1. I haven’t read Leslie Jamison’s new book of essays The Empathy Exams, but even if the slew of reviews are only half right, it’s an amazing book. This past weekend, Jamison had an essay in the Guardian talking about confessional writing and how it was not in fact a primary venue for narcissism but an arena for so much more. Even though I haven’t read her book, it struck me as an odd argument to make; we seem indisputably awash in personal confessional writing. This is not to disparage it. Confessional writing, like writing of the nonconfessional sort, can be both excellent and not. It all depends. As a mode of writing it seems currently in very little need of defense. The essay struck me almost as an attempted high-art rescue of confessional writing, a gentrification of an allegedly seedy neighborhood.
2. I read this in light of recent mental chewing of a different, much-praised essay book, Bluets by Maggie Nelson, which I finished still wanting to like much more than I actually did.*
3. Maggie Nelson, according to her jacket bio, is most often classified as a poet. The book is divided into 240 numbered sections, most of which are less than a page in length. These sections total 95 pages.
4. I should say that I am not against numbered brief sections nor am I against essays that read like poems or vice versa.
5. Here’s how the book begins:
1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.
6. This beginning is indicative: the conversational tone that surges to stylization and heightened poeticism, the performance of her thinking as though it were a confession, information she is pretending to confess.
7. Nelson really likes the color blue, finds basically a religious soothing in its myriad appearances in her life. This might seem odd but hardly amounts to a confession. It might be rather a slightly askew preoccupation with religious or spiritual undertones, or at least undertones of the meaningful, but those undertones are not audible here. She tries to dress up a relatively banal personal preoccupation as hidden, private wisdom expressed at great psychic expense. But it’s just her riffing on the color blue.
8. Perhaps what I’m really trying to say is that I wish the book took itself less seriously.
9. The effect of the short numbered sections is an agglomeration of riffs. Some topics covered include: a friend who has been paralyzed by an accident, never described; memories of a recently departed lover; scholarly snippets from previous writers on the color blue; her accumulation of blue objects and moments in a lifetime of being consistently moved by the color blue.
10. I wish I could say this added up to something or that it satisfactorily didn’t add up to something. I wish I could say it was provocatively fractured.
11. What this quickly leads to is a kind of faux confession, confession as performance and rhetorical mode, rather than any information actually being confessed. And faux confession is basically a form of bragging, a type of willfully glamorous information offered strictly to impress the reader.
12. The two main relationships in the book — the paralyzed friend and the departed lover — feel opaque. For example, the sections about her friend feel like bids for seriousness, but the contrast between her friend’s paralysis and her own preoccupation with the color blue undermines her color enthusiasm. It makes Nelson seem trivial, and it makes her friend seem like she was used as a rhetorical device, as a ballast for our narrator’s serious whimsy. Here’s an example:
119. My friend was a genius before her accident, and she remains a genius now. The difference is that these days it is nearly impossible to discount her pronouncements. Something about her condition has bestowed upon her the quality of an oracle, perhaps because now she generally stays in one place, and one must go unto her. Eventually you will have to give up this love, she told me one night while I made us dinner. It has a morbid heart.
The high lyricism of “go unto her” on first reading seems deft and complex, but on a second reading seems enormously callous — as if the friend is being mocked for the sake of a poetic conceit.
13. Likewise, the central relationship with the unnamed man that provides the closest thing to a through-line in the book. It’s here where the book is interestingly confessional and interestingly contemporary in its confessionalism. Nelson is frank about the sexual satisfaction she experiences with her lover. She revels in the sex between them, and on the one hand it is bracing to read a woman narrator disclose her pleasure like this under no veil of shame, under no societally constructed architecture of landing Mr. Right by the end of the movie, etc. There is simply the self-renewing mystery of her own desire. But as the confessions increase without any compensatory revelations about her or him or the texture or context of the relationship as a whole, aside from the sporadic but great sex, the confessions take on a different light. Again, it all starts to sound like a kind of bragging. Here is an example:
116. One of the last times you came to see me, you were wearing a pale blue button-down shirt, short-sleeved. I wore this for you, you said. We fucked for six hours straight that afternoon, which does not seem precisely possible but that is what the clock said. We killed the time. You were on your way to a seaside town, a town of much blue, where you would be spending a week with the other woman you were in love with, the woman you are with now. I’m in love with you both in completely different ways, you said. It seemed unwise to contemplate this statement any further.
