[Guest post] A physical education for Liz Jones

Joel Snape is features editor of Men’s Fitness, and he think Liz Jones is wrong about sport

Firstly, let me say that I think Fatima Whitbread is awesome. Secondly: Liz Jones has written one of those Mail columns where she vacillates between self-pity, uninformed opinions, countrywide psychoanalysis and contradictory statements so fast that you finish reading it confused and vaguely angry. Normally the best thing to do in response to this sort of thing is snort and post something cynical on Twitter, but there were enough echoes of things that I’ve heard normal people say about exercise in it that I thought it was worth responding to properly. Continue reading

Inside out

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

The Liz Jones theory of just war

I’m not saying that Liz Jones is shallow, and spending a week in a burqa is more than I’m willing to do in the name of journalism. For one thing, I’m not going to risk the rickets. But is she absolutely sure that the right to wear a strappy top is so important it should be defended with the full force of the UK’s military? Has she really and completely thought through the politics of invasion?

In Afghanistan, the burka is known as the ‘chadri’; it became common only when the Taliban came to power.

When I think of the young men who have died fighting the Taliban and the calls to end a war that has ‘nothing to do with us’, I think of how I felt in my mobile prison and remember that, for all those women forced to hide their faces and their bodies, their fight is our fight, too.

The night I finally took off my burka, I wanted to put on make-up, spaghetti straps and the highest shoes I own. All week I’d been wearing scent, so compelling was the need to be feminine.

The Mail, “Liz Jones: My week wearing a burka: Just a few yards of black fabric, but it felt like a prison

© Sarah Ditum, 2009

Bragg’s finch

darwins-finches

There’s more to writing about yourself and your relations than brute honesty advocates such as Liz Jones would like to think. ‘Honesty’ isn’t really that awesome: devoutly repeating what you believe to be true is the quickest way of pulping your experience and turning it into paper, but it’s an unreflective sort of introspection. When we think about ourselves and other people, there are multiple mechanisms at work in our brains which tend to act against our telling the truth. Memory is corruptible. We find it hard to accept that we have behaved on ways that go against our beliefs (cognitive dissonance).  We find it easy to attribute positive characteristics to ourselves and negative ones to other people and situations (attribution bias). We are, basically, fucked when it comes to telling the truth.

Which is why fiction is so important. Fiction has a set of rules which let the author and reader separate out experiences, imagine different motivations, play sympathetically at being in situations we’ve never had. And making up stories is a much more powerful way of investigating yourself than embarking on a self-justifying soliloquy. On 6 March, about the same time that the Julie Myerson story was exploding, Melvyn Bragg did an interview with Simon Mayo about his latest work of autobiographical fiction. “The hero, is that you?” asked Simon.

He’s not me. He’s inspired by me, if that’s what you say, inspired by my life, based on the life of my first wife and our daughter and where we lived and what we did, very much so. But it’s not me. And I think there’s been a lot about Darwin going on recently, and everyone knows about Darwin’s finches – that he saw a finch, put very simply, on one island, and the next island along it was a bit different, and the next island a bit different, till in the end it was still the finch, but it wasn’t a finch at all, it was a different bird.

And I think that’s the same about writing autobiographical fiction, which I write. You start by thinking about something in yourself that you want to work through – that’s the finch. By the time you’ve started to write it and shape it and work it, it’s something else – and that’s the fiction. And that’s what I’m doing. There’s no denying that there’s an autobiographical strand to it, I would never dream of doing that, and I think that gives it strength. […] After all, this book is quite long, it’s 500 pages – but what’s 500 pages in 11 years? You select, you invent, there are lots of characters in the book who are totally made up, there are times when the wife concerned is alone – what do I do there? Conversations I can’t remember in the early 60s, of course I can’t. But I want to build up a tension between these two people.

Putting your experiences outside of yourself and into a fictional character is a way of making your own experience an object of study. It’s s0rt of rough control for bias: in fiction, the provisional relationship to reality allows some freedom from the usual crippling distortions, and this freedom lets the writer and the reader get to a more intimate and sympathetic understanding. The differences between the finch on the first island and the finch on the last tells you how the habitat shapes the species: you understand the bird by seeing how it’s been transformed.

“I’ve probably written the word ‘I’ more than anyone else in the world”

jones-and-husband

And yet all that self-exposure couldn’t buy Liz Jones a little self-knowledge. She was on  Today this morning, explaining why the gut-spilling journalism she’s perfected for the Mail is a good thing for readers, writers and newspapers.

Liz Jones on Today 12 March 2009

These are extract’s from Liz’s apology for her mucky furrow of writing:

It seemed to me that a lot of women were going through what I was going through and being a bit dishonest about it.

So, nobly, Liz became the lone speaker of truth for unhappily married middle-class women everywhere.

It helped me to deal with things and to confront things – sometimes I provoked an argument just so I could write about it!

There’s a bit of a difference between “confront” and “provoke”: if you confront something, then it’s an existing state of affairs (ahem); if you provoke something, then you’re causing something to happen. And if Liz was provoking an argument to have something to write about, then it seems likely that these discussions would be focused not so much on reaching a contented marital resolution as on eliciting a blazing selection of insults to use in her column.

Yes, I have [betrayed those around me]. And I know you said at the beginning it’s cheap and easy – it’s not, it’s very difficult writing about people close to you. It absolutely destroys relationships, it destroyed my marriage ultimately. […] Even novelists do it, they’ll just change a name. I do think it’s a more honest way of doing it.

Novelists don’t do that. Well, some of them do (Hanif Kureshi comes up in the Today piece), but when they do it’s just as contemptible as what Jones did with her marriage using real names. A better description of what novelists do came from Stephanie Merritt in the Guardian this weekend. She says that many cognitive behavourial therapy exercises were “variations on the processes I used in writing novels: taking experiences and emotional states, giving them to made-up characters and then examining them from a different perspective.” Which is a much more reflective process than the weekly splurge Jones produces, and doesn’t involve announcing the actual devastation of the domestic life you share with another actual person.

I did [feel sorry for my husband], and he would beg me not to write stuff. […] When you see it in print and all your friends are talking about the fact you haven’t had sex for nine months, it’s jolly embarrassing. But if you’re a writer and you decide to do a column you do it, you don’t hide things. You’re either putting it all out there or you’re not.

Jones also calls writing about her private life a “compulsion”, which is a bit sharper than this effort to dress up the confessional as a vocation. Writing a column doesn’t mean you’ve taken a solemn vow of self-revelation. Dan Savage and Greta Christina both write explicitly about sex, and they’re both absolutely clear that their current sex life is private because their partners don’t want it written about. Jones’ attitude sounds like an excuse from someone who’s so profoundly solipsistic, she simply doesn’t care what she publishes about other people.

Journalism has gone the same way as TV – it’s reality TV, it’s real people’s lives. I really think people want that and it sells and people respond to it in a way they don’t respond to someone who never types the word ‘I’. I’ve probably written the word ‘I’ more than anyone else in the world!

Why does Liz Jones count as a “real person”? The pressures on her marriage (apart from the fact that it involved two people who sound supremely revolting) were extraordinary and self-inflicted ones: most unhappily married women don’t have the added pressure of worrying about what their husband will think when he reads an account of their latest relationship hiccup in the country’s biggest-selling newspaper. If Jones can’t learn anything from writing about her experiences, what possible journalistic value can there be in it for any other readers?