What Is Confessional Nonfiction?

The question in the title of this post plagued me for the two years I conducted my grad school research. This was around the time that the first-person essay was huge and problematic, and I basically used a Slate article about the first-person essay boom as my jumping off point. I never could quite explain to anyone why I cared so much, nor was I ever able to articulate why that article pissed me off so much. 

Ultimately I arranged my master’s culminating project around confessional writing, but I renamed it “disclosure writing” (you can read an abbreviated version of my research essay here). I was guided fully by the belief that everyone’s story, everyone’s truth, matters as much as anyone else’s. I would’ve shouted from the rooftops that we had to stop treating personal writing so poorly, that the writers deserved to tell their story, and that the term “confessional” when applied to nonfiction writing essentially demeaned that piece and the writer. 

It's not that I don’t still believe some of that, but despite my two full years of research, despite my strong advocacy for personal writing, and despite all the good that I know comes from speaking your truth, I just don’t have the same fire about this topic anymore. 

And, I still don’t know what confessional writing is

Back in April, there was a Very Bad Personal Essay (VBPE)written by a Christian-ish WASPy woman entitled “I am tired of being a Jewish man’s rebellion.”  Predictably, it was full of anti-Semitism, and predictably, it set the Twitter on fire. 

While there have been a great many VBPEs in recent years, something about this one – and the conversations around it – started to eat at my resolve to defend writers of personal essays. On the one hand, I read some smart people with wise perspectives (thinking of this excellent threadfrom Helen Rosner) that helped me to think through what we might mean by “confessional” (or in this case, “professional confessional,” as she calls it). And on the other hand, I saw more reason to keep saying what I’ve wanted to say the most: that everyone who wants to write a personal essay can and should BUT that there’s gotta be some accountability built in. This opinion piece popped up around the same time and had me going YES YES YES. The author, Danielle Tcholakian, writes: “…I’m less mad about this woman’s apparently heartbreak-induced anti-Semitism than I am that the essay was published by an editor who I can only assume was looking for hate clicks.” 

That is part of what that first-person Slate article was trying to say. In it, Laura Bennett argues that editors are complicit in the often-terrible aftermath of a personal essay’s publication. It’s their job to help writers understand the repercussions of their work, and it’s their duty to have a set of ethics that essentially prohibit them from publishing un-refined, un-self-aware personal pieces (I’m paraphrasing with liberties here). Yet Bennett’s article – and the uproar that followed (and still sometimes pops up today) ultimately implicate the writers for, well, writing VBPEs. 

All of this is to get at my point: We don’t really ever talk about what confessional writing is, but we’re happy to throw it around as an insult when the writing isn’t what we want it to be. 

confessional-nonfiction

Confessional is often synonymous with guilty pleasure; in fact, I think that “guilty pleasure” is taking the place of “confessional” in some ways – I’ve seen more recently about writers fighting against that description of their work (like Dana Schwartz in The Washington Postlast month). It’s the same kind of thing as the confessional descriptor in that it diminishes the work, it’s most often applied to work by women, and it tends to be attached to topics like mental health, sex, and trauma. Guilty pleasure, in my mind, is just as destructive as confessional. And, again, there’s still no indication of what that means or what makes writing that way. 

Confessional poetry is easy. There’s an agreed-upon set of writers from a particular era that wrote a particular type of poetry. Sure, not everyone loved the moniker, and yes, there are absolutely problems with the use of the term here. But my point is that it’s easier to define confessional poetry. (My very brief research into the use of the term for contemporary poets led me to some articles about more recent poets who are “following in the tradition” of the confessional poets but I don’t know enough about poetry to comment more on that).

But confessional nonfiction… even after all these years I still cannot tell you exactly what it is, but I’ll give you my working definition. My belief is that some (women) writers are saddled with the term if their writing is about particular topics (sex, trauma, mental illness, violence, etc.) and makes some readers uncomfortable. That’s it. That’s really all confessional nonfiction is. And that means that “confessional” is not a helpful or valid description of a piece of writing.

There are legitimate critiques about some personal nonfiction – namely online personal essay – that are worth continuing. We can see this in terms of craft, like when a piece doesn’t fall in line with our expectations of the genre (i.e., the writer is self-aware, the essay reaches past the personal and into the universal) but we cannot keep using “confessional” to silence or to diminish. Of all the research I conducted and all the articles I read across the internet, I only remember one writer fully embracing “confessional,” and that writer is Leslie Jamison. 

Jamison has some excellent pieces from a few years back that offer elegant defenses against confession critiques (for example, “Confessional writing is not self-indulgent”). And while I’m positive she’s not the only nonfiction writer who accepts the term, she’s one of the most visible defenders. Plenty of other writers reject the term outright, and still others use it liberally to describe particular work. I don’t think any of these are bad perspectives, but I think it’s worth noting just how fraught with contradictions and emotions this term is. 

For me, the term confessional is problematic for a number of reasons. First, I read way too much Michel Foucault (as a grad student does) so I can’t think about “confession” without thinking about “power” and compulsion and lots of other icky stuff that comes with confession as Foucault covers it. Second, I hate that many the works that tend to be described as confessional are about trauma. Or are about illness. Or are about women’s sexuality. I hate that we call women’s work confessional, but very few men’s. Third, when we use “confessional” to reject, or when we take issue with personal writing at any time, we’re dismissing the lived experiences and truths of another human being. Should we talk about craft? Absolutely. Should we expect editors to be ethical? We should. And should we make writing more collaborative, and encourage every writer to share their work with other writers who will hold them accountable and let them know when their ideas sound really shitty? Yes – and I think this is crucial. 

So here’s the bottom line: I think we should let go of the term “confessional,” and I think we should interrogate the way we’re talking about personal nonfiction. I feel differently about personal essays these days; it’s impossible not to after the election and in the age of Trump and given our ridiculous discussions on “civility” and letting people with truly shitty perspectives have a platform in the interest of civility and “different viewpoints” (gag). But I do still believe, ardently and probably idealistically, that personal writing matters and writers have to take care in the way they discuss personal writing.