14. By mentioning this aspect of the book, I do not mean to judge Nelson in some kind of moralistic, nanny-pants way. What I am interested in is the cumulative rhetorical effect. What’s more, if this we’re a piece of fiction we might interpret this one-sided portrait of a relationship as interestingly flawed; that is, we might be tempted to judge the narrator for thinking of the character in this way or to interpret her myopia. But since it’s purportedly an essay, it seems like Nelson is simply being willfully obtuse. That either Nelson shares this seemingly shallow appreciation of other people (doubtful) or that the presentation of herself has gotten out of her authorial control.
15. Theory: it seems that confessional writing only really works when the author is fully willing to exploit herself and her friends and neighbors. Any kind authorial reticence, out of politeness or fear, cripples the memoir, turns it into a narcissist’s cave where we’re watching wall projections. To make it a really riveting piece of writing, you still have to go outside the self; you have to transgress against all the other people to make them characters.
16. Phillip Lopate wrote in an essay a few years ago about how his students were basically turning their personal nonfiction pieces into a type of short story where they let versions of themselves pretend to be stupid in order to make the stories more “dramatic.” That is, they dumbed down their own intelligence to turn their essays into a kind of fiction, while still calling them essays. Essays, if they are to mean anything, are the full-flowing tide of one’s intellect, not strategically dammed for dramatic effect. The very premise of an essay, or a piece of personal nonfiction, is that one is not unnecessarily dramatizing what happened, but dealing with what actually happened, as close as possible, and when what actually happened is obscured for some reason, such as the identity of a lover, that the hiddenness be dealt with as frankly as possible.
17. A counterargument: All of this is on purpose. That is, Nelson is deliberately constructing this authorial persona for Bluets. A few months ago, Will Wilkinson wrote a really wonderful post** about the “implied author” in fiction and how this relates to an author’s persona in nonfiction as well, how nonfiction authors inevitably construct slightly exaggerated versions of themselves, and that we, as readers, should be totally familiar with this move; comedians do it all the time. Seinfeld in Seinfeld is not really Seinfeld. So I’m not trying to be a rube in misunderstanding Nelson’s moves. But in that case, I can’t figure out why Nelson would portray herself this way — why she would, in effect, make herself appear shallow. I realize that hand-in-hand with adopting a persona, nonfiction narrators often degrade themselves — becoming more obtuse, more curmudgeonly, more daft, more neurotic, etc. — as a way to humble themselves before the reader. And again: that’s fine. It reminds me in a way of Jonathan Franzen’s nonfiction; he often portrays himself as a smarty-pants jerk and then ironizes that depiction in a way that seemingly attempts to absolve himself of being a smarty-pants jerk or to make us see that he understands this about himself, but the whole procedure turns into a failure of irony and a failure of authorial control. Jerk will out. It’s akin to listening to a humorless person tell you joke after joke.
18. Re: the Jamison editorial: The tendency in confessional writing to turn into a kind of arms race of trauma. I think this is why we get fake Holocaust memoirs. It’s the ultimate trauma — world history’s transgressions made personal or “relatable.”
19. Whereas in fiction the reader is encouraged to empathize with the character in spite of their differences, in this kind of confessional nonfiction the trauma becomes a solder between author and reader, so that the exchange of readerly trust becomes a form of identity politics: I get you because I am like you. You “represent” me and my troubles. This is empathy as demography.
20. Can you empathize with confessional nonfiction writing if you can’t “relate” to the trauma? Does it all come down to how well everything is depicted in language? That is, to good writing? But tell me again what exactly is the definition of good writing?
21. I’m going to stop writing now before I am tempted to make a definitive point or discuss reality television, whichever may come first.
*I would also simultaneously like to recognize a counter-feeling of not really caring much what my own opinion is re: a book I read. In short, I’ve grown tired of liking books or disliking books. Or, if you prefer, “liking” them. My own opinions feel stale, not to be trusted.
**Seriously. Just go read it. It’s wonderfully well articulated and clarifying and much better than this paragraph-bingo.