv programmes is there to tell us this was done on film (perhaps one day the former, too, can be done at the touch of a button). It's those little frowns, those  self-deprecations and qualifications, turns at the corners of  sentences that are so nauseauting: "I'm not proud of it", "I thought I was angry with them for" "it’s part of our mass paranoia" "I am otherwise inclined". "I have never objected to good-looking women". "Maybe I should believe in myself more" "I had physically to resist the urge to go out to my own car and open the boot to check", one-sentence paragraphs (often the sign of a scoundrel) a whole paragraph consisting of "if."  They don't make Enright anything other than a literary rubbernecker.

Forgive me, but let's look at it in more detail:

In one – completely unverified – account of her interrogation, Kate McCann is said to have responded to the accusation that the cadaver dog had picked up the ‘scent of death’ on her clothes by saying that she had been in contact with six dead patients in the weeks before she came on holiday. My doctor friend doubted this could be true of a part-time GP, unless, we joked, she had ‘done a Shipman’ on them. Then, of course, we had to row back, strenuously, and say that even if something had happened between mother and child, or between father and child, in that apartment, even if the child just fell, then Kate McCann was still the most unfortunate woman you could ever lay eyes on.
During the white heat of media allegations against Madeleine’s parents, my husband came up the stairs to say that they’d all been wife-swapping – that was why the other diners corroborated the McCanns’ account of the evening. This, while I was busy measuring the distance from the McCanns’ holiday apartment down the road to the church on Google Earth (0.2 miles). I said they couldn’t have been wife-swapping, because one of the wives had brought her mother along.

‘Hmmmm,’ he said.

She was only a slip of a thing,’ I said.

I did not say that the body might have been made more pliable by decomposition. And I had physically to resist the urge to go out to my own car and open the boot to check (get in there now, sweetheart, and curl up into a ball).

Who needs a cadaver dog when you have me? In August, the sudden conviction that the McCanns ‘did it’ swept over our own family holiday in a peculiar hallelujah. Of course they had. It made a lot more sense to me than their leaving the children to sleep alone.
It is not that we blame them – if they can be judged, then they can also be forgiven. No, we just dislike them for whatever it is that nags at us. We do not forgive them the stupid stuff, like wearing ribbons, or going jogging the next day, or holding hands on the way into Mass.
Most of the animosity against the McCanns centres on the figure of Madeleine’s beautiful mother. I am otherwise inclined. I find Gerry McCann’s need to ‘influence the investigation’ more provoking than her flat sadness, or the very occasional glimpse of a wounded narcissism that flecks her public appearances. I have never objected to good-looking women. My personal jury is out on the issue of narcissism in general; her daughter’s strong relationship with the camera lens causes us a number of emotions, but the last of them is always sorrow and pain.

We can see all the prejudices of a tabloid mind here: prurient speculations about the McCanns' sex lives; wondering whether they killed their child; the obscenely irrelevent matter of Kate McCann's good looks; wondering why they don't accept their daughter is probably dead; unverified sources; pawing at whatever scraps of juicy new internet gossip you can get; hating someone you've never met because of media coverage, all of them with that recurring note, that constant emphasis, that constant damned assumption that this is the kind of thing we all do. It "makes harridans of us all." Yes, Enright knows her dislike of the McCanns is preposterous, and that expecting them to go away and grieve is nonsensical as well as callous, and she knows you know, but she's only being honest. Yes it's bad to do things like this, but it's the way of the world, our sin not mine. Only that reassuring preciousness in the language -  the "'Hmmmm,' he said" getting a paragraph to itself - distinguishes it as "literary", a step up from Jon Gaunt, and that endless veering from the McCanns to the more important matter of the inside of Anne Enright's head ("I realise that I am more afraid of murdering my children than I am of losing them to a random act of abduction. I have an unhealthy trust of strangers.") Good to know that Enright has no problem with attractive women, though. I have one with ugly prose.

Following 9/11, the literary editor Robert McCrum foolishly argued -  in a piece available here -  that:

swamped as we've been with a tidal wave of quite unbear able reality, it's the writers of fiction, contemporary masters such as Ian McEwan in Britain and Paul Auster in the US, who have come up with the words of comfort and clarity we crave in the midst of shock and desolation. People sometimes dismiss fiction as mere entertainment, but at times like this there's no question that novelists at their best have a privileged access to truths about the human condition denied to others. Partly, this is because they have a detachment that reporters, caught up in the maelstrom of events, cannot equal. Journalism is history's first draft, and the journalism of novelists, while not always to everyone's taste, can supply the insights that people need at a time like this.

