Liz Jones and I have so much in common, chiefly that we have both documented our lives for national newspapers – her for the Mail, me for the Guardian. Our styles are quite different, though, at least gauging from reactions on social media. My sporadic blogs elicit few shares or comments, whereas it seems that every Sunday, the Twitter commentariat is livid about Jones’s latest missive at Mail Online (and trying to express their outrage without linking to it and so boosting its advertising revenue). Several controversies stick in my mind, particularly those where Jones revealed particularly intimate details about her life, or when she misjudged the tone in first-person reports on individual or international tragedies.
Although Liz Jones and I came to it via different backgrounds (she wrote on fashion, editing the Sunday Times Style section and Marie Claire, whilst I covered experimental film and literature for magazines you’ve never read), we are both “confessional” journalists. She has been far more successful than me, or anyone else in Britain – if you look up “confessional journalism” online, Jones crops up repeatedly amongst the first few hits – so naturally I wanted to talk to her about the peculiar ethical dilemmas of the form.
Confessional journalists usually aim to offer insight into emblematic but individual experiences, sometimes pressured by editors to entertain or provoke (a strange contract, parodied here, brilliantly, by Chris Morris). It relies on the writer being honest, and being perceived as such: the second that the reader thinks s/he is embellishing, or inventing, the edifice collapses. People defending Jones point out that few others are as open; certainly, I can’t imagine another journalist who would admit to stealing a lover’s sperm in an attempt to become pregnant. When I read it, convinced by its level of detail, I considered the zero sum game of trying to shock: if Jones wanted to continue driving traffic to Mail Online like this, she would have to keep topping this anecdote, without stretching her (unusually elastic) boundaries of credulity past breaking point.
Combine this pressure to document unimaginable experiences, then, with the realisation that you have put yourself in a position where everything that happens to you is potential copy and things become weird, psychologically. What can or should you withhold? What can or should you do if your life just doesn’t generate sufficiently interesting moments?
I agreed to write about transsexual living without knowing exactly what it would entail, and at points I found myself wishing that my gender would complicate my life more than it did. I had fleeting thoughts about putting myself in situations that might be more difficult than the safer ones I’d sought, hoping to expose more about contemporary prejudice – and generate more dramatic copy. Soon, I realised what a disgustingly privileged attitude this was, before reading about transsexual blogger Mike Penner/Christine Daniels of the LA Times and seeing the tragic consequences (explained here) of publicly detailing a life that became too painful to live, let alone share.
One of my favourite discussions around the ethics of contriving situations in order to write about them came in Jonathan Coe’s biography of English avant-garde author B. S. Johnson, who asserted that a novel’s content should always be drawn from its creator’s own life: “Telling stories is telling lies” was Johnson’s mantra. In Trawl, one of his best works, the narrator’s stream of consciousness describes life on a shipping trawler. Johnson worked as a teacher, but spent three weeks on the Northern Jewel to gather material. He was upset that its crew dubbed him “the pleasure-tripper” but it’s unsurprising that he found such resentment – delving into your own neuroses is one thing, using those around you in a narrative over which only you have control is another.
Jones has attracted far more opprobrium than Johnson, or me. She has had a bullet through her letterbox, having aggrieved the people of Exmoor, was unable to sign with any High Street bank (or even a private one without a confidentiality agreement) and barred from her local pet shop. Journalism necessarily draws on the fabric of everyday lives – usually other people’s – but traditionally, this means public figures, with a tacit, often problematic understanding that occupying such roles subjects them to such scrutiny, fairly or unfairly.
It’s hard to say where the line between public and non-public figures sits, but wherever it is, “confessionalism” frequently pulls people across it, without their consent. In hindsight, I was lucky not to alienate anyone important to me, particularly the NHS services facilitating my sex reassignment treatment – another structural problem that I didn’t really consider when I fell into the act of first-person writing.
No wonder, then, that Jones told The Observer’s Rachel Cooke that “I wouldn’t recommend [confessional journalism] to anyone”. I often feel the same way, so I’m intrigued about where our conversation might go. Then, swiftly, the email comes: Liz has other commitments and will not be able to talk to me. Perhaps it’s for the best, as we’d both be more aware than most that each may not write positively about the other.
If I’ve learned one thing from “confessional” journalism, it’s that sharing your issues with an audience, imagined or real, is easy, as long as you constantly consider your position on its moral challenges (or just disregard them). Forming nourishing relationships with individual people, face to face, is far harder, and as I spend yet another evening alone, looking wistfully at the lists of Twitter followers and Facebook friends who’ve come to me via my writing, I wonder whether I’ve confessed too little, or too much.