BOOKS & IDEAS
The Internet Age gushes on with ever-more-personal revelations. Has introspection run amok or are they the building blocks of a universal truth?
Edward Champion. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.:Jul 22, 2007. p. F.6
IN 1994, essayist and novelist William H. Gass complained of rampant personal writing in an age of narcissism, condemning the autobiographer for "think[ing] of himself as having led a life so important it needs celebration, and of himself as sufficiently skilled at rendering as to render it rightly."
Despite Gass' admonition, confessional writing shows no signs of extinction. Fifteen years after David Sedaris began baring his soul in magazines and on public radio, a new generation of writers has emerged, galvanized by the Internet. Much of their work is highly revealing, exploring relationships and other emotional material. But if this seems endemic to our voyeuristic culture, the larger question is why so many writers want (or need) to expose themselves.
Rachel Kramer Bussel, a 31-year-old editor and former Village Voice sex columnist, writes about her relationships at her blog, Lusty Lady (http://lustylady.blogspot.com/) to contextualize them in a way that print doesn't always allow. Not only did the Internet cause her to shift from a private journal to a public blog, but posting permitted the words to flow more easily. This freed her to step outside what she saw as her column's constraints.
What interests Bussel is the power of language to sharpen our perceptions, to make us reflect more deeply on the experiences we've had. "A lot of the things that I might think on a daily basis but I don't necessarily articulate in writing," she said, "don't have as much power, when I look at the circumstances of my life, as the things that I've written down."
At the same time, she acknowledged, the interactive nature of blogging gives readers a more personal stake, a sense of connection to a writer, which can lead to limitations of its own. "I don't want to be tied down," said Bussel, "just because I wrote something at one point."
For Jonathan Ames, being tied down is a matter of perception. Although he developed a reputation in the early 1990s for his self- deprecatory and revealing columns in the alt-weekly newspaper New York Press -- delving into such subjects as genital warts and transvestites -- he insists that his writing isn't confessional in the most explicit sense.
"It's not a phrase that I've thought of necessarily to assign to myself," Ames explained. "I know at some point, in some therapeutic experience, a counselor said to me that Freud said all writing is a confession. So I think somewhere in my mind, I've often thought, even as I'm hiding things in that Tennessee Williams way, that in some way I was being emotionally autobiographical."
Ames, who was deeply influenced by both Charles Bukowski's mid- 1960s columns for the Los Angeles Free Press (later collected as "Notes of a Dirty Old Man") and Hubert Selby's 1964 novel "Last Exit to Brooklyn," declared that his writing occurs on a sentence-by- sentence basis.
"I read that thing that Hemingway said," Ames noted. "When you're stuck, write the next true sentence."
Ames' work has inspired others to plunge into personal territory. In 2001, British expatriate Grant Stoddard was assigned by Nerve.com to write a column called "I Did It for Science," which involved serving as a sexual lab rat of sorts. His stunts included sploshing, a fetish that involves throwing food at naked subjects. Stoddard, who cites Ames as his biggest influence, turned these experiences into a book, "Working Stiff," which came out in January and takes Ames-style self-deprecation to a new level.
"I was the butt of a joke," said Stoddard, describing the fish- out-of-water, go-getter impulse that made his column so popular. But even a pathless pleasure seeker like him didn't feel it was appropriate to reproduce the Internet columns for his book. Instead, he recast the material, admitting that "putting it into context gave it some extra depth."
Spurred by cyberspace
THE Internet also served as a confessional muse for British novelist Sean Thomas, who described logging onto numerous personal sites in his April memoir "Millions of Women Are Waiting to Meet You."
Inspired by Catherine Millet's 2002 "The Sexual Life of Catherine M," he wanted to write with a similarly alarming candor. Among other things, he detailed an involvement with a 17-year-old girl, copped to spending 550 for online porn in a single month and reported his dealings with a Thai prostitute who claimed he had impregnated her.
