Self-deprecation is the New Lassism

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The Independent Online
Let me introduce myself. I'm 28, my career is reasonably successful and I do have a boyfriend. There, apparently, end my credentials for writing for publication.

For there is an ever-growing list of young women who appear to be employed solely to write about chaotic, unsatisfactory love lives: Kathryn Flett in The Observer, Emily Barr in The Guardian, Topaz Amoore in The Express, Anna Blundy in The Times, Emma Forrest for a while in The Independent, Zoe Heller until recently in The Sunday Times, to name a few. I can count only one weekly female columnist who is allowed to suggest that women under 30 can have an idea, not just a lack of love life.

It is all deeply personal, often quite emotional stuff. Ms Flett, for example, has achieved notoriety by writing painfully raw pieces about the end of her short marriage - and by doing so, attracted far more attention than she did when writing about urban life.

There is a similar trend in publishing: witness the publicity given to Kathryn Harrison's book about her incestuous affair with her father; Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted, about her mental illness; or Elizabeth Wurtzel's battle with Prozac. These are also young, attractive women with dysfunctional lives, the difference being that their lives are presented as exceptional, while the newspaper columnists tell us that their lives are the norm.

What unites them all is a willingness to admit to failure. In the books there are serious journeys through big issues (drugs, incest, mental illness); in the columns, more usually, jokey, continuing series of low-level disappointments. Look how I sabotage my relationships! Look how my boyfriend doesn't love me back! Laugh with me as I joke about my drinking habits, my slovenly flat, my desperate, unfulfilled need to have children!

For these women, no problem, no personal trauma is deemed unsuitable to put into print. Written humorously, they somehow avoid humiliating themselves - self-deprecation takes the bite out of any charges of self- indulgence.

But charges of self-indulgence are unlikely when the use of the word "I" has become so acceptable. The confessional is the modus operandi of our time, in which the distinctions between the public and private spheres have become blurred. We are not unsettled when we hear about Ms Writer's sexual failures, despite her being a total stranger, because we have heard it all many times before: on television, in the problem pages of magazines, in the tabloids' kiss-and-tell. It is what the readers want, after all.

These self-revelatory columns are the broadsheet newspaper's acceptable bite into the tabloid cherry. They allow readers a prurient look into someone else's love life without any of the moral discomfort. Who can complain when the exposee is voluntarily doing the exposing?

But to be ghouls at the feast, or eye-witnesses to the breakdown of Ms Flett's marriage, demeans us and her. It is like the pictures of Princess Diana kissing Dodi Fayed - we all look, while secretly not liking ourselves for doing so.

Admittedly, not all pain is best kept private. Ms Flett has argued, in her defence, that the phenomenal response to her revelations shows that there is a demand for this type of writing. This is not dissimilar to tabloid editors' arguments about paparazzi pictures and circulation. But after the attention has died down, will she really feel glad to have washed that dirty laundry in public? And when Ms Flett's life has achieved a semblance of balance again, who will be as interested to hear the sequel?

Zoe Heller's column, widely acknowledged to be the forerunner of the vogue, was the best-written - but Ms Heller had the sense to realise that there is a limit. Exposing herself in print week after week, she acknowledged, left her open to claims that she was little more than the bag of neuroses presented in her writing. She also grew tired of receiving letters from deranged nutters who - rightly or wrongly - believed that they knew her intimately from her writings.

But the columns keep on coming. The advent of Bridget Jones in this paper provides the apotheosis of this genre. The fact that the author Helen Fielding's creation was a fictional send-up did not prevent the resulting book from becoming a best-seller. But the use of Jones to extend the self- revelatory should be like the use of the spoof Mrs Merton to front a chat show - the ironic conclusion to a discredited format. No real woman could be more hopeless, more unlucky in love - and, most importantly, more entertaining - than Jones. All other columns now look like pale imitations of the imitation itself.

The response to Bridget Jones shows how the distinction between fact and fiction has become blurred. Too often, one has the feeling that these writers beef up their own mishaps, their own unhappinesses, in order to make their lives saleable. After all, nobody wants to read about the smooth lives of those whom Jones calls the "smug marrieds".

Perhaps it is all a lighthearted bit of fun; a diversion from the serious stuff. But whether it is love or lasagne, the popularity of this genre suggests that women are still rooting themselves firmly in the emotional/domestic sphere. The safety zone. And it is unlikely to stop: newspapers are targeting young women readers, and this, they have decided, is what we want to read.

One editor (married, two children) told me that he reads these columns religiously, as they offer "a window into another world". But, like New Laddism, they are a construct fondly imagined by the middle-aged to be a widespread phenomenon - one which makes people like him feel comfortable. These girls may be coming up at a rate of knots, but they are still a mess underneath.

Meanwhile, young women like myself are being done a disservice. We have good careers, mortgages, tax returns, viewpoints; there is more to us than our love lives. But we are left to conclude that it would be less controversial for us to drop our knickers in public than to expose the odd brain cell.

Readers of confessional columns are left with the impression that the way to succeed, if you are young, female, intelligent and want to write, is to broadcast your own failures. You are somehow much less threatening - much more likeable - when putting yourself down. Perhaps I just don't get the joke. But before I am accused of humourlessness, let me ask one question: how many young men do you see writing the same stuff?

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