Open Secrets: Literature as Gossip in the Digital Age

It’s a great moment in Pedro Almodóvar’s film Todo Sobre Mi Madre: A transsexual woman stands on a stage and explains all the reconstructive and cosmetic surgeries she’s had, one by one, naming prices as she goes. She ends her monologue by telling her audience that “a woman becomes more authentic the more she resembles what she dreams of being.” This woman-who-is-not-actually-a-woman, this construct, is the real femininity toward which all the biological females in the film are striving.

In an age of avatars and digitally altered profile photos, endlessly falsified and therefore perfectible online personas, we are all invited to construct ourselves closer to what we dream of being than what we simply are. Authenticity becomes a slippery and evasive promise, and we too are becoming constructs, selves-that-are-not-actually-ourselves.

Almodóvar’s scene suggests that reality is achieved by anti-reality, that the only way to true authenticity is by means of inauthenticity. Of course, fiction writers have always altered or covered up what is factual in order to reveal what is authentic. But this approach seems at odds with the renaissance of confessional writing, driven in part by the internet and the influence of diaristic blogging. A host of young writers, such as Emily Gould, Stephen Elliot, and Elizabeth Wurtzel, quickly became famous for sharing their most intimate secrets, for getting metaphorically naked in public.

Confessional literature is by no means new. In The Culture of Narcissism, for instance, Christopher Lasch discussed the confessional mode that emerged in the 1960s:

The popularity of the confessional mode testifies, of course, to the new narcissism that runs all through American culture … Instead of fictionalizing personal material or otherwise reordering it, [writers] have taken to presenting it undigested, leaving the reader to arrive at his own interpretations. Instead of working through their memories, many writers now rely on mere self-disclosure to keep the reader interested, appealing not to his understanding but to his salacious curiosity about the private lives of famous people … The writer [often trades] on his own celebrity … filling page after page with material having no other claim to attention than its association with a famous name. Once having brought himself to public attention, the writer enjoys a ready-made market for true confessions.

Autobiographical writing, in the period Lasch describes, became a literature of gossip. But Truman Capote’s famous claim that all literature is gossip has rarely seemed more accurate than it seems today.

Capote did not necessarily mean his remark as an insult. Literature’s undeniable resemblance to gossip illuminates what is most useful about it, what causes literary works to endure. In her 1982 essay “In Praise of Gossip” in The Hudson Review, Patricia Meyer Spacks claims that gossip can function as “healing talk,” treating “the sickness repeatedly described as characteristic of society —anomie, impersonality, rootlessness.” Gossip can heal by personalizing us to one another, de-anonymizing, making us known. Nabokov once described good writing as “a person-to-person call.” Such literature is an intimate act, one person speaking specifically to another and making them feel recognized.

But the desire to be known intimately, in our digital age, quickly blurs into the desire for a new kind of easily achieved celebrity. In the impulsive milieu of the Internet, with its promise of instant publication and countless readers, confessional literature has become a metaphorical striptease, in which more nakedness promises more fame, and the more significant revelatory purposes of literature are lost to the immediate gratification of titillation.

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Fame offers many temptations. There’s a pervasive idea that if you become a celebrity, everyone will instantly become your friend. Fame seems to negate the tedious, daily work of making people value us, love us for some reason. Fame, if we can achieve it, seems to take care of love in one grand gesture, like paying a year’s rent up-front in cash. Daphne Merkin described the desire for fame as a form of vengeance. The “oh, they’ll see!” at the heart of every fame-seeker is what loneliness looks like when it comes out swinging, a strident—and tenuous—bask in hypothetical glory. This promise of microcelebrity as a quick cure for loneliness was what LiveJournal originally offered its users. You could make your diary public, and strangers would read it. And care. And tell you that they cared.

