There is this popular idea that all writing is autobiographical; that any text will always produce evidence of its author. Some readers understand this explicitly and even write about it in books. Much more commonly, the idea is implicit. And, if you don’t believe me, look at nearly any online comments section.
“You wrote that because you hate men” or “you wrote that because you hate women” are two online critiques whose great familiarity shows this tendency to read many works as autobiographical. See also “you wrote that because you want attention”, “you wrote that because you are too emotional/you don’t care enough”, “you wrote that because you are old/young and need to get laid more often/less frequently, you total prude/sloppy whore”.
Such responses are very common and to be a fulltime writer in the present age is to be shoved on to a makeshift psychoanalyst’s couch. As Kath Kenny found when she challenged the usefulness of autobiographical readings and was, even then, diagnosed with insensitivity, or of being the sort of monster who would “deny women’s trauma”. A bit more of that presently.
There are plenty of these readers who implicitly understand all writing as autobiography, never as argument.
For the moment: the thing, whatever it is, that is written is often seen as either incidental to or as the by-product of the self that is saying it. Even if they have not uttered this idea of writing as autobiography to themselves, readers makes their devotion to it plain. “You are a bad person” or “you are a good, inspiring person” are much more prevalent reactions, in both professional and social accounts of writing, than any other. There are plenty of these readers who implicitly understand all writing as autobiography, never as argument.
Then there are those writerly readers, who are often also writers, who have more carefully elaborated the idea of writing as inevitable autobiography. There is this idea that the most any author can ever do is write the self and, as such, is obliged not to obfuscate that fact. You must read all writing for evidence of its author. You must write about your experience, your hyphenate identities and yourself, otherwise, you’re just being dishonest.
This idea is not, by the way, total bollocks. Both the events and the writing of the 20th century demanded a critical look at the idea of “objective truth”, and of the selves who uttered it. A west that saw Vietnam and failed to question the “objective” nature of the foreign policy discourse that helped produce that war would now be an uninhabitable west. Even a non-existent one. We began to think, because we had to, that written truth was not an objective thing. We began to think of truth only as knowledge that had powerfully asserted itself.
(I would direct those who’d like further reading on this important shift to Foucault. However, every time I do something like that, someone writes in the comments “You are only saying that because you are a snob and a wanker”. And I am really trying here not to write an autobiographical text.)
Anyhow. Let’s agree that questioning the objectivity of written works, and other assorted discourse, is a healthy and a necessary and even an urgent task.
There really are some personal horrors better managed for practical reasons in private than via a women’s lifestyle website.
But, let’s think, along with Kenny, that the self might not be the single, or even the preferable, site for such a challenge.
Writing and reading the self has had, and possibly retains, some strategic force. But, accounts of the self, which now dominate news sites and news sites aimed at women in particular, have perhaps begun to be a bit of a public yoke. Even if they once were a more private liberation.
Maybe Your Story was cathartic to write. Maybe Her Story gave you a moment of identification. Even leaving aside the question of the psychological harm such public exchanges could exact on individuals—there really are some personal horrors better managed for practical reasons in private than via a women’s lifestyle website, no matter how in control of their craft their writers are—the assumption that they do good needs to be disputed.
I mean, first-world ladies. We’ve been at this My Personal Struggle caper for a while. And, save for decent royalty cheques, it’s achieved sweet fuck-all. Of course, there are many stories yet to be widely read—among them, accounts by Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people with a disability, those held behind the wire in our nation’s offshore detention shitholes. It is dreadful and reprehensible that these stories have not been told. Which is not the same thing as saying that their telling will change a thing.
There is nothing particularly wrong with intimate published accounts of one’s personal struggle per se. There is nothing particularly wrong with making money from these personal accounts. But, there is something wrong with the uncritical acceptance of the idea that a description of personal trauma or hardship is also a blow for justice.
In most mass contexts…these stories of trauma or of difficult experience have now outlived their political usefulness.
Once, the personal was political. Once, first-person disclosure was a radical attack on history’s objective man of reason. In certain contexts—particularly academic and literary ones where the man of reason identifiably persists—it’s still possible to challenge dominant order with a personal account. But, in most mass contexts—and we would do well to remember that the consciousness raising group to which contemporary first-person trauma writing can trace its origin was not a mass exercise, but a private one undertaken with trusted friends—these stories of trauma or of difficult experience have now outlived their political usefulness.
Strategies for upturning power change with time. They just do. Ask any historian of the Vietnam War. A defensive manoeuvre that worked in battle fifty years ago is not necessarily going to retain its effectiveness today. Don’t come the Sun Tzu with me.
We can arguably say that the accounts of James Baldwin, Malcolm X or even of Germaine Greer made a dent with their often personal force in the material world. But, I do doubt that such narrativised passion functions very well any longer.
Here, by the by, I cannot agree completely with Kenny who looks upon the revolutionary written works of the ‘60s and the ‘70s as less autobiographical than the writing we have today. While it might be true that we have a greater volume of discernibly bad writing—and it is certainly true that we have fewer revolutionary writers, like Baldwin, whom we might defensibly call great—it is not true that there was not a great number of people writing chiefly about themselves. But, that was okay. It worked then. It was radical then. Now, it’s anticipated entertainment.
