Not long ago, James Wolcott wrote an article for the New Yorker lamenting the ‘softened, juvenilised’, timbre of modern female journalism. In the old days, he said, women like Germaine Greer and Valerie Solanas made men nervous. They produced feisty, aggressive prose. They were rude and polemical. They wrote, in Norman Mailer’s words, like ‘very tough faggots’. But somewhere in the aftermath of Seventies feminism, women’s writing lost its swagger: the cut and thrust of the Valkyrie was replaced by the flounce and preen of the ‘chick’. The pre-eminent female style, Wolcott claimed, has degenerated into a sort of grimly coquettish prattle – ‘flirty and confrontational at the same time’.
The article was maddening for several reasons, but primarily for Wolcott’s contention that women writers were obliged to discuss abortion rights if they wanted to be taken seriously. When was the last time anyone got on Miles Kington’s case for not being sufficiently riled up about testicular cancer? Beyond Wolcott’s prim dictates on the appropriate form and content for ‘female writing’, there was the germ of something interesting and true. Over the last ten years, in Britain and America, there has been a significant proliferation of a certain kind of feminine first-person narrative. The author is almost always a young(ish), single, middle-class woman, and the narrative a jaunty record of a frisky personal life. (Whether fictional or real, the life tends to be presented in a tantalisingly real-seeming, documentary manner.) The tone is comic – at least in intention – and the preferred prose style is consciously unpolished. (This helps to distinguish the form from those solemnly poetic incest’n’child-abuse memoirs that are also currently in vogue.) The feminine first-person narrative is unabashedly self-involved. It is knowing and urbane, but it is also showily neurotic and self-derogatory. It is more risqué in content – more spikey in style – than the ‘Me and Mine’ cluckings of a Libby Purves, but it is also, crucially, a record of angst, confusion and insecurity.
The feminine first-person narrative has been nurtured by newspapers: for a few years now, it has been impossible to open a British paper without encountering some perky female dishing on the vagaries of her romantic life. But the FFPN is not confined to the broadsheet. It has also flowered into book form.
In Laura Zigman’s Animal Husbandry, a narrator called Jane Goodall, a funny, smart, insecure talk-show producer, relates the events of the year in which she fell in love with her boss (a specious creep called Ray), got dumped by her boss and eventually mended her broken heart. In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding’s novelisation of her very successful Independent column, Bridget, a funny, smart, insecure publishing junior, guides us, entry by entry, through the year in which she falls in love with her boss (a specious creep called Daniel), gets dumped by her boss, and eventually falls in love again, with a sexy, super-eligible lawyer. In Arabella Weir’s Does My Bum Look Big in This?, another diary-form novelisation – this time of Weir’s ‘Insecure Woman’ television sketch – Jacqueline Pane, a smart, funny, insecure conference organiser, tells us about her year spent recovering from residual infatuation with ‘Perfect Peter’ (the specious creep who dumped her the year before) and falling in love with nice, kind, attractive Andy.
These books are not exactly works of literature. They do not aspire to be. They aim instead to replicate the easy, jokey, demotic tone of girl talk. Aside from strikingly similar, wafer-thin plots, they all expound, with varying degrees of wit and style, virtually identical themes and obsessions. Jane, Bridget and Jacqueline all have a weakness for good-looking bastards. They are all plagued by doubts about their physical attractiveness and particularly their weight. (Weir’s narrator, Jacqueline, spends a lot of time devising ways to have sex without revealing her pendulous breasts and pot belly to her partner.)
They are all anxious about being – or being perceived as – sad, lonely spinsters. They all prize a particular sort of sarcastic, sceptical intelligence in themselves and their friends, but are suspicious of truly brainy people, whom they regard as cold and pretentious and unlikely to share their fondness for low-brow pop culture. They all express a keen interest in sex, but are reticent or jokey in their accounts of the sexual act itself. Fielding’s Bridget typically signals intercourse with ellipses and coy expressions of delight: ‘And then ... Mmmmm.’ Zigman’s Jane posts block-capital censor notes: ‘Screwing scene deleted’. Weir’s Jacqueline describes her panicked efforts to dissuade her boyfriend from adopting ‘the doggy position’ (too unflattering to her bum) but is otherwise content with perfunctory précis like ‘fairly quick and passionate’. Describing good sex earnestly would be too poncey for these girls. It would transcend the limits of their facetious style. They reserve their most feeling prose for their accounts of romantic rejection – which are so alike as to be interchangeable.
