I caught part of a story on the BBC radio hour this morning (fancy! special! look at me!) about female British writers who are upset because they are constantly assigned stories where they must “bare-all,” literally and figuratively. They are referring to the “soul-baring confessional,” the “particular form of feature writing” the relies on “fem-humiliation” and “cruelly exposes and eats away at your professionalism,”  which is what some writers feel they are only being asked to write, or is they only thing they’ll be able to sell.

I couldn’t find the show on line, but I did find the article that must have inspired it, from The Guardian, which is where all these rapid fire quotes are from. It’s by Jill Parkin, a journalist with 30 years experience.  She says this:

If you’re not a celebrity, commissions are harder than ever to come by since the credit crunch, but not if you can find something weird or shameful about yourself to write up. The confessional is a better seller than an interview because you’re offering a direct peephole view to an audience increasingly hooked on “reality”.

I’ve been a journalist for 30 years and for most of that time a good part of my livelihood has been writing columns, comments and first-person humour pieces for the sorts of features pages that are becoming increasingly hard to write for. Traditional feminine self-deprecation is part of the territory; it’s where a lot of the humour and the empathy comes. But there has always been a line beyond which we weren’t expected to go, a balance between good copy and self-respect.

But in the last couple of years we have been asked to write some toe-curling stuff, especially about our bodies. It’s mainly in the tabloids, but it appears in the upmarket titles too. Editors no longer want my shorthand or my interviewing skills, or even my way with words. They want my body and soul, two things I’m not used to hawking.

Before the commission that finally prompted me to write this piece, I have witnessed a shift over the past 18 months, perhaps in tandem with the popularity of reality TV programmes. One really good journalist, about 15 years younger than me, now seems pigeonholed as the fat writer. She’s told us how she wakes up with chocolate all over her bed from gorging herself the night before; we’ve heard how in desperation she took a weight-loss drug that gets rid of fat through defecating; and we have had – recently running in the Daily Mail – a weight loss contest between her and another overweight woman journalist. The commissioning editors must like that one – it’s almost as good as women mud-wrestling or a wet T-shirt competition.

These are not things that men are ever asked to do. Body hatred is the main staple of women’s confessionals at the moment, but it’s not the only one. In a short space of time I read features by one woman writer on how she had a schoolgirl affair with her married teacher, her 20 years of therapy and battle with alcoholism, and a truly worrying piece on how she tracked old acquaintances through Friends Reunited to settle old scores.

I hope Parkin’s frustration will inspire some serious debate about the topic, and I hope it comes from all sides.  Women like to share stories about humiliation, lost, frustration, fear and “gross” body stuff, and we shouldn’t take away from the brave and talented writers who cover that territory. But there’s a problem if that’s what women are primarily being asked to write, and it’s a problem if that’s the type of writing the public desires most. Writers shouldn’t force themselves to experience things for the sake of a good story and turn journalism into some sort of voyeuristic paradise that models what clutters the television. We want reality, but reality that isn’t contrived.  Remember that?    

Based off of Parkin’s article, this seems to be more of a problem in Britain.  Then again, I don’t read what she refers to as “tabloids” (not what we think of as tabloids) or a lot of women’s magazines.  The junk reading that rots my brain is actually written by men (I get my fix via the internet) and much of the good reading is written by women.  Some of it is confessional, but not in a humiliating way.  I am excited for the women I read to respond to this.

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