The more personal and vulnerable a writer is, the better, says Jane Pratt.
This is the guiding ethos behind xoJane, the women’s website she set up in 2011. It began with a post in which Pratt described going for a Brazilian wax, and overheard the receptionist saying she looked old. This left her shaking, crying and calling friend Courteney Cox for advice on whether to have "emergency work" on her face.
The launch also included a woman writing about monitoring her husband’s masturbatory habits, and a post by the executive editor, Emily McCombs, entitled My Rapist Friended Me on Facebook (and All I Got Was This Lousy Article).
McCombs is an excellent writer, as are many of xoJane.com’s staff and contributors, and the site often runs strong, political, opinionated pieces. But the general tone is set by those grabby headlines.
Over the years, they have included I had pinworms in my vagina, My new addiction is completely hating myself all the time, and I took the advice to call my father before it was too late, and he told me about how cocaine makes him horny.
XoJane has quickly established itself as one of the most notable examples of the galloping trend for confessional writing (a branch of the site began in the United Kingdom last year).
In an age when so much personal information is shared on social media, and revenues for journalism have plummeted, this form can attract enormous audiences and doesn’t require expensive reporting. XoJane’s freelance contributors are generally paid just $50 a post.
Confessional pieces are also innately controversial. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan summed up one side of the argument in a much-shared post headlined Journalism is not narcissism.
He argued that first-person essays offer a "path that ends in hackdom" for aspiring journalists.
"For those who own the publications, they’re great," he wrote. "But for the writers themselves, they are a short-lived and ultimately demeaning game."
Pratt (50) naturally disagrees. It has been 25 years since she set up the alternative, much-loved United States teen magazine Sassy. In the very first issue she ran an It Happened to Me (IHTM) piece; a woman writing about having an abortion.
She continued using the IHTM tag in her women’s magazine, Jane, which ran from 1997 to 2007, and has carried it into this latest project. She says she’s always found that the confessional pieces really stand the test of time.
Pratt speaks to me by phone from New York, and her description of the site’s offices makes it clear what appeals to her staff and 2.6-million monthly readers – it sounds like a constant party, with her as a cool big sister figure.
Some of her staff are so devoted they even have "xo" tattoos. In the most recent series of Lena Dunham’s Girls, Dunham’s character met a website editor called "Jame" and asked what she should be writing about.
"You could have a threesome with some people that you meet on Craigslist," came the answer, "or do a whole bunch of coke and then just write about it!"
The Girls team denied this was based on Pratt, but it doesn’t sound like a massive stretch – she once convinced a colleague to snort bath salts, and tells me she’s pretty disappointed she couldn’t convince any of them to lick someone’s eyeball when this emerged as a Japanese trend.
Some of her writers have personal policies about not mentioning children or partners, but, beyond that, she likes them to go as far as possible.
She cites a post by her deputy editor, Mandy Stadtmiller, as a good example. It followed a day in the xoJane offices in which "a bunch of us were going around saying 'What smells so bad?', trying to find the source, and see if there was a dead animal. And then she got home and realised she had gotten her period, and it smelled so bad, and she wrote about it, and I thought: that is brilliant. To be willing to put yourself out there, and make yourself that vulnerable."
I ask whether there’s any subject she’s turned down for being too disturbingly personal, and she says no. She’s only felt compelled to edit pieces that strayed into pornography.
One of the site’s most controversial figures was its erstwhile beauty editor, Cat Marnell, who wrote regularly about her drug use until last year, when xoJane’s publishers, Say Media, sent her to rehab. Not long afterwards, Marnell left the site, soon landing a $500 000 publishing deal.
She has described her former boss as an Andy Warhol figure. When I put this to Pratt, she asks: "Do you think she meant I’m an observer of people’s behaviour, and someone who attracts a lot of interesting people?"
If so, she decides, she loves it.
The Warhol reference was perhaps a nod to the unusual way Pratt staffs her projects, which is designed to maximise drama. She has eight full-time employees on xoJane and thinks of it as casting "a reality show, or a soap opera".
The writers and editors are characters whose lives the readers follow closely. "I’m casting people I think the audience will love, or will love to hate," she says. At Sassy, she called her three star writers Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n Roll.
Pratt has been accused of exploiting her writers’ problems – especially Marnell’s drug issues – for traffic, but she denies this. She describes the struggle to help Marnell, and says she "actually felt showcasing her writing about what she was going through was helpful to other people".
This idea is at the heart of the site. It features women writing about problems they’re still experiencing – while at the same time celebrating them as fabulous, witty, successful human beings. It embraces the contradictions everyone experiences, within an arena that feels friendly and inclusive.
Some see women writing about their insecurities and vulnerabilities as anti-feminist, but Pratt, a feminist herself, believes that "in order to get past anything you have to be open about it, and I think that to just present ourselves as though we don’t have insecurities, and don’t sometimes do things for the wrong reasons, is very, very alienating".
Notably, women get considerably more flak for writing personally than men do.
She has been accused of pushing writers past their natural boundaries, but says she’s "very upfront, before they’re hired, that they’re expected to be open books".
She encourages people to try confessional writing and the positive feedback usually convinces them to continue, she says.
This rings true. Journalists know such writing can prompt a big, potentially enticing response. But how long does it take before you start creating drama for the sake of it? And how will you feel when you stop? – © Guardian News & Media 2013