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.