Stop giving soft journalism such a hard time

First-person writing is too often dismissed as a female genre based on overshare. It's time it got more credit

On Twitter the other week, writer Almara Abgarian posted despairingly about the condescension “personal writers” so often experience in journalism. 

“What’s all this crap about journalism about dating not being real journalism?” she wrote. “My dating pieces are consistently the most read of everything I write - it’s not fluffy, it’s social culture and what readers want. ‘Soft’ journalism never gets the credit it deserves and I’m over it.”

Snootiness in journalism is one of our industry’s most unpleasant characteristics – largely because, let’s be honest, journalism is stuffed with egomaniacs in love with the sound of their own opinions and the look of their name in ink. Disdain for “soft” journalism (usually first-person journalism) is widespread, particularly among writers and editors working in news and longform.

When I began my career as a journalist I was immediately drawn to personal writing as a style I was happiest with. I’ve always been an open person that finds sharing experiences, worries and failures incredibly cathartic. Sometimes I overshare (and I learned the hard way to keep my tendency to self-deprecate away from the workplace), but on the whole I have found connecting my own experiences with those of friends or strangers to be both comforting and useful.

And so one of my very first pieces as a journalist was this essay for The Sunday Times Style on grieving in an era in which we feel more comfortable sending emojis than picking up the phone, often resulting in loneliness. Five years later, it remains one of the most difficult pieces I have ever written, but – with its publication prompting so many wonderful phone calls from friends – one of my proudest pieces, too. 

And yet the piece raised eyebrows from some (mostly male) journalists I knew who felt I had “gone soft” by swapping “the craft” of research and objectivity for spewing my feelings out on the page. There were snide jokes about how I had become “peak millennial”, and the classic, most devastating of put-downs: “I read your piece...” with no compliment to follow. 

Beyond my circle of writers, there was an interesting split reaction between some of my male and female friends too. While women let me know how much they loved the piece, male friends responded awkwardly. It was as if I had made them read a page from my diary, or dropped them into the middle of an all-female WhatsApp group about sex. TMI, their expressions read. In reality I think they felt uneasy with my intimacy, and didn’t know where to look.

It seems to me that male unease has always driven sexism towards women writers, be that in journalism, publishing or even songwriting. Inexplicably, the female experience is not seen as universal, and therefore often considered lesser and even alien. Norman Mailer, one of the nastiest but revered literary critics of the Sixties and Seventies, luridly described women’s writing as if our ink had its own scent. “At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn.”

When he reviewed seminal feminist novel The Group, by Mary McCarthy – a kind of Sixties pre-cursor to Sex and the City that saw eight female twenty somethings navigating sex, friendship, work and motherhood – he dismissed it as a “trivial lady’s novel” despite it selling 300,000 copies in its first year. Aside from Mailer believing the experiences of 50 per cent of the world population to be somewhat ‘niche’, his issue was clearly female intimacy. The Group was revolutionary in its honesty about female pleasure, but in his review Mailer described these passages as “perverted”. (Coming from a man who once described a penis as “a coil of excrement”.) 

While we’ve come a long way from Mailer’s outspoken misogyny, the ‘ink’ of women is still seen as inferior. Fiction from female novelists is often assumed to be a memoir in code (easy, unadventurous) while men are presumed to pull pure art from the boundless realms of their imaginations. Because men find it easier to get published, pseudonyms among female writers are still remarkably common – Erica James went as EL James for Fifty Shades of Grey, and Joanne Rowling was persuaded by her publisher to go by JK so that Harry Potter would be read by boys. 

Meanwhile female musicians are scorned for writing sexual lyrics men have gotten away with for decades (watch Russell Brand’s YouTube tirade against WAP), and quizzed on lyrical parallels to their personal lives with a frequency men don’t appear to suffer. Prior to her most recent album, St Vincent shot down the idea that her songs are diaristic, saying that it “presupposes –  in a kind of sexist way  –  this idea that women lack the imagination to write about anything other than their exact literal lives.” It’s no wonder so many women artists are scared of having their art described as personal when the personal is made to feel so trivial.

I held back on personal writing after my Sunday Times Style essay, worried that I would appear “unserious” and “fluffy”. For a long time I felt that, to be a respected journalist, I had to write longreads – the kind that took months of research, required a hundred hours of interviews and for which structure was its own art-form. On the few occasions I did write in the first person, I hid beneath humour and sarcasm – it felt cleverer that way. The irony of course is that being clever is much easier than being honest.

When I think about the kind of journalism that has made the biggest impression on me over the last year, it is not the groundbreaking investigations, the cerebral think pieces or the philosophical celebrity profiles, as brilliant as they may be. It’s the ‘soft’ stuff, the unapologetically emotional: Annie Lord on friendzoning, Olive Pometsey on finding hope in the Black Lives Matter protests, Rebecca Reid’s mea culpa to Caroline Flack, Jenny Stevens on her year on an eating disorder ward, Ella Alalade on how opera helped her grieve her father’s death, Yomi Adegoke on her changing class identity, and Marie Mutsuki Mockett on 40 years spent caring for her mother. Yes, they are all written by women, but they are not for women – they are for everyone.

There are of course brilliant personal pieces from male writers too – James Hall on his surrogacy journey, Rafael Behr on his stress-induced heart attack and Joel Golby on becoming an orphan come to mind – but I find these pieces are conspicuous in their existence. They are also the male experience in extremis: I’d love to read more men on everything from sex and dating to masculinity, friendship and family. No doubt many male readers would feel the same, and we could finally stop considering first-person writing an inherently female genre.

While personal journalism has its flaws – there is a problem with editors commissioning trauma for clicks, while white women tend to dominate and some writers can become solipsistic – it deserves, as Almara says, more credit. First-person writing is not only vital in shifting shame and stigma around what is considered taboo, but it offers comfort, solace, perspective and empathy. It makes so many people feel that little bit less alone. And to quote the Seventies feminist maxim: the personal is political.

Any piece that asks you to share your most intimate experiences is utterly terrifying to write. And there is nothing soft about that.

This week in links

I’ve been reading Laura Barton on music festivals’ most surreal moments. My own most surreal moment has to be hunting an unsuspecting Jeff Goldblum across Glastonbury while delirious with flu.

I’ve been watching The Bold Type on Netflix, the most deliciously comforting, fantastical depiction of magazine journalism you’ll ever see. Oh, if only.

I’ve been listening to the beautifully soulful Lola Young, Ruin My Make Up. I went to see her at the Jazz Cafe this week and she has one of the funniest, warmest stage presences I’ve ever seen. Watch out for her.

I’ve been commissioning Tina Edwards on the heated political backdrop to ska band The Specials’ hit song Ghost Town. I’m going to be honest, it’s not often young women drop into my inbox with pitches about old male ska bands, so this one immediately caught my attention.

Ps: get in touch with any comments, questions or suggestions for future newsletter topics. I’m all ears: eleanorahalls@gmail.com