Where did the women folk get the idea that writing about their lives might be interesting?

Posted by @ 12:08 pm on August 4th, 2010

From Flickr user samelovesherdog

I’m not happy right now. A few days ago I read this article in The Guardian that included phrases like “unapologetically female” and tried to link all contemporary writing by American Women back to Candance Bushnell, author of the Sex & The City column which spawned a book and the HBO series and the most obnoxious 25% of the female population of New York City. I know it’s probably silly and naive and suspiciously female of me, but I expect more from The Guardian than an article like this.

Full disclosure: I didn’t know that Sex & The City was based on a book or that the book came from a column written in the 90’s in the New York Observer. That still doesn’t make any of it interesting to me. The whole Sex & The City phenomenon probably did have an effect on making Americans a little less prude in the way they talk about sex, and I can appreciate that from a distance. People in their 40’s and 50’s might be ‘more comfortable talking about sex’ now, but the 20 and 30 somethings I know were teenagers before sex & the city and already talked about sex more candidly than a bunch of white chicks drunk on vodka. We didn’t need their permission, but this is really beside the point.

The point is, I am not OK with The Guardian trying to find the root of a literary shift in Sex & The City. The tail didn’t wag the dog; the culture shifted. Nonfiction and memoir have been on the rise in America for a while now and trying to connect all female essayists back to Sex & The City is just lazy and absurd. Lazy and absurd and irritating.

“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.”

Ok, fine. Chick lit seems to have taken an upswing post-S&C, but I you could just as easily trace the rise in chick lit to a novel like The Ya-Ya Sisterhood, whose bright-blue spine you could find on the bookshelf of almost any warm-bodied woman who was between the ages of 12 and 70 during the 1990’s (whether or not that copy of Ya-Ya had been read or was a gift from some other warm-bodied woman between the ages of 12 and 70.)  But chick lit is really all about marketing. If Sex & The City had any effect on books, it was that it taught American publishers that there are a lot of women who want to read bright pink books with high heels or diamond rings on the cover.

“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.”

The article goes on to put Meghan Daum, Sloane Crosley, and Emily Gould in this presumed ‘wave,’ though it admits that these women don’t write about finding the perfect husband or pair of shoes.
“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.”

But wait! If these new ‘confessional women writers’ aren’t writing exclusively about Jimmy Choos and men what the hell are they writing about? Oh, all kinds of things. Sloane Crosley is a humor writer. Meghan Daum (my favorite of the lot, by far) writes about ‘missing the point.’ Emily Gould writes about being Emily Gould.  So… um… what’s the connection between Candance Bushnell and every living female American essayist working today? There doesn’t really seem to be one that’s what disappoints me about this article.  Ever heard of Joan Didion? Sylvia Plath? Remember Virginia Wolff? Kate Chopin? Zora Neale Hurston? They all wrote confessional or semi-confessional and I bet Daum was reading a lot more Wolff & Didion than Bushnell or any Ya-Ya nonsense.

And while we’re at it, what does confessional writing even mean?  I would go so far to say that all writing is confession, yet the term ‘confessional writing’ is slathered on women almost exclusively. Is any woman going to be able to write about being a woman without it being labeled as chick lit? I don’t mean about shoes and oh-my-god-why-isn’t-he-calling-me-back dilemmas. I mean the physical, emotional and cultural reality of being a woman. If such writing does exist, there is a good chance it’s under a cover I’d never touch.