Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

This may end up being one of my last book/reading posts of the year, so it is a happy coincidence that I’ll finish up by writing about Kate Zambreno’s Heroines – a book I only recently came across (thank you Anthony) but which speaks to so much of what I’ve been thinking about in recent years – namely literature and women and women’s writing and its place in/displacement from the canon. This entire year here at Pieces was dedicated to reviewing women writers and a feminist approach to the whole literary universe.

I think my reaction to Heroines is going to take a few separate posts – I have a lot to discuss. So today is just one initial reaction. I’ll try to get the others written up before the end of the week (although my daughter’s daycare is closed now until the 7th of January – I am not unaware of the irony of this fact keeping me from writing again more quickly about this particular book).

Before I say anything else, I will say that Heroines is a Before/After book, meaning that reading it has broken my literary perspective into a “Before I read Heroines” and an “After I read Heroines.” I will not be able to look at that long line of canonized male writers in the same way ever again, nor will I be able to make the same assumptions about the women who were connected with them and women writers in general – and I want to send a huge heartfelt thank you to Zambreno for doing this. I’ve always been aware of the sad exclusion of so many wonderful and talented female writers from the canon and other generalized literary discussions, but she’s gotten me to think about why this happens in a very particular way.

In brief, Heroines is a hybrid work: part criticism, part literary biography, part personal memoir. Zambreno is interested in the “modernist wives,” women like Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien(ne) Eliot, Jane Boyles, Elizabeth Hardwick, Sylvia Plath, and, to some extent, Virginia Woolf and a handful of others. Women who were used as muses for their famous spouses but forbidden their own artistic expression, often diagnosed as mentally unstable and eventually silenced and/or institutionalized.

Just a few words on the hybrid form of the book before I write about the content. This kind of fractured nontraditional narrative is beginning to feel more and more comfortable (and Zambreno makes a case for it as a particularly feminine form of writing – an idea which I found quite interesting), and I think that as postmodern readers we have come to enjoy it—I certainly do—and also expect it. The book as a whole feels very accessible, and yet it remains rigorously academic as well.

In her acknowledgments, Zambreno thanks her editor for supporting the idea that we should not be “erasing the self in our criticism.” It’s obviously something she thought a lot about – how to put herself into the book, how to structure the narrative while keeping herself woven through it. This, I think, is where the book will be contested. It is where she minimizes (on purpose, by invoking her own fragility) her writer’s authority, and it puts her in a vulnerable place. I am still working out my own reaction to it.

One thing I can say now, however, is that I think the book’s blog-like structure, with the reader following along as Zambreno makes all these connections and bridges, jumping from subject to subject and exploring the various writings, biographies and other disjointed textual and anecdotal evidence on the lives of her heroines and their connections to her, means that some of her overriding arguments and ultimate conclusions become hidden at the end of the book – and this is a bit of shame, because they’re brilliant.

I’m not arguing for a traditionally structured work of academic criticism, not at all, but an awareness of the risks inherent in this kind of jumping, fractured, and personalized narrative – and then somehow the ability to undercut it, to insure the reader doesn’t get lost in the mix of personal and academic, to get right away to the heart of the argument.

Which is this – and it’s undeniable and brilliant:

That a male writer’s emotional excess/singular artistic focus is glorified and lauded, it becomes his genius, his ability to embody the other, his “transcendence of the self” – while a woman experiencing/attempting the same is diagnosed and institutionalized, it becomes her madness, her inability to live in normal society, her loss of reason.

Zambreno fills the book with examples – Scott Fitzgerald actually using lawyers to keep Zelda from writing (his case is nearly the most egregious, I may never be able to read him again), Virginia Woolf’s carefully allotted writing time (by doctors and Leonard) – no more than an hour a day, Flaubert lecturing Louise Colet against excess, Robert Lowell idolizing then demonizing his women as he fell in and out of love, and more and more, example after example… the book is composed of interwoven case studies of this kind of violence/oppression and the denial of the worth of a woman’s artistic creation.

