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Comment: Professional Confessionals: fashionable but nothing new

The Saturday Essay
In an era which often veers towards historical amnesia, we tend to forget that there is nothing new about the compulsion to bare one's soul, or worse, the souls of one's nearest and dearest, to a public hungry for personal revelation. Seeing Cherie Booth weeping for Britain in Macedonia recently brought to mind other displays of public emotion in the past decade. First there was Gazza's display at the World Cup in 1990. Then came the televised hysteria of programmes such as those presented by Jerry Springer and Vanessa Feltz; and if one wanted to stretch a point, one might even include Gwyneth Paltrow's outburst at the Oscars, which appeared to presage her acceptance into the ranks of British luvviedom.

Commentators have rushed to suggest that such events imply a new sensibility in British public life in the 1990s. They have even declared it in line with the New Labour project of "a more caring and open Britain". In fact, nowhere has the trend for divulging one's feelings been more evident than in journalism itself in the last decade. Not only are there a string of columnists now who specialise in what one might call Professional Confessionals, such as Adam Nicolson in the Sunday Telegraph, India Knight in the Sunday Times and Kathryn Flett in The Observer; but there have also been a rash of best-selling accounts of fatal or life-threatening illnesses by such writers as John Diamond, Robert McCrum and Ruth Picardie.

Then there is a separate strand of what could be labelled Family Trauma books, with titles such as When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison, Remind Me Who I Am Again by Linda Grant and Daddy, We Hardly Knew You by Germaine Greer. Perhaps the award for the sourest, and most acrimonious recollection, however, should go to Hanif Kureishi, whose recent novel Intimacy, about the break-up of his marriage, was so explicit that it prompted a public row within his family.

But while some hail these phenomena as evidence of a movement towards greater inclusiveness, it is worth recalling that the same currents were all the rage some 250 years ago. Then, in a series of novels by literary superstars such as Richardson, Sterne and Goldsmith, a premium was set upon the hero or heroine's ability to display signs of heightened sensitivity. The heroes of "Sentimental" novels frequently burst into tears, fainted or even died in reaction to the routine misfortunes that befell them, In fact, the 1770s and 80s were, in the words of literary historian John Mullan, "the most tear-sodden in history". It was then, for the first time, that the idea of emotion suggesting innate goodness began to take root.

Surprisingly, given that nowadays we tend to associate such openness with women, many of the heroes in "Sentimental" novels were male, and then as now were supposedly discovering their true feelings for the first time. In Samuel Richardson's novel Clarissa, Belford, a reformed rake exclaims that: "Tears... are no signs of an unmanly, but contrarily of a human nature: they ease the overcharged heart." Indeed, the supreme example of the "Sentimental" novel, and a bestseller in its day, was The Man of Feeling by Henry Mackenzie, in which the hero cries his way to an early grave. Of course, a major difference between the two periods is that whereas then the display of refined feeling was largely confined to an idle upper-middle class, who had the leisure to be oversensitive and ill, today such luxuries are afforded to everybody.

In the 1790s, however, a backlash occurred against Sentimentalism - critics jibed at the hypocrisy of heroines who wept over slavery while spooning sugar from the slave-plantations into their tea. In her novel, Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen famously warned about the dangers of sentimentality by comparing the emotionally unstable Marianne with her more rational and restrained sister, Elinor. Other female writers of the era, including Hannah More and Mary Wollstonecraft, also condemned the "herd of Novelists" and readers who glorified the "romantic unnatural delicacy of feeling".

Next week, the South Bank centre in London winds up a series of talks on the theme of "Reason Versus Emotion in Literature". Several of the novelists and poets taking part could indeed be said to employ a similarly intense kind of subjectivism in their work. AL Kennedy, whose novels frequently feature dysfunctional characters with strange or perverted emotions, readily describes herself as an "intuitive" writer. One male reviewer complained of her last novel: "All she does is cling to her precious feelings". The poet Michael Hofmann also uses his work to exorcise feelings of a dark, even malevolent nature towards his recently deceased father, prompting some critics to complain of excessive bitterness.

Although it would be unfair to accuse either Hofmann or Kennedy of sacrificing art to their emotions, it is true that many of our best-known confessional writers, particularly those who practice their trade in newspapers, are open to the charge that they are more concerned with profit than with genuine revelation. A common facet of this kind of writing is its tendency towards exhibitionism.

Not surprisingly, it is the Americans who lead the market . To give just two egregious examples, it is difficult not to conclude that Elizabeth Wurtzel, who remorselessly catalogued her drug-addiction in the best-selling book Prozac Nation, and Kathryn Harrison, who did the same in a notorious book about incest, were not doing it primarily to make a name for themselves. While such writers do reveal certain kinds of weakness or malice, it is usually so self-dramatising that it makes them more attractive than real. In this sense, Woody Allen is the perfect emblem of the neurotic artist who engages in excessive self-analysis. For while professing to be honest about his feelings, he manages to display remarkably little self-understanding either in his life or in his work.

None of this is to say that expressing one's emotions in public is necessarily unnatural or undesirable. But what we seem to lack today are the kind of rituals and codes that gave our forbears a structure with which to handle their emotions more discriminatingly. In his classic work Western Attitudes Toward Death: From The Middle Ages to the Present, the social historian Philippe Aries argued that the rituals surrounding death have gradually been eroded and replaced by a tendency in industrial society to hide death, as if it were an embarrassing secret.

The ritual of dying in the past was organised by the dying person himself, who invited his friends and family to the deathbed in order to bid them farewell. In the 19th century, passers-by who met the priest bearing the last sacrament formed a procession and accompanied him to the sickroom. Such an approach, wrote Aries, "in which death was both familiar and near, evoking no great fear or awe, offers a marked contrast to ours, where death is so frightful that we dare not utter its name".

Equally, customs such as wearing mourning clothes were instrumental in signalling to others that a pivotal moment in one's life had taken place. The function of formal customs such as these was not dissimilar to that which persists in Oxford today of wearing gowns for exams. Apart from anything else, they offer those who meet the encumbered a guide as to how to behave without fear of embarrassment. It is the absence of these codes that makes today's funerals a particularly gruesome experience and renders many people unable to shed tears when they would clearly like to do so.

In a sense, one of the reasons why confessional writing has become so popular now is that it acts as a kind of substitute for these rituals. Paradoxically, it leaves many people living out experiences that are at best vicarious. The best recent example of this kind of displaced emotion was in the extraordinary outpouring of grief at Princess Diana's funeral, with its bizarre intimations of Greek tragedy. There the grief that many people expressed was undoubtedly genuine, but often it appeared to be about something far more personal than Diana. Some of those seen crying did indeed confess to not having cried at the death of a close friend or relative.

Yet the greatest argument against the kind of touchy-feely writing with which we have become so familiar in recent years is simply that it often appears to lack any real sincerity. In the 1790s, "Sentimental" novels became unfashionable because their critics complained that there was something false about publicising what was fundamentally a private experience.

Throughout history, reason and emotion have vied for ascendancy in art, and it is often the interplay between them which leads to cathartic masterpieces. But unfortunately, art can never hope to replace life; and life, despite protestations to the contrary, does not usually imitate art.

Perhaps, as communities break down and most of us now live in vast, anonymous cities, there is a greater need than ever for rituals that give our lives meaning and a structure through which to negotiate life's exigencies. Instead, however, in a perverse way, the current fashion for confessionalising may encourage the majority of us to be less open, rather than more.