For some reason, we’re all talking about what young women should (or, more accurately, should not) write. Specifically, the topic is about personal writing in the media. Young woman has had some (usually horrible) experience and she wants to write about it. There’s an entire genre of writing about personal trauma. A subset of the genre is writing about somebody else’s trauma: the author knows somebody who’s been assaulted, for example, so they’ll write a column about the nature of assault. Another subset is things written by a person who’s experienced something that people generally think would be traumatic but was actually empowering and made them the strong person they are today.
For the past decade, we’ve been subjected to its antithesis: people (usually older women) writing columns chastising younger writers for being narcissistic and writing about their own pain. It fits into an overarching narrative about how older generations are permitted to be narcissistic, but younger generations are not permitted to be narcissistic. You have to earn your narcissism through destroying an economy, I guess.
For a month or two, I’d meant to sit down and write some reviews of a number of books I’ve read recently. I’ve slowly turned into the kind of reader who finds the time to read a book, but not the time to write up what I’ve taken away from a book. I have become an overall word-consumer rather than a word-producer. Perhaps this is for the best. Maybe we could all do with a lot fewer words from me. On the other hand, I have exercise books filled with notes about really great books that I’ve read. They pile up around the place and become just as enjoyable (for me) to skim through quickly as it is to revisit the original. Sometimes it’s more enjoyable because I can spot errors that younger, stupider Mark made that contemporary, sensible Mark would never make in a thousand years.
Anyway, the point of that narcissistic paragraph about what a great reader I am is to point out that I’ve been reading things and the things that I’ve been reading show that the debate about what young women should be writing entirely wrongheaded. It doesn’t matter what you write, so long as it is good.
Let’s start with something that is good. How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green? is a collection of very different essays that revolve around the core question of whether a leftwing voter should prefer to vote Labor or Green. By and large, the essays are very good (there are two essays which are utterly awful), and the variety of writers is clever: academics, politicians, columnists — by bringing together voices from across the spectrum of political rhetoric, the book feels rounded and balanced. Most of the essays are unabashedly partisan, conveying an argument that begins and ends from a particular perspective rather than trying to feign neutrality or impartiality. These are essays from the trenches, as it were. The puzzle of the book is whether it achieves anything: would the swinging progressive voter be more influenced one way or the other after reading this book? If anything, the book gives the impression that the differences between the parties are, as a matter of historical accident rather than as a matter of ideology or pragmatism, irreconcilable. So choose your poison, progressives: Labor or Greens.
The worst thing I’ve read this year was Chris Berg’s The Libertarian Alternative. It is a failure of a book on so many levels: the arguments are sloppy, the prose is clumsy, and it is thoroughly, thoroughly vapid. The key problem is that Berg doesn’t know how to write, think, or argue. The result is a book of mini-polemics for nobody in particular. Is this a call to the faithful? Is the intended audience supposed to be libertarians who already think that a libertarian government would be wise? If so, the sermon-chapters about the great virtues of libertarianism are a waste of time. Is the intended audience supposed to be people who don’t think libertarianism offers anything intellectually serious? If so, this book is going to convince them that they’re correct. Berg’s habit is to whitewash all major flaws in his own argument, while crucifying flaws in alternative arguments for minor quibbles. So you might think that Alfred Deakin was a great and intelligent leader… but actually he had some fairly awful opinions (that were based on the racist era in which he lived) and so really he is very terrible and bad. Meanwhile, William Hearn — who had crazy, racist views out of place even in his own time — is really not all that bad, and actually don’t forget ‘the progressive movement’s much clearer culpability’ (actual quote). This style of reasoning flows through every chapter; it is exhausting. Berg has no ability to critique his intuitions, and his grasp of political philosophy is embarrassing. His citations read like an undergraduate essay: ‘In his great book… In his seminal text… In a 1970 paper…’ This is a stupid book for stupid people. It’s less satisfying than even Russell Brand’s Revolution.
