Amy Jenkins: Why confessional writing captures the female mind

Share
Related Topics

Eat, Pray, Love, the movie of Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling confessional memoir, opened in the US this week.

Sony has thrown a huge amount of money at it – $80m – and cast Julia Roberts in the lead role in an effort to ape the success of Sex and the City. But early reviews are lukewarm – which only goes to show that the current craze for the female confessional doesn't translate well to the big screen.

Bad films, though, are fodder for misogynistic attacks. The thirtysomething confessional is commonly accused of being narcissistic, navel gazing – or the biggest put-down of all – just "too much information". Eat, Pray, Love, which detailed Gilbert's real-life journey back to happiness following a painful divorce, and involved her eating in Italy, meditating in India and falling in love in Bali, sold seven million copies and is much loved – but critics accuse it of privileged self-obsession.

If the book had been a novel about a woman searching for some kind of self-realisation – a respite from internal demons, even if they are the demons of privilege – no one would have thought twice. As it is, real-life women who admit in print to thinking about themselves get shamed. It seems that soul-searching is seen as a luxury afforded only by the relatively well off and is therefore an unforgivable indulgence – especially if not done at an artistically tasteful arm's length.

There's an idea that the simple things in life should make us happy. Enough food, a roof over our heads – and the more we have the happier we should be. But that's only the illusion of capitalism. The new science of happiness has shown us that happiness has very little to do with income. Still, some elements in society will always be uncomfortable with the idea of middle-class angst. They are like the Yorkshire men in the famous Monty Python sketch who don't think the "young people of today" should be allowed to complain about anything: "Cardboard box? You were lucky! We lived for three months in a paper bag!"

Happily, the confessional genre is defying its critics and flying off bookshop shelves. In the US, Meghan Daum's Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House and Emily Gould's And the Heart Says Whatever are making waves. Over here, my own personal favourites have been Stephanie Merritt's The Devil Within, Susie Boyt's My Judy Garland Life and Hephzibah Anderson's Chastened.

I devour these books. I don't think it's easy to write as honestly as these women write, but I do think these books are often more successful than contemporary novels. The fact that it's for real carries a great deal of fascination. The books are an opportunity to get inside another woman's head and hear the truth – stuff they'd never tell you at a dinner party. What could be more compelling?

Plus, as I'm reading, I'm scanning the whole time for evidence that I am, in fact, sane. Everyone's head is a maelstrom of neurosis – it's not just me – and for that comforting information I will forgive the author a multitude of first-person participles. Their neurosis doesn't even have to be the same as mine – as long as they have one. Meghan Daum's new book is about her obsession with moving house. I've only ever lived in two houses, the one I grew up in and the one I live in now. But I still found the book a great read for the simple reason that the nature of the presenting problem (whether men or real estate) doesn't really matter; what is important is the underlying struggle to make sense of life and what it takes to be happy.

When Nick Hornby wrote Fever Pitch, nobody accused him of excessive self-regard – of having an unhealthy compulsion to expose himself. Women, it seems, are encouraged to bare their bodies, but never their souls.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam