Fellow newspaper columnist Tanya Gold explains why Liz remains such a powerful voice for women.
Liz Jones paints her life in plain sentences and gruesome detail; she is the most original confessional journalist in Britain. Her column began as a witty diary in the style of Bridget Jones – the palatable kind of female memoir with everything resolved by love. But it grew to become something else: a paradigm of what it means to be female nowadays – what is acceptable to say and be, and what is not.
I think we usually want female columnists to tell us that they are happy, because that is comforting and the least we expect from a woman with a voice. Liz will not do that. She can’t. No one has mined herself more forensically for trauma than her. I feel I know her as intimately as myself, and that is a gift from any writer to the world. ‘I love Liz Jones,’ a clever, bookish friend tells me. ‘She makes me feel better about my life.’
Liz’s diary tells women they are allowed to be lonely, broken and idiotic and that they will survive it, because she has. She has known divorce, bankruptcy, illness and the continual exposure of her own life by her own pen. Yet still she writes on. Her words are important because she tears up the lies of advertising – the tinny ideal of what women should be. Liz is successful, childless and, by her own admission, unhappy, when too many women are still expected to be dormant, maternal and thrilled. Women, she tells us by example, are not made happy by fashion or houses or holidays. Liz has had a glut of them all. And they are certainly not made happy by men. This turns consumer culture and its expectations on its head. It is, if you are listening, genuinely revolutionary.
Liz’s writing on the fashion industry is brilliant. She began her career there and, as an editor of a glossy magazine, she tried to stop the tendency to picture only very thin, very young models in its pages. She also told the world the extent to which magazines are dictated to by their commercial imperatives. She spoke about the freebies and the threat of exclusion fashion brands use to get good coverage from so-called journalists who are actually salespeople masquerading as journalists. Of course, they fired her for telling their secrets and her revenge was magnificent. I smile to think about it, even now. Essentially, she used herself as a weapon. What Liz did was to become fashion’s most original critic. Not by shouting about how stupid it is to care about skirts – instead, she immersed herself in the industry as a consumer. I don’t know if she did this deliberately and it hardly matters. It was an enormous project, run over decades: Miss Jones adrift in fashion land.
It is not dignified, of course; it is a stripping off, a paring down: emotional nudity, if you like. I love this in a writer. Ordinary fashion journalists are very dignified – they speak through skirts, after all – but they have nothing to say. It is not in their interests to have anything to say. Liz, on the other hand, has become an outcast in her own genre, banned from shows and loathed for her ambivalence around the drug of fashion. She has subjected herself to the full, monstrous power of the fashion industry. Do not be deceived – it wants you to hate yourself so it can sell you things. She is more honest about its feasting on her than any living writer.
She writes that she hated her breasts (‘udders’) so much she had them reduced, and that she shops compulsively for things she doesn’t want or can’t afford so she will ‘look like the girl in the picture’, who she knows does not really exist. Intimate heartbreak is her ultimate gift to her readers.
You can call such writing many things – self-destructive is one phrase, and her critics are not slow to use it – but it is not trivial. There is nothing that Liz will not tell us, and I have heard her tell me everything with admiration, astonishment and also anger for what it sometimes incites in others. Her postbox was once attacked with gunshots – what a metaphor! She is damned mostly for her unhappiness and this confuses people because it is not what they expect from a famous woman. If she were happy, they would not care, and that angers me. She is also damned for her refusal to give us a happy ending. We are thus denied the redemptive ending to her story which we crave. Perhaps that is the little she has kept back for herself.
If I sound defensive, it is not because Liz is my friend – I have met her only a few times, and like most bold and angry writers, she is small in real life, and likeable – but because she is my colleague in print. I understand what it is like to try to make a soul out of ink when your own has failed you; to see the byline when your own name frightens you. I love newsprint, as does she, but I have never had the desire to weld myself to it entirely. I needed a real life.
Of course, I wish she was happier, but I must remember that it is not my business to tell a female writer how to be. It is, despite her protestations, the decision she has made. I like to think that there is another Liz, and she doesn’t even like writing, let alone need it to survive. But that is likely a prayer. Rather, the functioning Liz who files on length and deadline has mastery over the wilting Liz, who is her subject. Her work is, essentially, a dialogue between two selves, and that is why she is feared and traduced, and why she has run for 20 years, offering consolation and amazement to her readers. Happy birthday, Liz Jones’s Diary.
Tanya Gold is an award-winning journalist and columnist who has written for national newspapers for more than 20 years.