Martin McKenzie-Murray’s Murder Without a Motive is a true crime book. I hate true crime as a genre. I have no interest in reading about crimes when I could instead be reading about something uplifting. This presents a problem for a review: how can I distinguish the parts of the book which are bad from the parts of the book which reflect a genre of literature that I just hate? We could instead look at the parts of the book which subvert the genre: MMM is writing about a murder of a girl from his perspective. We are given an insight into his experiences working through what happened, meeting family members, &c. But I’m never really interested in MMM as a narrative of the events, and I find him to be a frustrating guide through the story. The book was universally praised by the mainstream literati — the same people who seem to love gritty realism, truth, and honesty in their literature (so pedestrian). So if that’s your bag, you will enjoy this book. If you hate that kind of thing, this won’t convince you otherwise.
Let us now return to the start of the post. Why don’t we hear the same sort of voices telling young writers to stop writing pop-politics? Australia has an oversupply of non-fiction, and most of it is extremely substandard. Berg’s book, for example, ought not to have been published. Gender, of course, plays a large part in this conversation: everybody loves policing women. Why didn’t we hear the same voices telling MMM that crime writing is terrible and that he should spend his time writing something else?
We do not live in an age of criticism. If anything, we hate critics. Who is anybody else to tell me what is good and what is bad? People who read my review of The Libertarian Alternative will no doubt point to sales, or say that they subjectively enjoyed the book, or diagnose me with some bias against the book (I went in with extremely low expectations and yet I was still disappointed). We are forbidden from interrogating literature to see what works, what doesn’t work, to see how people are doing innovative things, and to see how people are reviving old methods. This is dismissed as mere academic triviality rather than serious creative energy. If you don’t like something, don’t read it, change the channel, block and report.
And yet some things are beyond taste. I consider How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green? to be largely a success not because I agree with its contents (I don’t: I’m conservative), but because it does a very good job of presenting serious engagement with a question from a series of perspectives. I dislike an entire genre (crime writing) but can entertain the possibility that people enjoy it. I look forward to reading some crime writing that does something so innovative in the space that it engages people for whom crime writing is a non-thing.
The criticism of the personal writing has not come from any principled space. The criticism has largely been of the kind similar to my dismissal of crime writing. This or that older person hates narcissism and sees it everywhere in personal writing. They try to link this personal dislike with some kind of general message about the marketplace of ideas — selling trauma for clickbait, for example — but really it’s just censorious fuddy-duddyisms.
In truth, it doesn’t matter what you write, so long as it is good. Sure, a lot of personal writing that passes in mainstream press is very bad, but name a genre of writing that passes in the mainstream press that isn’t bad? There’s certainly a larger volume of terrible opinion writing, and yet people tend to leave the opinion writers alone.
Personal writing has a particular kind of problem: it is critic-proof. Telling a person that their personal writing is bad is practically impossible. While most of my friends who play in this space are quite good at it, when somebody has written something that’s tanked, it is extremely awkward. And often it tanks for entirely impersonal reasons: ‘Sure, you retold this story of your trauma in a competent way, but you haven’t completed the task of writing: to make some sort of argument.’ But nobody wants to hear that after they’ve bared their soul to hundreds of random readers.
But does that mean it shouldn’t be written? No. And it doesn’t mean that the genre of writing should be discouraged on principle. The one piece of advice I’d give people who want to write a personal piece is to outline what sort of criticism they’d permit to be raised, and from whom.
This has wandered a bit. I become more rambly when I’m trying to be careful not to inadvertently offend.
The criticism of personal writing is dumb and unfounded. We should be criticising bad writing — the writing that fails to achieve some higher purpose. We should always ask why particular genres of writing exist. Part of why personal writing exists, no doubt, is to make some subjects more comfortable to discuss — loss, grief, trauma, perversion, and love. And that then gives us some measure by which we can imperfectly distinguish the good from the bad.
As part of this journey, I said that we live in a critic-free age. The dumb and unfounded attacks on personal writing over the past few weeks have shown us that we really need to step up our criticism game. What is the value of criticism if it cannot advance an argument beyond: ‘Young people are narcissists’?