Round Table Discussion: Heroines by Kate Zambreno
Yes, this is when I first became enthralled by the mad wives, my eternal reference point; when I began reading the lives of these women often marginalized in the modernist memory project. They have been with me as long as I have tried to write — like ghostly tutors.
— Heroines, p.13
In 2012, Semiotext(e) published Heroines by Kate Zambreno, a book that is as much memoir as it is literary criticism, that is also a kind of novel, and that questions its readers about all these forms and how we define them, how we work within them and around them. The book also opens up a discussion about women’s writing and the literary canon, about who gets to “write women” — their fiction and their biographies — and from what perspective.
Heroines as described by the publisher:
In Heroines, Kate Zambreno extends the polemic begun on her blog (Ed. note: Frances Farmer Is My Sister) into a dazzling, original work of literary scholarship. Combing theories that have dictated what literature should be and who is allowed to write it, she traces the genesis of a cultural template that consistently exiles female experience to the realm of the “minor” and diagnoses women for transgressing social bounds. By advancing the Girl-as-Philosopher, Zambreno reinvents feminism for her generation and develops an alternative canon, while providing a model for a newly subjectivized criticism.
Joanna Walsh is a writer and artist. She has written and drawn for Tate, The Guardian, The Times, The Idler, FiveDials, 3:AM, Necessary Fiction, and The White Review, amongst others. This year her writing will be published by Granta, 3:AM Press and Union Books.
Helen McClory is a writer and reader from Scotland. She blogs at schietree.wordpress.com.
Christine Cody’s book reviews have recently been published in Lambda Literary. Reviews are also forthcoming in Gently Read Literature. She currently oversees Foreign Rights at Sounds True Books.
Michelle Bailat-Jones is a writer and translator. Her fiction, translations and criticism have appeared in various journals including The Quarterly Conversation, PANK, Two Serious Ladies and The Kenyon Review. She is the reviews editor here at Necessary Fiction. You can find her online at Pieces.
How did you discover Heroines and through what main perspective do you approach the book?
Joanna Walsh: I read Heroines after reading Zambreno’s “ranty” blog (her own description). Both were passed on by friend & feminist critic, Lauren Elkin, who met Zambreno when she was over in the UK. What fascinates me about the book and the blog — more than their ostensible subject — Modernist writer/wives — is the way Zambreno writes, and the way she writes about her own writing: her worries about how much to reveal about herself, how much to “interact” (she recently shut down her blog and her Twitter account), and how “badly” to write, against accepted models. I’m writing about the internet and love right now, and I’m coming across the same difficulties and opportunities. I admire how open she is about them.
Helen McClory: The route to reading Heroines started with reading a conversation between Zambreno and The Rejectionist (AKA Sarah McCarry) on the topic of Zambreno’s novel Green Girl — it was so brilliant, I ordered the book, read it and wrote this swoony review of it, which I then emailed Edith Zimmerman of The Hairpin about — I was playing the fan girl, and thought the readership would enjoy it (and I’d have more people to talk about it with). Turned out that Zimmerman was reviewing it for The Tournament of Books and didn’t like it — she very kindly posted a bit of my review in her preface to a second conciliatory, exploratory interview with Zambreno. This led to me getting offered a position as a book reviewer at PANK — and what else would I want to read but the book by a woman who had sparked so much around her with the last one? I got hooked on Zambreno’s blog while I was waiting for Heroines — for I think, exactly the same reasons as Joanna. So my main approach was a wild thirst for more of her style, her searing voice.
Michelle Bailat-Jones: For my part, I discovered Heroines through a recommendation from a trusted book-blogger, Times Flow Stemmed. But I came to the book knowing almost nothing of Zambreno, having never read her blog or her other fictions (all of which I would like to read now). The context of my reading, however, was that I’ve been thinking a lot about women’s writing versus men’s writing and whether there are definable differences, but also how these two forms (if they are different forms) of writing are perceived and approached in formal criticism and by readers. In a way, I couldn’t have come across this book at a better time in terms of my own reading projects.
Christine Cody: I came to Zambreno & Heroines via an event curated by Bhanu Kapil in May 2012 at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Zambreno read from Heroines there. Other readers included Melissa Buzzeo (Face, 2009) & Gabrielle Civil (Glints, 2006). Here’s a snap of Zambreno from this event.
