The first-person singular woman

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The study of newspaper readership published yesterday by Women in Journalism certainly produced a few whopping non-surprises. The idea that men are avid for news about sports and cars, while women go more for fashion and health, will hardly make anyone gulp. Nor (alas) will the suggestion that women offer a warmer and more "humanising" view of the world than the icy, neutral, inhuman gaze that characterises male journalism - that is no more than a well-worn gender-war stereotype.

But if the survey only confirmed that these cheerless marketing caricatures (girls like human-interest weepies; boys like engines and stock market data) still dominate many people's thinking, it also threw up one intriguing suggestion. Women's key contribution to the language of the contemporary newspaper, it found, lay in the use of the first person. Instead of the frosty post of objectivity - a patriarchal gimmick, at best - women were creating a space for the subjective voice, for that single, once-redundant letter: I.

In one sense, it seems insulting to cite the I-word as women's biggest gift to modern journalism: the truth is, they are at last entering into all areas: news, finance, law, even war. And not before time. So the bigger question is whether women's fluency in the first-person is something that they should, on principle be celebrating. It can easily sound, if you see such writing merely as a kind of egocentric waffling, like a slur. On most newspapers what-I-did-at-the-weekend lifestyle columns are quite soft and junior slots, at best light relief: one of the reason women do so much of it is that those are the assignments they are handed; another is that they are a relatively cheap way to fill the expanding sections.

So women get to write larkishly about the queue at Tesco while their tough male colleagues are flown on hazardous assignments overseas, where they hang around in the drizzle for hours waiting for a press officer to read a prepared statement - a man's job if ever there was one. One might have expected from Women in Journalism a strongish tendency to resent rather than celebrate the pigeon-holing tendency to deploy women chiefly in home'n'hearth areas of the newspaper. Possibly the saddest assumption the survey fails to question is that people wish to read only what relates to their own lives. That is a marketing idea opposed to the old thought that readers - men and women alike - might be interested to read about something beyond themselves and new.

On the other hand, it certainly does seem to be the case that women are on better terms with the first-person pronoun than men. All of our newspapers give plenty of space to women to write ("please be as personal as you like") about their boyfriends, and their babies, their jobs, their diets, their illnesses, their pleasures and their sorrows. As with any genre, it produces works that are both brilliant and, um, less than brilliant. Some writers manage to make personal life - so long ignored by newspapers - seem properly intriguing and profound. Others inevitably fail. Both, though, are participating in an emphatic change in the whole enterprise of newspaper publishing: surrounded by quicker, shinier news machines, modern papers aspire to being daily magazines. They are no longer merely sturdy providers of facts on maritime flows and public announcements; they are something diverting to read on the train.

There are other reasons why women writers might take to the first person more easily than their bashful male colleagues. This one, for one, automatically flinches away from it: for many men "I" is above all an ironic word. Perhaps that is because a generation of women has come of age that believes the personal to be political - politics isn't just what President Clinton told Tony Blair last night: it's what the dentist said in the waiting room last week, or what the twins got up to on the Underground. Women are perhaps quicker to see what happens to them as emblematic of a bigger social picture. And the whole unbelievable-but-true grammar of many women's magazines has tutored a large number of writers in the ways of self-examination - however inventive.

It remains hard, though, to see the first person as a distinctly feminine voice. There is a larger trend towards the first person in both women and men, based on the popular perception that our own is the only voice we can really trust. Ours is the Freudian century - we are pretty sure that the meaning of life lies, if anywhere, within: we are what we feel, not what we know or can find out. And the first person is in any case a very natural form: it is the voice of everyday life, the one we use in conversation and in letters, in interviews and on the phone.

It is a commonplace among publishers these days that memoirs are just as saleable (if not more so) than fiction: they are direct, personal and seem candid compared to the tricky evasions of most novelists. It is easy enough to carp at this, as if it were driven by something like a cult of authenticity, and it is indeed true that in borrowing so many of the blurry devices of fiction, the memoir risks becoming just as impressionistic and unbelievable as any novel. But the first person remains a gripping mode of address. Ironically, it is one that the narrators of novels have borrowed for centuries.

Actually, of course, the movement towards the first person has a long history: it is at least 200 years old. The first great autobiographer, Rousseau, insisted in the opening sentence of his amazing Confessions that his task - self-revelation - had no precedent and would have no imitator. He was certainly wrong on the latter point. Within a few years, Wordsworth was tracing the formation of a poetic sensibility through childhood recollections, and the entire Romantic movement went on to trumpet the virtues of self- inquiry. In our century, a memoir is one of the most endearing aspects of any worthwhile literary career: Joyce, Proust, Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy, Doris Lessing ... the list is a long one.

The modern twist is that you no longer need to be famous, or even old to write about yourself. One might have thought that satire such as this newspaper's own Bridget Jones might be letting some of the air out of the tyres of self-worship. But maybe not. The proper study of mankind, as the old saying goes, is me.