Liz Hoggard: Female confessions come at a price

Men don't have to sell their stories of self-hatred. So why do women?
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The Independent Online

Every day I open the newspapers to another female writer revisiting her romantic pain. Last week Martin Amis's ex-girlfriend, Julie Kavanagh wrote in great, agonised detail about her love affair with the novelist, 35 years ago.

Not only was he serially unfaithful, he left her for her best friend Emma Soames. At the weekend, Soames gave her version of the love triangle with the "scribbling dwarf" (as her brother, Tory MP, Nicholas Soames, dubbed Amis). And now we're agog to hear that opera diva Anne Howells has written about her affair with a famous, chunky Australian critic for The Oldie (widely assumed to be Clive James).

What makes a clever, sane woman bare all? Revenge? A desire to pre-empt the male version (Amis is of course bringing out a book he calls "blindingly autobiographical" next year). Or to kickstart a failing career?

Kavanagh and Soames are great veteran journalists. So I can't help feeling protective. We all love a bit of confessional. But my problem with these stories is that the woman emerges fatally diminished. Either they're just come across as an acolyte to a Very Significant Man (he's smouldering, Byronic; she washes his socks). Or else they steal the headlines but it colours everything else they ever write again. "Never become the story" is a pompous mantra. But it holds true.

Revenge lit may seem the fastest way to further your career. But my former Observer colleague Kathryn Flett wisely counsels young women every day Not to Do It. And she she should know. Her own memoir, The Heart-Shaped Bullet (a searing account of marriage breakdown and depression) won her attention but it also meant that every Tom, Dick and Jasper had the right to rake over her personal life for years.

Plus I can't help noticing how men always slither out of first-person dispatches. A male colleague who lost four stone through taking up cycling wrote a witty, breezy account of his transformation. But no one dreamed of asking if it had changed his body image or sex life. Men don't have to sell their stories of self-hatred.

It's the same when we get sent to do interviews. "Make sure you ask about the divorce," my section editor cautions. "Don't just focus on the work." I know she's right. That is until I open the paper the next day and discover that a hip male journalist has "forgotten" to ask Meg Ryan about her face-lift, or Ricky Gervais about the death of his parents. How come he got away with it? Are his morals more important than mine? Why are women always the trajectory for pain?

I'm not blameless. I've written about my problem with emotional drinking; a visit to fat camp; dating at 45. I don't mind the (male) bloggers who savage me for self-indulgence. But I do mind if readers start thinking – possibly justifiably – that all girl journalists are bonkers.

Yes life is raw material. But some taboos are just too far. Never write about your therapy or your family (unless with their consent). Only touch on self-harm if it's for the health pages. And I mean the health pages. Not some section called "Self". The kind of fee you'll receive isn't enough for your blood and guts. And it's not nearly enough for your self-respect.