What is your general reaction to Zambreno’s project?
CC: What I love most about Zambreno’s project is that she brings attention to so-called “minor” writers, sending me for the first time to the texts of Anna Kavan & Unica Zurn, & returning me to those of Jane Bowles & Jean Rhys. For this I am grateful.
Too, Heroines has sparked important international conversations, like the one we’re having right here via Necessary Fiction, about subjectivity in criticism, an alternate canon, & literary forms. Last month I met Katherine Angel, author of Unmastered, A Book on Desire Most Difficult to Tell, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) for a coffee in the West Village. Zambreno’s book was our first topic of conversation! This might be Heroines’ greatest legacy.
MBJ: Yes, I’ve also gone away from the book with a list of writers I now must read. I feel like this is a Before/After book, meaning that it changes how I think about the literary canon. I’ve never considered the canon to be a true or fair collection of the world’s “greatest” literature, but Zambreno got me thinking about how untrue and unfair it really is, as well as some very particular reasons why. Heroines brought me to look backward and re-evaluate why certain (male) writers are canonized and certain (female) writers were not. This idea of domestic writing, and that women are more often institutionalized for the kind of thinking/writing/behaving that actually gets men praised is fascinating to me. I’ll be reading forward from now on with an eye to Zambreno’s thoughts and perspective.
JW: I wish she’d been able to quote more extensively from the writers she treats: a problem with permissions? She does a good job of shocking me by the way they were treated but I feel she’s not giving me quite enough temptation to discover their work for myself. It’s tough to walk a line between highlighting abuses and celebrating qualities. Concentrating on the way these writers were mentally taken apart by their male partners/counterparts can feel dangerously close to the pathologization that Zambreno’s trying to expose.
What is the appeal of Zambreno’s hybrid work, where does it serve its subject and where might it be a disservice to her project?
HM: I’d love to hear some discussion of how this hybridity can or appears to detract from the text’s “authority” — the sense of it as an academic work and how it highlights the subjectivity of the lens. Zambreno shows herself as a vulnerable “character” in the work, and the voice of narration is very clearly (in my opinion) her voice — subjective, rather than objective. In Emily Keeler’s review for the LARB, she takes umbrage at Heroine’s assertion of a universal femininity which she rejects. But can a book that is so subjective really be asserting any universals? I’m not convinced.
JW: There’s something compelling about Heroines: I not only read the book but every review of it. This is not just because of the subject — the personal tone invites intimacy, and also comment and exchange, like a blog — and Zambreno is a blogger (is the combination of academic and personal style what you mean by ‘hybridity’?). This ‘online’ style is like Irigaray defining female subjectivity as an exchange, “Who are you? The answer would be, And who are you? Can we meet, talk, love, create something together? Thanks to which milieu, what between us/entre nous.”
“Milieu” is the exciting word for me here. The internet is not just a two-way communication, like the (Modernist) telephone, but involves multiple communications.
After reading Zambreno’s blog and Twitter account, I found the style of her book surprisingly less radical — stylistically — than expected — perhaps more ‘authoritative’, more ‘objective’… But maybe I have wild expectations!
MBJ: I would also agree that I didn’t find the prose style of Heroines all that radical, but maybe we’ve all become really comfortable with the form. Although, in response to Helen’s comment, I do wonder if some, if not most of the negative reaction to her book comes from that narrative style preventing it to be taken as a form of “academic” criticism. I’d love to hear more ideas on the value/function/effect of this kind of criticism, what does this kind of text give us that a text without that subjectivity doesn’t or can’t? Zambreno is clearly a scholar and an articulate one but the voice is — as you say, and I’d agree — a subjective rendering of her ideas. That voice mimics, even inhabits, her very thesis. Something I found somewhat unsettling but also exciting.
JW: Masha Tupitsyn is another woman experimenting with the nature of online writing. Her blog, Love Dog, is being turned into a book. I’m excited to see how it compares with her intoxicatingly fragmentary tumblr.
Ioana Goulder talks here about online forms as specifically female-friendly.
CC: Bhanu Kapil is yet another woman who has also been experimenting with a serious online writing project. Her first blog is at jackkerouacispunjabi.blogspot.com. Zambreno mentions Kapil in Heroines. (Recently, Kapil began another blog project: bhanukapilmonster.blogspot.com)
I’m with Joanna on the intimate aspect of the writing. There’s a vulnerability in that intimacy that’s both fresh & appealing. The writing feels open, in a very Cixousian way. Zambreno lingers in the borderlands of memoir & criticism.