With the pursuit of fame through public confession, the goal of being admired as an artist and the goal of being loved as an individual blur and become one. But it is easier to have a salacious life than to be insightful about it. Lasch condemns writers who ask readers “not for understanding but indulgence … The writer thus attempts to charm the reader rather than convince him, counting on titillation provided by pseudo-revelation to hold the reader’s interest.” The distinction between identity and ability threatens to dissolve in the confessional writer’s work, and the reader can no longer simply admire the craftsmanship of the prose; they must love and pity, or dismiss and dislike, the individual offered.

However, Lasch also acknowledges that confessional writing, when executed well, can be uniquely effective: “The best work in this vein attempts, precisely through self-disclosure, to achieve a critical distance from self and to gain insight into the historical forces, reproduced in psychological form, that have made the very concept of selfhood increasingly problematic.”

The crucial difference lies in using confession not for the selfish purpose of begging to be loved but rather as a means of self-examination, a vehicle in fact to examine the very impulses that make confessional literature problematic. The writer must step back from the false idea of “true confession” and detail the inauthentic means by which public identity is created, as the confessing transsexual in Almodóvar’s film testifies.

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Confessional writing, like gossip, is interesting not when it cleaves to the truth but when it departs from it, transforming petty reportage into an evocation of a larger truth. Spacks seizes on gossip’s relationship to literature: “Gossip,” she states, “supplies the exhilaration of story … By stories … we attribute meaning; by stories we declare the sense made by other people’s experience and by our own.” Gossip and literature are organizational: the act of retelling pours our experiences cleanly into containers. Whether we are gossiping, writing, or shaping our online persona — or all of these at once — in order to be effective we tell lies to suit our own longings, painting the world with each retelling a little less how it is and a little more how we would like it to be.

Gossip at its best is, as Spacks writes, an “enlargement of experience.” Like literature, gossip doesn’t depict life; it translates it. It allows us to experience the pedestrian as absurdly grand, full of symbol and meaning. By expanding our experiences to the size of the symbolic, we have a better chance of comprehending them, of finding useful lessons in them. Untranslated authenticity teaches us nothing.

To accomplish this enlargement of experience, gossip requires the same skill as writing. Gossip executed well has a ritual theatricality to it; its fate hangs not necessarily on what the indiscreet teller knows but on how skilled he is at revelation — the meaning, not the facts. True gossip, useful gossip is well-told lies. When our own lives seem muddy and random, gossip, in the hands of a master, transfigures the everyday into a coherent, transcendent narrative.

Our everyday reality does not unfold with this kind of exalted perfection. But it should. Depression, after all, often feels like a failure of narrative pacing. The longing for narrative is perhaps a secular turning of the religious impulse, the desire to believe that things happen for a reason and that the pattern of our lives is greater than the perceptible mundane.

Given that in our lives, we are more constantly on display than we have ever been before, we need stories about this condition, models to tell the heightened story of our own transformation. Publicized private confessions may be the perfect vehicle for this cultural moment.

But if well-told gossip can raise the pedestrian to the universal, poorly executed gossip drives the universal down to the pedestrian. So it is with writing: Confessional writing, like gossip, can provide a unique opportunity to reflect on selfhood and identity creation. But sloppy writing is a refusal of hope; it denies the day-by-day comfort of narrative; it breaks the promise of coherence. It consigns us to the same numbing mundanity that we already experience too often in the actual unfolding of events, refusing us the tools to elevate them.

Confessional writing has a unique potential for relevancy in the current moment. Like any good gossip, it gives us a vehicle to speak symbolically about a shared aspect of our own experiences by speaking literally about the experiences of others. Perhaps more than ever, public, artificial identity construction is no longer merely the province of artists choosing to work in autobiographical mediums. Online sociality requires that each of us to some degree construct and publicize an autobiographical narrative. Twitter asks for personal confession in accessible sound-bites, and online profiles are artificially sculpted presentations of truth, a kind of plastic surgery using photoshop and selective self-quotation. In an age of avatars and digitally altered profile photos, endlessly falsified and therefore perfectible online personas, we are all asked to construct ourselves closer to what we dream of being than what we simply are. The internet has made gossip a daily, constant necessity. In such a context, confessional literature may offer us a chance to gossip usefully about new condition of identity.