Yes, Giles Coren is absurdly thin-skinned, but aren't most writers?

The restaurant critic's Twitter "flounce" is typical - writers are just terribly insecure people.

We’ve all been there. You’re merrily pottering away on Twitter, minding your own business, laughing at hilarious Essex lion parodies, when all of a sudden something rather smelly turns up in the @-mentions column.

What happens next? Depending on your mood, you can simply ignore it, write something polite in response, write something angry in response that you’ll regret, or "do a flounce". The web flounce is a time-honoured tradition of pretending you’re so upset you’re going to leave, getting lots of people to tell you you’re lovely and you shouldn’t leave, then leaving... and sheepishly popping your head back around the door a while later, like someone who’s stormed out of a pub but forgotten their coat.

Poor old Giles Coren. The “what I had for dinner” correspondent says he didn’t flounce, and accidentally deleted his account – but he did get a wee bit angry when someone called him (and steel yourselves for a truly abominable insult that will have you reaching for the smelling salts) a “numpty”.

Despite not really liking anything he’s ever written, presented or done, I do have a lot of sympathy for him. Who can say they haven’t misread the tone of what someone else said, overreacted or written something they shouldn’t have done? I know I have; you probably have too.

Then again, Giles hasn’t exactly trodden a delicate path through the lawn without squashing any daisies along the way. He once looked back on his early career, saying: “I wasn’t happy unless jobs were lost, reputations were ruined and ‘closed’ notices were up in the window by the end of the week. I remember reading an interview in the Financial Times with the owner of a restaurant I’d just panned, in which he declared that ‘Giles Coren’s review cost me £150,000,’ and thinking, ‘Is that all?’”

Sounds like some of us can dish out out but can’t take it, then. Giles was so devastated when a sub-editor weakened a feeble joke some years back he sent a stinging missive of petulant complaint which has since passed into legend. One of the first things you learn as a journalist is not to upset the subs – they might wreck one of your weaker jokes, but 19 times out of 20 they’ll save you from looking like a tool. Giles, however, decided to ignore that rule and go nuclear – and guess what? He ended up looking like a tool.

What is it, then, about writers that makes us mimophants – slightly bizarre beings who go trampling into an argument like a rampaging elephant, but curl up like a shy, sensitive little mimosa when we’re subjected to the slightest bit of criticism?

I don’t think it’s just writers, by the way, but creative people in general. Some of them even search for their own name on Twitter, and end up fizzing off expletive-laden tweetbombs at hapless proles – cuddly Simon Pegg, of "used to be funny" fame, couldn’t resist a peek the other night, with disastrous results. When has searching for your own name ever had a happy ending? So you have to wonder, why do they do it, these fragile types?

I think writers (including columnists, and especially bloggers) are the caricature of stand-up comedians: representing a strong persona when they’re up there holding court (on stage or in print), but terribly needy at other times. Most writers have the thinnest of rice-paper-thin skins when it comes to writing a headline, or changing a single word of text; from scribblers at the crappiest little parish pump newsletter to the biggest publications in the world, we are deeply sad individuals who desire constant praise, and magnify even the mildest criticism to a gigantic scale of enormity.

Take comments, for example: most writers don’t read them, unless there’s a gun pointed at their head. Why not? We just can’t take it. The right thing to do is to engage with your readers and try to keep a lively debate going, while encouraging the right kind of commenters who really add something to the discussion... but the easy option is to publish, then run away and hide in a dark corner, waiting for it all to go away. It probably goes to the heart of why we became writers in the first place: the need to communicate to others in a mediated way, because we were too shy, or too awkward, or too introverted, to be able to manage it effectively face to face.

So, I think we should cut Giles a bit of slack. He was a bit rude, I’m sure he’s said sorry (he has said sorry, hasn’t he?) and now he’s back, after having accidentally deleted his Twitter account. It’s not his fault; it’s just that writers are terribly insecure folk, on the whole. RT IF YOU AGREE!

 

Giles Coren's Twitter page.
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Relive your worst experiences for $15 an hour: how confessional journalism exploits women writers

The women’s website Bustle asks its writers to fill out a checklist covering every possible personal angle; it puts a low-market value on their most intimate truths.