In Enright's "liking the McCanns" prose we can see the worst effects of that very approach to writing. The belief that you can take a real-life situation and render it "literary" results in sentences about other people's suffering which are more interested in how that sentence should be structured. This is why George Orwell argued that good prose should be like a windowpane. Compare the piece with Christopher Hitchens's report on the victims of Agent Orange, or how Orwell himself writes on those living in poverty, and the latter's account of a hanging. Both are great stylists, but because they care more about their subjects than their literary standing, they leave you caring about the victims and wondering what can done about the situation, rather than nodding at the inevitability of our callousness and insularity, grateful it at least allowed a novelist to alleviate the horror by churning out exactly what literary periodical subscribers expect from literary prose. Martin Amis's non-fiction has moved from one pole to the other. The first three collections of essays by Amis are the work of an alert, interested, empathetic journalist (take a look at his fine, moving piece on the AIDS crisis in The Moronic Inferno). The Amis behind Experience, Koba the Dread and The Second Plane, who writes about others' suffering but cares about nothing other than his own phrasing ("Fred West will only get one sentence from me [...] Here is that sentence") is much less worth having.

Literary hackery, like tabloid hackery, is a factory. The difference is that it's where the alternatives to the mass-produced are mass-produced; where the alternatives to the churned-out are churned out. Novelists are much better at writing novels than anyone else, but the idea that we understand events like 9/11 or Madeline McCann's abduction all the better once we've read Martin Amis describing his "species grief" at the "worldflash" of a terrible future, his replacement of the word terrorism with horrorism and how Anne Enright felt when she woke up trivialises the those events as surely as it overrates those authors (and sadly, Amis's outburst about strip-searching Muslims and not letting them travel until they "get their house in order", his reliance on Neocon sources like Mark Steyn and Amis and Ian McEwan's awesomely daft attempts at political symbolism in their respective novels Yellow Dog and Saturday are just three things out that didn't bear out McCrum's prophecy of an invigorating novelistic response to 9/11).

Confessional writing doesn't wait until violence or tragedy takes place, though. Zadie Smith's inexplicable piece for The New Yorker on the way she treated a poverty-stricken friend she lent money to - - has already been roasted by Edward Champion here
( ) and little more can be said, except that once again Smith thinks that pontificating on bad behaviour stops the reader from gagging on that bad behaviour. Furthermore, she is only aware of half of what she actually did wrong. She seems to think her sins are impatience for the paying of the debt, and thoughtlessness in not realising her friend had no internet connection with which to contact her. She seems unaware of the question of why she needed a loan paid back in the first place if it was, in her words, "no skin off my nose", or whether the friend deserved to have her problems paraded in The New Yorker in this way (as Champion points out, withholding your friend's name isn't sufficient if you're famous: anyone who knew them both could identify her).

Over in Britain, the broadsheet reaction to the killing spree and death of Raoul Moat brought to the mind the storm over James Bulger's murder. In the latter, the pontifications of more liberal, up-market hacks determined to make a career for themselves was almost as vile as that of the tabloids. The career of Blake Morrison owes a lot to it as does that of Andrew O'Hagen. Regarding the latter, have a look at this narcissistic essay for The London Review of Books  - the first piece of writing he ever had published - and the obscene mixture of prurience and facetiousness in the subsequent letters exchange, in which a bunch of people with the time to write long letters to The London Review of Books expand a discussion of infanticide to jokey criticisms of each others' letters (those endless quips about "eating my hat") and the merits of Richmal Crompton's William books. At least they're keeping themselves amused, and O'Hagen's got a career out of it.

Morrison used the same murder (in his book As If, as well as  pieces for The Guardian ( whenever the case resurfaces) to ruminate on everything from the nature of evil itself to his own shortcomings as a parent and as a heterosexual man. His pieces combine deeply distressing details from the murder itself - although they don't seem to distress Morrison as much as they distress me: at one point he mentions a particularly horrific detail and adds that it was withheld at the trial to spare James Bulger's family suffering, but doesn't bother to tell us why he felt otherwise, just as Enright is untroubled by describing Madeline McCann as "probably dead" - with flippant gags like this: "As Larkin might have put it, parental anxiety began in 1993 [the year of the murder], between the Children's Act and Eminem's first CD."

