Manifesto for Confessional Journalism

1. The duties of the confessional journalist are to entertain and inform.

First presented at the Animamus Art Salon at Brixton East, London, on Sunday 14 October 2012.
In the age of the internet, you should aim to encourage comments, generating an enlightening discourse around your work. (If you write with sufficient verve, you should be able to avoid swathes of inexplicably angry people queuing up to hurl abuse. Or, at least, these won’t be the defining voices.) Failing this, aim to get hits – your publication’s advertisers will thank your editors, who will thank you, often through further commissions.

You should not encourage voyeurism, however, and trying to whip up controversy around your work by stoking up mobs of angry liberals on Twitter is undignified. The saying “All publicity is good publicity” is incorrect and corrosive, and there is space for a good confessional journalist to make a name for him/herself by finding the person who first said this (as nobody has taken ownership of it), digging up the corpse and throwing rocks at it.

2. The confessional journalist must always be honest.

Readers follow confessional journalists because they want an insight into experiences that differ from their own, or a framework for understanding or sharing experiences that they are currently undergoing, or may undergo. You should never be tempted to embellish your story in the pursuit of hits, nor should you contrive experiences for copy, for example by skydiving when you have no inclination to do so, or spending weeks on a fishing trawler for no reason other than to document your experiences.

Remember that everything that happens to you is potential copy, and be prepared for adverse psychological responses to this conflation of your public and private life. Be careful not to be unnecessary cruel to those around you, nor to put them in compromising personal or professional circumstances through your writing.

3. The confessional journalist must not be boring.

The following subjects are boring: the rearing of children; the fortunes of English football clubs that regularly qualify for the Champions League, and your following of them; Samantha Brick; amusing cats; the origins of Stockport as a market town; British popular music, 1955-1977, and 1994 to the present; clothes which do or do not look good on you; heterosexual intercourse, unless described by Liz Jones and involving the unorthodox disposal of prophylactics; unamusing cats; and the Champions League. This list is peculiarly British: you may wish to replace some (or all) of these entries with those relevant to your own country. Modern word processing technology allows this.

4. The confessional journalist must not depoliticise or trivialise journalism.

Confessional journalism, like all journalism, should aim to speak truth to the contemporary world about shared experiences and the systems that shape them. You are doing this in the first rather than third person. Woodward and Bernstein would not have written about their breakfasts, and neither should you. This is what social media is for, as anyone who’s ever watched a hilarious British comedy panel show can tell you.

5. The confessional journalist must not be a theorist.

More accurately, the confessional journalist should not appear to his/her editor or reading public to be a theorist. You may play games of Theoretical Buckaroo with your editors, whereby you challenge yourself to lever as much theory or social criticism into your articles as you can without him/her asking you to rewrite your copy.

If you only use the ideas of one theorist, it should be Guy Debord, particularly his concept of the détournement of pre-existing aesthetic elements, which aimed to ‘turn expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself’. Any subject, especially the boring subjects listed above, can and must be approached in this way. Marx, Freud and Nietzsche are your friends, as are Judith Butler and Hélène Cixous. The confessional journalist must never be influenced by Ayn RandFrancis Fukuyama, or Friedrich Hayek. Do not be uncritical of Valerie Solanas or other second wave feminists, approach the ideas of  Georges Sorel with caution, and remember that there remain ideologies to the left of liberalism.

6. The confessional journalist must not represent or misrepresent his/her community.

The confessional journalist does not represent anyone other than him/herself, but may struggle under the burden of representation if s/he comes from any minority group, not traditionally heard in the mainstream media. (I speak here from a queer, white, self-flagellating middle-class Marxist perspective. Yours may vary.) Think about the power and the reach of your platform, and how your handling of sensitive subjects may provide solace to those in similar situations, but don’t write about your struggle to represent others. This is graceless.

7. The confessional journalist should not use his/her platform as a form of therapy.

Always ask yourself if the content of your work would be better discussed with a counsellor than with a potentially limitless audience, and guard yourself against any form of narcissism. Never humiliate or sensationalise yourself or others known to you, and do not write anything unkind about your own body, although you may test its limits: think of confessional journalism, and everything else in your life, as a form of performance art. If in doubt, consult the plastic surgery works of Orlan, or the Rhythm works of Marina Abramovi?, in which she placed a number of objects on a table in a room, ranging from roses (with thorns) to a gun and bullets, and invited the audience to use them on her naked body. You may be able to pass off documentation of their re-enactment as your own, at least for long enough to impress an editor or readership.

8. The confessional journalist should not be a careerist.

The confessional journalist should not enter the profession with the aim of appearing on television chat or reality shows. To maintain integrity, you should not sell your stories for exorbitant sums – that would be selfish. Nor should you give them away for free – that sells out younger writers trying to enter the industry. You should earn a nominal fee for each article, and aim only to appear at small literary or journalistic events, or art galleries, before an audience of no more than 25 people.