I am captivated by Liz Jones. In the same way that I’m captivated by Jeff Goldblum as the Brundlefly: the exposure of intimate anatomy to the outside gaze, the impossibility of hiding what’s essentially repellent. She’s fascinating. Only the Brundlefly is flashing his guts because of a tragic teleport accident, and Jones is doing it out of some obscure combination of financial reward and compulsion.
One of the most painful things about Jones is that she seems fairly self-aware that excavating herself professionally has been bad for her personally: she’s lost friendships over her confessional journalism, and it was probably the cause of one of her neighbours deciding to shoot out her letterbox. After that happened, the Mail ran a column by Janet Street-Porter advising Jones to “get a grip, love”. That’s Jones’ own employer, having benefited from Jones’ indiscreet columns antagonising her acquaintances, deciding to push the pellets in a bit further and point out all her failings.
Because – despite the apparently matey premise of Jones’ ongoing features, like the diary column in the glossy Sunday supplement and the Jones Moans item in the detestable Femail – I don’t think that Jones is valued especially as a journalist with a connection to her readers. The kindest letters and comments about her offer pity, but mostly it’s a sort of tabloid charivari, with Jones encouraged to play up the spendthrift spinster aspects of her personality to everyone’s sniggering disdain. She’s the rouged up maiden aunt in an eighteenth-century novel who has to be dragged through the mud by her wig to make everything right.
The centre-spread feature of the Femail supplement is often duplicitous with its subjects, fitting up a first-person account of an experience with a headline and pullquotes that might imply guilt, shame or moral failing. But Jones doesn’t go through this humiliation as a one-off: it’s her trade, and she sucks up scorn twice a week with journalism that offers a weird combination of existential discomfort and epic triviality.
It isn’t just the Mail that hires columnists for the stocks. The Guardian has Tanya Gold. Tanya also writes about the grotesquely personal: the first piece I noticed by her involved tracking down all her ex-boyfriends and telling the excruciating stories of how she vomited on them/cheated on them/drove them out of her life (or they did the same to her). If you had an ex-alcoholic employee who decided to hunt down everyone they’d ever slept with, you’d probably tell them to stop it as soon as you found out. Tanya’s editor paid her to keep going for as long as it took.
And Tanya has been a defender of Liz Jones, inevitably. The way Gold writes it, you’d imagine that Jones has been turning out Ariel bi-weekly, exposing the “agonies of women”. Generalising from “this woman journalist” to “women” is exactly the solipsistic movement that makes confessional writing so horrific. What Jones and her sisters write about is actually a very rarefied, self-sustaining sort of unhappiness that most of their audience will never have the opportunity to inflict on themselves – the unhappiness caused by writing, publicly and persistently, about unhappiness.
© Sarah Ditum, 2010