You never sleep the night someone dumps you ... Probably you will sleep in your clothes, too afraid to remove them because then you’ll be confronted with your naked body – the body that was left for countless imperfections ... Whatever you do with the sheets you will curl up in a foetal position with a handful of Kleenex. You will sob and weep and roll over to no avail, since comfort and sleep will escape you.
When someone leaves you, apart from missing them, apart from the fact that the whole little world you’ve created together collapses and that everything you see or do reminds you of them, the worst is the thought that they tried you out and, in the end, the whole sum of parts which adds up to you got stamped REJECT by the one you love.
And here’s Jacqueline:
Weird isn’t it – how you go out with someone who’s made you feel fat and ugly the whole time you’ve been with them, then chucks you, leaves the country and never contacts you again, and yet you stay always feeling like they were the one?
Certainly, we have come a long way from Valerie Solanas. With their vociferous self-loathing, their desperate yearning for Mr Right, their resentment of women whom they perceive to be slimmer or more poised than themselves, all three narrators cheerfully ignore or undercut the traditional feminist postures of self-sufficiency and sisterhood. They are unreliable narrators, it is true – as readers, we are meant to appreciate how inaccurate and fatally lacking in self-esteem their judgments often are – but the comedy of their prose is ultimately the comedy of recognition. Zigman, Fielding and Weir intend their lost girls to strike a chord with readers – to express what is often thought but feminist cant refuses to acknowledge. Jacqueline may end up being slightly more self-assured about herself and her bum, but the real happiness of her denouement, we understand, has to do with bagging a nice bloke.
As someone who has written more than her fair share of ‘girl’s life’ columns in her time, I’d think it unseemly to be too harsh in my judgment of these FFPNS. I, too, have maundered on about calories and biological timeclocks; have whined about cellulite and hairy legs and romantic trysts that end with blubbing in taxi-cabs. As I made my way through these novels, however, I found myself increasingly determined never to do so again. It is not the dizzy-headed quality of the FFPN – the boastful declarations of insecurity and general hopelessness – that I now regret. Personally, I think Wolcott’s fears about the social implications of the FFPN are a wee bit alarmist. The FFPN is not evidence of an anti-feminist backlash. Nor has it proved popular solely because it placates male egos. Literary trends – even popular literary trends – are rarely reducible to sociological causes. There is, I believe, an internal, literary logic that decreed the Nineties the right moment for the FFPN. If a certain, highly stylised, woman-as-fearless-guerrilla rhetoric felt fresh, unexpected – even dangerous – in the Seventies, it eventually became hackneyed and over-familiar. Enough Alice Walker, already! The success of the FFPN, with its candid admissions of female silliness and vanity, lay partly in its subversion of the expectations created by all those Virago paperbacks. The FFPN could acknowledge ignoble parts of female experience that the guerrilla rhetoric had excluded. To have women confessing, for example, that they longed to be sexually objectified, was resoundingly incorrect, but undeniably interesting after years in which the mandatory line had been Amazonian declarations of independence. It made women’s writing – the stuff women write about being women – surprising again.
Not for long, though. Judging by the grim sameness of these three novels, the FFPN has already hardened into a new literary orthodoxy, a new correctness. The surprise factor has waned: Fielding, who is a talented comic writer, will, I imagine, move on to other, less ploughed territory. Weir and Zigman should probably count themselves lucky to have grabbed book contracts while the trend was hot. Something else will no doubt be along shortly to de-familiarise, once again, the figure of the female narrator. In the meantime, let us declare a moratorium on the FFPN. There is nothing left to tell about messy periods or greying M&S underwear that has not already been amply told.