"People feel able to say more behind the anonymity of an e-mail, or a comment on MySpace or Facebook, that maybe they wouldn't say on the phone or face-to-face," Thomas commented by e-mail. "Whether this trend is good, I'm not sure. It's been good for my sales."
Not all of today's confessionalists have found their voices on the Internet. San Francisco Bay Area monologist and public television host Josh Kornbluth parlayed his personal stories into a theatrical career. This is not the only thing that makes Kornbluth different: He also writes through the filter of a dramatic alter ego. He does not reveal details about his family in his shows.
"My pieces all derive from a confessional impulse," he said. "I take a topic -- taxes, democracy, calculus -- and I start confessing about things. But I also fictionalize them. So in a way, it's sort of a confessional. But they're not totally true."
While Kornbluth thrives on "the audience's collaboration and encouragement" -- often finding aspects of himself unexpectedly revealed during the development of a show -- he doesn't see what he does as therapy.
"There's a tremendous amount of intimacy," he said. "And I know that you can feel, as an audience member, tremendously trapped. If the point of the monologue is to really serve as therapy, to be therapeutic for the performer and the creator of it, then that's, to me, not a valid reason to do it."
Of course, many confessional writers have found that public reactions actually fuel their writing -- and even their careers.
Amy DeZellar was a former music critic who moved from Los Angeles to Seattle to start over "as a different kind of writer." She pitched the Seattle Times a dating column called "Single Latte." When there was no interest, she turned to the blogosphere to chronicle her romantic adventures, ridiculing one date -- an aspiring artist -- for wearing Harry Potter glasses and mocking another, a blind man (on a blind date, no less), for his "very male sense of entitlement."
"I think I took things to the extreme," DeZellar said. "If I was going to skewer someone, I really went all the way with that."
The results led to a 2006 book, "Dating Amy: 50 True Confessions of a Serial Dater," although DeZellar's no-holds-barred style caused one of these men, a stand-up comedian whom she didn't consider very funny, to take her to task at a reading.
Then, there's Jane Ganahl, another former music critic who had more success in newspapers. After developing the "Single Minded" column for the San Francisco Chronicle, she reworked the material into a book, "Naked on the Page: The Misadventures of My Unmarried Midlife," published in February.
Ganahl insists that her confessional impulses are part of a "loose-cannon effect" and that the instant feedback of the Internet age rankled her.
"I became slightly intimidated, during the course of writing my column, about how quickly the threatening and angry e-mails could get to me." Paradoxically, these reactions inspired her to keep writing, even if it meant encountering men who didn't want to date her because of what she wrote. "The feedback you get, even if it's distressing and angry and hateful, all kind of goes into the mill for your future work."
Still, as personal writing becomes increasingly engaged with audience reaction, does something of the larger thematic context -- the quest for human truth -- get lost?
Los Angeles Times Op-Ed columnist Meghan Daum thinks so. In her view, too much confessional writing is gratuitous and she would be happier to see less of it.
"For one thing, there's a phenomenon of lazy writers who used to not be given the time of day by publishers," said Daum. "[They] don't bother to make a connection between their own experience and the universal experience."
Staking new ground
YET Anne E. Fernald, author of "Virginia Woolf: Feminism and the Reader," believes confessional writing reflects an ongoing historical impulse to push the envelope.
"In the beginning of the 20th century," she said, "Vanessa Bell walked into the living room and she was wearing a white dress with a stain. Lytton Strachey looked at the stain on her dress and said, 'Semen.' Virginia Woolf laughed and blushed and asked, 'Could one say this out loud?' "
This suggests a creative statute of limitations. Even Stoddard contends that what was groundbreaking a few years ago may have now lost its panache.
"More and more people are feeling more comfortable with putting themselves out there," he said. "It's less impressive now than it was."
While Ames claims to be "morally neutral" on the influence of the Internet, he does concede that the medium could serve as an entry point for many emerging confessional writers -- if only because of its status as (virtual) public space.
"It adds one more level of personal censorship," he said, "you may or may not have to get past."