Again. This is not to say that a particular story about one’s depression or one’s experience of abuse is cynically produced. It’s not even to say that its consumption won’t make many readers feel comfort. It is to say that the confessional form (and I know it’s an old form, but it was once just a sometimes-food, and not, as it is today, a discursive staple) doesn’t work.
Once, personal stories energised people. Now, they entertain and pacify us. Personal stories are now received as situation comedies formerly were. Back in the day, the canned laughter of audiences effectively served to remind viewers of the live experience of shared laughter. Later, it came to just do the laughing for us when we, alone and tired from a day of labour, just couldn’t be bothered. Now, the laugh-track has largely disappeared from sitcoms and the multi-camera, fast-gag format barely survives. It got old. It no longer shocks us into laughter. I suspect that I am not the only reader who detects a similar exhaustion in the first-person political narrative form. It used to do the revolutionary crying for me. Now, it’s kind of gone the way of Charlie Sheen.
First-person accounts have now become a very old, and even potentially destructive, form of power.
To question the current political effectiveness of the first-person account is not to say “your pain doesn’t matter to me”. It is not to say “objective and detached writing is the only thing that works”. It’s not to uphold old forms of power. It’s to point out that first-person accounts have now become a very old, and even potentially destructive, form of power.
As critics of Kenny’s piece have pointed out, we are now reading stories written by people in subjugated identity categories. In one obvious sense, this is a good thing. Of course it’s good that people of colour, for example, now, as the popular cant goes, “have a voice”. Of course it’s good that tertiary educated, white, media class women (moi) need to shut up a bit and make room. But, what I find—and this is not some ugly boast, but a sad statement of fact—is that the conversational room left for people like me in a writing economy overcrowded with personal narratives is one, perversely, of my greater discursive privilege.
Almost all of the time these days, I write about big things. Things bigger than the self. Because there is no real market demand for writing a self that is as privileged as mine, I have turned to writing about the systems and the policies that work to form selves. Colleagues who have more write-able identities and problems—and these are often people who are far more erudite than me—tell me that they are just unable to make a dollar, either within academia or popular media, if they do not talk about their pain. Many women of colour, for example, are expected to write the self.
Women of colour who do not write chiefly about the self are more likely to be found in the margins. This is very frustrating as a reader, especially when I see a young writer like, for example, Amy McQuire, who ought to have a prominent national forum. McQuire is, I don’t know, about twelve or something and performs fucking rings around the writer that I was at that age. Her grasp of theory is impressive and ongoing, but her interest in writing the self seems to be nil.
Perhaps she’d love to write more about her lived experience. I haven’t asked her, so I don’t know. But, I do know that marvellous US academic and popular writer Yasmin Nair—a queer woman of colour, FWIW—powerfully rejects the chance to write the self and, as she has it, is powerfully penalised for it. Nair says, “It’s very difficult, especially in the US, to be a person of color analyzing capitalism. You’re much better off if you simply talk about having experienced it.”
This, to be clear, is in no nasty critique of personal stories. I enjoy reading them and I am very effing pleased when any writer, or labourer, doing it hard can make a living. This is not, in any way, a critique of any of the personal writing performed by women of colour.
It is a critique of the primacy of personal writing, whose political usefulness we continue, I think sometimes disingenuously, to overestimate. And it’s a critique of the hand-me-down gesture by privileged white writers who, it seems to me, are kind of inadvertently saying in offering more “room” to less privileged non-white writers, “Here’s this old thing that I’ve outgrown. It stopped working a while ago, but perhaps you’d like to try it out for a while.” This is the colonist’s guilty gesture.
Beyond all the market politics that demand that certain categories of people write a certain category of self and even beyond Nair’s proposition—which would take another of my wanky 2,000 words to recount—that the ideal neoliberal subject is one who can describe only their pain, there is a stubborn lack of logic at the centre of this idea of autobiography as autonomy.
There’s no winning. It’s all autobiography. It’s all about me, me, me.
When we write only the self, what is eclipsed are the very broad conditions that create that self. If we write, and in this era we do, chiefly of the experience of inhabiting a personal identity category, we necessarily have less time for focus on those broad systems that form those identity categories. Whether we are celebrating or mourning our identities—or, if you prefer, as I often do, our social class—we are turning away from the big stuff that made them. When our individual trauma, or our courage, is recognised, what then? What does the necessarily inspiring first-person account of this indignity or pain achieve? Perhaps just the assurance to the reader that they too can one day write about their indignity and pain, no matter how many multiple subjugated identity categories they inhabit.
I suggest that this is not a very practical program of social reform.
I also suggest that a new, less identity-focused kind of writing is something that we who are interested in social reform need to work toward. And, again, that autobiographical reading and writing have outlived their usefulness.
Oh, fuck it. Someone will probably just say “you wrote that because you are so contrary” in response. There’s no winning. It’s all autobiography. It’s all about me, me, me. There’s no way out of this maze of mirrors. I should have just written about my pain.