 So overall, what Zambreno puts forward is an extremely compelling idea – and a way to re-envision what have been considered “minor” works and place them back on equal footing with similar novels and poems and stories created by male writers all along. This, to me, is the greatest contribution that Heroines makes to the literary discussion.

I’ll have more to say about the book – specifically about the personal part of the narrative and about Zambreno’s romanticism of the silenced woman writer (a romanticism she acknowledges and addresses), and about the different feminist approaches to the problem of the female writer, approaches which fascinate me and provoke a lot of questions – but I’ll have to do it another day. More soon.


14 Responses to “Heroines – Kate Zambreno (first thoughts)”

  1. Rebecca H.

    Interesting thoughts. I agree that this book makes you (made me) reconsider how women writers are read and assessed. This is not a new topic for me (and for you obviously), but Zambreno brings a new level of scrutiny to the problem, as well as a lot of passion, and that’s valuable. Your thoughts on structure are interesting to me, as my main issues with the book had to do with organization. I’ll bet the book is carefully organized (I’m sure this is something Zambreno thought about a lot), but I wanted this structure to be more transparent, as I felt it got repetitious. I very much like the mixing of academic and personal — it’s a favorite mode of mine, in fact — but it does make structure difficult, and I’m not sure Zambreno solved the problem in this book. But still, I responded strongly to the mix of careful research and strong emotions.

    • Michelle

      Yes, I would agree that the way the book moves in and out of all those different “case studies” (for lack of a better word) does make it somewhat repetitive – often this didn’t bother me, because there was no information brought in or a new comparison made, but there were certainly moments it could have been tightened/sharpened.

      I also really responded to the mix of research and her fervent interest in the topic. It was exciting to see how much information she brought to the table.

  2. Karen Brown

    I’ve often taught modern literature, and always end up discussing Vivienne and Zelda. One student began a presentation on Eliot, and ended up talking about Vivienne (did he really hide from her when she came to his offices?) I have to read this book. Will order a copy today.

    • Michelle

      If you’ve taught them both, then I think you’d really enjoy this book. It is not flawless (and anyway, I try to reject the notion of a flawless book/criticism) but it is really excellent and thought-provoking.

  3. Anthony

    This concept of gendered forms and language is very interesting to me, and dovetails neatly with my recent reading of several of Cixous’ works. I plan to put more thought into this idea over the next year. I’ve just read Dodie Bellamy’s “Barf Manifesto” which Kate Zambreno talks a lot about on her blog, and was clearly an influence (influenced in turn by Eileen Myles).

    What has also interested me very much about “Heroines” is its polarising effects on readers. No-one has been neutral, it collects strong opinions, which suggests to me that it is doing something new. And it feels that way.

    • Michelle

      Yes, I’m actually really surprised to see how much polarization there has been – I wasn’t expecting this, except perhaps that some would prefer she keep herself out of it. I like your idea that this polarization might mean that she’s doing something new. Not being a modernist or feminist scholar, I don’t feel confident to say whether she is or not, but her work certainly opened up new perspectives for my own reading and I’m incredibly impressed.

  4. Stefanie

    I’ve heard so many good things about this book and now you’ve just gotten even m ore excited about it. I was going to patiently wait my turn for it at the library but now I am thinking I might have to buy my own copy!

  5. Alex in Leeds

    I added this to my wishlist last week after realising it was finally out! Definitely have to buy it in the new year. Looking forward to your posts on other angles/topics covered though.

    • Michelle

      Really look forward to your thoughts – and apologies for not leaving any comments on your blog, have been reading your bookish thoughts and enjoying them!

  6. litlove

    I caved in and bought a copy of this after reading Rebecca’s review and now, having read yours I am so glad I did! I will be fascinated to see how she fits her subjectivity into the critical process, and to feel how that bloggy, fragmented structure affects the reading experience. Looking forward to more thoughts from you about this one!

    • Michelle

      Litlove – I was actually planning to send you a note about this book as I think it is almost a must-read for you. Especially after all your work with Colette, and your sheer knowledge of the Modernists. I am so curious to see how you’ll feel about this particular book and her project. It seems to be creating strong opinions!

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