Why is there resentment towards Zambreno for this? Nobody asks Cixous to be less personal, less subjective in her academic work!
MBJ: I think what I meant by “hybrid” is two things — first this mixing of critical with personal, and second, the mixing of forms: autobiography, biography, and criticism. Thinking about Heroines as something that came out of her notes on a faux-modernist-wife-novel as well as her blog, it makes sense that this how the book evolved. And really, all criticism is necessarily personal, so why not embrace the personal? This seems to be what’s generating a lot of the negative reaction to the book — why did she talk about her cloche hat? Why does that matter to the story of these erased women? My instant-but-hesitant answer would be that it DOES matter, because maybe with this merge of personal and critical Zambreno brings what could be seen as a historical critique (these women of another generation) into the here-and-now, she makes this erasure a thing of the present.
JW: I’m interested in why she writes about the hat — and why this kind of writing has garnered such criticism. Sarah McCarry discusses why clothes are important here and I talk a bit about it here re Joan Didion. Neither Rhys (in McCarry’s piece) or Didion are able to, or want to ‘think in abstracts’. I’m also interested in how Zambreno’s book is a “materialization” of the blog — a “trivial” form turned into something “heavyweight”. Like Rhys using the hat to talk about how difficult it is to be any kind of woman: “All the hats nowadays are very difficult to wear.”
Thoughts on her depiction of the women in the book.
MBJ: My page-to-page reaction to the book involved some criticism of the way Zambreno inhabited/romanticized this image of the hurting/hurt silenced woman. (The LARB review touched on this, so did Full Stop’s recent Book Club Discussion). And there are moments when she imagines herself in their place, presents herself as wanting to “be” that woman. Especially in the early parts of the book, this was problematic for me. How can you rehabilitate this woman and yet glorify her erasure at the same time? I am not a feminist scholar (although very much a feminist) so I don’t have an answer to this question, but I wanted Zambreno to hint at one or lead me somewhere else. I didn’t want her to stop there. She addresses my concerns in the text:
I don’t think this is just some fanatic adoration or uninformed romanticism by some grown-up goth girls who later become poets and fiction writers — I think there’s recognition embedded in this, the realization of these women’s struggles in their material lives to even make the work, and a decision to memorialize how this struggle ended… (pg. 207).
So she isn’t romanticizing, she is memorializing… and this idea gives me pause, makes me think further about this idea of moving the erased woman forward and re-contextualizing her in the here and now, making us see how that legacy is still played out. In that sense, Zambreno’s project is immensely successful.
HM: I think this whole discussion about the “romanticized” woman is really important to have, both in the context of Heroines and wider; the idea of the “strong woman” is an essentialism in itself, but has only become so through a kind of wrestling of narratives away from women for so long. We see strong women particularly in cinema and on TV — the type of strong that is traditionally presented as masculine — the gunslinger, the silent violent woman — wrapped up in a package of traditional white femininity — the blonde, thin girl. I think there are such women in fiction too, but I tend to steer clear if possible. Maybe in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? It’s a question of the dominant narrative. These strong girls are everywhere we look, and given space for their interiority, but Zambreno’s frail, appearance-obsessed women are, if present, the bad guys. The hags, as she puts it, or on their way to being hags. It’s nice to see them here, being dusted off, given a kind, expansive look.
I do think it’s hard to watch Sasha Jensen in Good Morning, Midnight slowly slide under, but it’s also done with wit and flair. I laughed quite a bit at the fatalism of it, the dark humour of the bald woman with the comb comes to mind — but not from a leering position. Watching her kicking back, in a way, against her decline. But then I think of the image of Woolf and Plath, how I keep seeing these re-blogged images on Tumblr of them looking faintly sad, and notice how they as paper thin images of themselves are being memorialised, rather than their texts. And I think, how hard it must have been for them to write. That’s what I think of, rather than picking up their books to see what they did read. It can be dangerous to shrink the author to their image. It’s kind of a human impulse, especially online, where things can be shared so fast, to speak in a kind of shorthand, in symbols. Does Zambreno do this? Maybe a little, but she expands the conversation, casts her light over the half-forgotten, and crucially, there’s something in her style that really invites engagement. For me, anyway.
