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BOOKS & IDEAS

The Internet Age gushes on with ever-more-personal revelations. Has introspection run amok or are they the building blocks of a universal truth?

July 22, 2007|Edward Champion | Special to The Times

IN 1994, essayist and novelist William H. Gass complained of rampant personal writing in an age of narcissism, condemning the autobiographer for "think[ing] of himself as having led a life so important it needs celebration, and of himself as sufficiently skilled at rendering as to render it rightly."

Despite Gass' admonition, confessional writing shows no signs of extinction. Fifteen years after David Sedaris began baring his soul in magazines and on public radio, a new generation of writers has emerged, galvanized by the Internet. Much of their work is highly revealing, exploring relationships and other emotional material. But if this seems endemic to our voyeuristic culture, the larger question is why so many writers want (or need) to expose themselves.

Rachel Kramer Bussel, a 31-year-old editor and former Village Voice sex columnist, writes about her relationships at her blog, Lusty Lady (http://lustylady.blogspot.com/) to contextualize them in a way that print doesn't always allow. Not only did the Internet cause her to shift from a private journal to a public blog, but posting permitted the words to flow more easily. This freed her to step outside what she saw as her column's constraints.

What interests Bussel is the power of language to sharpen our perceptions, to make us reflect more deeply on the experiences we've had. "A lot of the things that I might think on a daily basis but I don't necessarily articulate in writing," she said, "don't have as much power, when I look at the circumstances of my life, as the things that I've written down."

At the same time, she acknowledged, the interactive nature of blogging gives readers a more personal stake, a sense of connection to a writer, which can lead to limitations of its own. "I don't want to be tied down," said Bussel, "just because I wrote something at one point."

For Jonathan Ames, being tied down is a matter of perception. Although he developed a reputation in the early 1990s for his self-deprecatory and revealing columns in the alt-weekly newspaper New York Press -- delving into such subjects as genital warts and transvestites -- he insists that his writing isn't confessional in the most explicit sense.

"It's not a phrase that I've thought of necessarily to assign to myself," Ames explained. "I know at some point, in some therapeutic experience, a counselor said to me that Freud said all writing is a confession. So I think somewhere in my mind, I've often thought, even as I'm hiding things in that Tennessee Williams way, that in some way I was being emotionally autobiographical."

Ames, who was deeply influenced by both Charles Bukowski's mid-1960s columns for the Los Angeles Free Press (later collected as "Notes of a Dirty Old Man") and Hubert Selby's 1964 novel "Last Exit to Brooklyn," declared that his writing occurs on a sentence-by-sentence basis.

"I read that thing that Hemingway said," Ames noted. "When you're stuck, write the next true sentence."

Ames' work has inspired others to plunge into personal territory. In 2001, British expatriate Grant Stoddard was assigned by Nerve.com to write a column called "I Did It for Science," which involved serving as a sexual lab rat of sorts. His stunts included sploshing, a fetish that involves throwing food at naked subjects. Stoddard, who cites Ames as his biggest influence, turned these experiences into a book, "Working Stiff," which came out in January and takes Ames-style self-deprecation to a new level.

"I was the butt of a joke," said Stoddard, describing the fish-out-of-water, go-getter impulse that made his column so popular. But even a pathless pleasure seeker like him didn't feel it was appropriate to reproduce the Internet columns for his book. Instead, he recast the material, admitting that "putting it into context gave it some extra depth."

Spurred by cyberspace

THE Internet also served as a confessional muse for British novelist Sean Thomas, who described logging onto numerous personal sites in his April memoir "Millions of Women Are Waiting to Meet You."

Inspired by Catherine Millet's 2002 "The Sexual Life of Catherine M," he wanted to write with a similarly alarming candor. Among other things, he detailed an involvement with a 17-year-old girl, copped to spending £550 for online porn in a single month and reported his dealings with a Thai prostitute who claimed he had impregnated her.

"People feel able to say more behind the anonymity of an e-mail, or a comment on MySpace or Facebook, that maybe they wouldn't say on the phone or face-to-face," Thomas commented by e-mail. "Whether this trend is good, I'm not sure. It's been good for my sales."

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