Let me tell you about the worst thing that ever happened to me, the most terrible thing I’ve ever done. Let me tell you everything there is to know about me, all the buried markers of self that live under my skin. OK not that one, and I’ll keep that one too. I have to have something left over, after all. Even so, I’ve written about being the May Queen at school, and the time I got flashed in an underpass; about having depression as a teenager, and the unplanned pregnancy that became my son.

Actually, I’ve written about that last one twice: my first successful pitch for a comment piece was a response to anti-abortion comments by the then-influential semi-thinker Phillip Blond. It was a kind of pitch I now refer to now as the “what I think about X as a Y”: what I think about abortion as a woman who had and chose to continue an unplanned pregnancy. Experience is capital, and in 2009, I used it to buy my way into writing.

It’s a standard route for women writers, but not usually as formalised as it is at women’s website Bustle, which (as Gawker reported last week) asks its writers to fill out a checklist covering every possible personal angle: “I see a therapist”, “I’ve had group sex (more than three)”, “I used to have a Fitbit but I don’t now”.

Every bit of what you are, granulated and packaged for easy dispersal through a range of stories. It’s an editorial approach that gives rise to a weird, impersonally-personal tone. “Five Reasons I’m Grateful For My Parents’ Divorce”, chirrups a listicle; “that’s why I tried anal sex in the first place”, trills a gif-heavy piece about the benefits of bumming.

That’s just the shallow end of the confessional genre. The ideal online women’s interest story combines a huge, life-changing disclosure with an empowering message. Like this, from xoJane: “I'm Finally Revealing My Name and Face As the Duke Porn Star” (the last line of that one is: “My name is Belle Knox, and I wear my Scarlet Letter with pride”). Or this, from Jezebel: “On Falling In and Out of Love With My Dad” (which concludes like this: “And to the victims of their abuse, I want to say what I have finally been able to understand myself: that my attraction, and what it led to, was not my fault”).

It’s tempting to think of this blend of prurience and uplift as a peculiar product of the internet, but it’s been a staple of women’s publishing forever: the covers of women’s magazines are full of lines like “Raped for 50p and a biscuit!” and “The groom who went ZOOM!” about a jilted bride, exactly as they were when I used to sneak them from my aunt’s magazine rack to read them as a child. The difference is that, in the trashy weeklies, there’s no pretence that trauma is the overture for a career. You get paid for your story, and someone else writes it up. The end.

At Bustle, the rate apparently runs to $90 for a six-hour shift. That feels like a low market value to put on your most intimate truths, especially when the follow-up success you’re investing in might never materialise. The author of the father-daughter incest story for Jezebel told a Slate writer that, despite the huge web traffic her confessional received, her subsequent pitches were ignored. Her journalistic career currently begins and ends with her very grimmest experience.

“Everything is copy” is the Nora Ephron line. But when she said it, she didn’t intend the disclosure economy we live in now. For Ephron, “everything is copy” meant claiming control: “When you slip on the banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on the banana peel, it’s your laugh. So you become the hero, rather than the victim of the joke.”

Does the aspiring writer plucked from an editor’s checklist to retail her own Worst Thing Ever get to call the banana skin her own?

The Bustle checklist suggests not. “Don’t put anything on here you don’t want to write about,” it stresses, before adding, “that said, you can always say ‘no’ . . . You might be too busy when an editor approaches you about possibly writing an identity post, or simply not interested, and that’s okay! We won’t be mad!”

Ticking the box basically puts you in a position of assumed consent, but which hopeful young woman would dare to set her boundaries too close when an editor tells her this could be good for her career? (Yes, I know this sounds a bit like a story of sexual harassment. Funny, that.)

So many confessionalist pieces of writing tell stories about women having their limits overridden. Rape and coercion. Abuse and assault. Being talked over and ignored. But the logic of the perpetual confession journalism machine is the same: everything about a woman should be available to use, nothing a woman has to say is valid without a personal claim to authority, repackage their guts as shiny sausages and call it an “identity piece”.

Women writers shouldn’t be waiting for permission to say no. We need to tell our stories on our own terms, and we need to set better terms than $15 an hour and the hope of some exposure. The worst thing that ever happened to me? It’s mine. I’m keeping it.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.