Having said that, I’ve been having a discussion with a friend about how Zambreno foregrounds the girl in Heroines, even using it to describe women in their thirties, like Zelda Fitzgerald. I’m wondering if anyone else found this problematic. I didn’t have such a problem with it myself, as I felt that she delineated “girl” so broadly as to leave a lot of room in there. The idea of slightness, of bodies placed and placing themselves on pedestals. But should Zambreno have widened her lens?
JW: ‘Shrinking’ a writer to her image would be wrong but that might be to underestimate the depths of image-mining for women writers in particular — for whom image — whether they like it or not — is so closely tied to self.
Chris Kraus in Video Green identifies why ‘confessional’ lit is found distasteful, and offers a solution — to confess without shame, and without desire for absolution:
I think that “privacy” is to contemporary female art what “obscenity” was to male art and literature of the 1960s. The willingness of someone to use her life as primary material is still deeply disturbing, and even more so if she views her own experience at some remove. There is no problem with female confession providing it is made within a repentant therapeutic narrative. But to examine things coolly, to thrust experience out of one’s own brain and put it on the table, is still too confrontational.
MBJ: I absolutely love Chris Kraus’s thoughts here on our revulsion/fear of the female confession — and this would apply to how that confession works itself out in fiction, how female writers inhabit their heroes and heroines, and how readers expect these characters to feel/behave. The women in Heroines, including Zambreno, are not “exercising restraint” or “following established narratives” and this is unsettling. The mixed reaction to Heroines itself has proven that.
CC: Zambreno’s representations of the hurting/silenced woman tend toward the heteronormative, yet she doesn’t erase queer women writers. In fact, Zambreno represents queer women quite well in Heroines, with substantial discussions of Stein & Toklas, Bowles, Nin, Woolf. And I do love & agree with Michelle’s perspective of memorializing rather than romanticizing.
In Zambreno’s Paris Review interview with Christopher Higgs, she mentions that Sheila Heti thinks of Heroines as a novel. Is there a discussion to be had about this idea?
JW: I’m fascinated by Heti and her “novel from life”. She’s given the genre — previously associated with popular “confessional” journalism — a name, as well as pushing its boundaries in How Should A Person Be. The line between fiction and non-fiction is a fine one for women, even when it’s not their intention. Whether they like it or not they are associated with the protagonists of their books. It’s something to do with the interface of appearance — that a woman is what she appears to be, that her appearance is artificially achieved and is the pinnacle of her art (one of the reasons that Zelda F the muse couldn’t simultaneously be Zelda F the writer?). We know what Rhys, what Woolf looked like: they’re all over their own book covers, seemingly characters from their own novels. New Directions’ new editions of four of Clarice Lispector’s books form a jigsaw that makes up the writer’s face! I started a project drawing women ‘semiautobiographers’ (Emily Cooke’s term http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-semiautobiographers/) , and thinking about how they write about appearance, here. Zambreno finds herself dressing like a few of her subjects. Why — it’s never quite defined — to absorb their experiences? She buys a particular nail varnish as a tribute to Zelda’s stay in a Swiss asylum — what a complicated, yet somehow accessible, reaction to a text! Maybe it’s about the way women are expected to access everything through some kind of commodification…
Heti wrote here about the way her own (a women’s ‘semiautobiographical’) writing, is seen as narcissistic, and why this kind of ‘narcissism’ — including attention to self-image — is where art comes from.
MBJ: Letting Heroines slide toward the novel frees it in many ways, I think — or at least, perhaps, gives readers an easier way of understanding how Zambreno herself fits into the book. I think keeping it complicated, leaving and accepting its hybrid nature is where the conversation opens up into some really exciting spaces. In the Paris Review interview with Higgs, I was interested to see Higgs’s statement that the line between memoir and criticism felt more rigid than between fiction and memoir, and that Zambreno politely disagreed. And then she goes on to say, “I think it’s really important to involve the body, the messy, undisciplined body, in our writing. I feel that’s a radical, feminist thing to do.”
It strikes me that much of the conversation that has come up around Heroines is a conversation about how women write — whether fiction, criticism, memoir, whatever — and how they should be writing. Maybe once we get rid of that “should” the conversation will fundamentally and finally change.