Reading the moment in As If where Morrison, narrating the trial in the present tense, notices both Jon Venables and Robert Thompson are putting on weight; remembers that he and his sister were fat at their age; and reminisces about divebombing in the swimming pool in Majorca in front of derisive holiday-makers, it's not surprising that a few years later we'd reach a stage where Martin Amis, in a non-fiction book on the Stalinist Purges, would compare the screams of his baby daughter to the screams from the Gulag. By the time we reach the chapter describing Morrison's own baby daughter, we're treated to the saccharine prose of Tony Parsons's smarter brother:

 The whorled, Danish Pastry of an ear, the stretched skin above the lobe so paper-thin the sun shines through

the silver seal of a milk-blister on an upper lip

 A gleaming, gappy grin, a last little spit out of pink

where she lies, a dairy squiggle, on the floor

 there she lies, a fizz of cream on the floor.

Prose like this supports McCrum's claim that creative writers address the troubles of the world in a way the rest of us can't: specifically, they cutesefy a troubling issue and reduce it to an opportunity for putting hyper-sugary, comfortingly literary - rather than startling, convincing or moving -  combinations of words together and exploring the author's past. I certainly couldn't write like that. Morrison is right to be horrified at the words of John Major at the time of the killing - "we must condemn a little more, and understand a little less" - but narcissists understand nothing either, not even themselves.

   Morrison was quick to let us know what he thought of the Virginia Tech massacre, too -  this piece appeared in The Guardian just three days later
opening with this absurdly blinkered and impertinent paragraph:

I can't have been the only writer dismayed to learn that Cho Seung-Hui, the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech massacre, was a literature student. Few people today believe the idea, passed down from Matthew Arnold through TS Eliot and FR Leavis, that the study of books can civilise and humanise us. But it is alarming to think that majoring in English might have contributed to Cho's problems or even inspired him to become a mass murderer.

The sheer insularity of literary hackery can be suffocating sometimes. As if the subject Seung-Hui was studying was of any fucking relevance. The delusion that literature ought to make people less likely to shoot one another has been around since Joseph Brodsky's claim that it is more problematic for someone who has read Dickens to shoot people than for someone who has not (a recurring bugbear mentioned neither for the first nor for the last time on this blog); here Morrison repeats that thoughtless insult to non-novel-readers and then inverts it. The "only writer" to think this way? We can only hope.

  During the Raoul Moat coverage, one non-tabloid journalist ruefully confessed to finding herself rooting for Moat, wanting him to escape because she found it hard not to think of him as the underdog. When I say I empathised more with the policeman he shot and blinded, the girl he wounded and the family of the man he shot dead, it might seem pious, but let me stress I don't regard this - and the fact that I've never "disliked" the McCanns - as evidence of a high character: I regard them as the norm. Hacks like these rely on assumptions: on the belief that we all inevitably fall prey to the worst aspects of modern culture, that we're all addicted, that we're all obsessed, that we're all complicit. Scummy thoughts and ideas are allowed to become norms rather than embarrassments.

The late Gordon Burn's piece on Jade Goody,
similarly, was barely preferable to OK magazine's tribute, which put "In Loving Memory 1981-2009" on its front cover before she had actually died. Burn's piece isn't interested in pricking the balloon; it attributes the manipulation of Goody to a global cultural state of affairs rather than an unpleasant tv programme. If we took the latter view, we could think of practical ways to prevent demonic circuses like the one that sprang around Goody happening again (not letting Peter Bazalgette become head of the UK Arts Council, not commissioning anything like Big Brother again, boycotting tabloids, working out how to promote such a boycott), but the view Burn takes is that this what life is like the 21st Century, predicted by Roth, Bellow, Foster Wallace and Mailer, and that we are all complicit in making and keeping it that way. It's a piece which expresses no interest in changing anything.

It's time to to start saying No: Every other person doesn't feel this way, it is your fault rather than the cultural climate, and your honesty doesn't redeem it. Why not start checking your behaviour at the time rather than publishing an essay on it a few days later? Ask yourself why you slow down for car crashes.