After yet another review in the New York Times Book Review about some book about Scott Fitzgerald, I felt it was time to write something about Kate Zambreno’s book Heroines. I taught some of it this semester past and made at least a couple of Zambreno converts.

Zambreno’s Heroines (Semiotexte 2012) is in both form and content an attempt at a counter-narrative of modernist literature. Zambreno: “I align myself with a genealogy of erased women.” (157) But rather than reclaim the modernist classics for a feminist reading, or discover exemplary female modernist writers in the shadows of the great men, Zambreno pursues a different tack. Heroines is centered not on the success stories but on the fuck-ups.

Zambreno: “The chattering woman is the muse of modernism.” (83) These muses have been objectified and erases twice, by literature and then psychiatry. There’s a phalanx of Ophelias who fascinated literary men with their complicated and forceful desires. They were too much. But they were too, too much when their desires were thwarted and they kicked up a fuss about it. Their wild side lent them to literature as characters, and then to psychiatry as patients.

There’s a vein of feminist critic for whom these Ophelias are formative, but in the forms to which their men-folk drafted them. Thus Kristeva draws from the French symbolists, Cixous from Molly Bloom’s ‘monologue’ in Ulysses. L’écriture feminine has links to automatic writing. But what if one lifted the repression of the biographical still lingering from the theoretical turn, and included the lives within the project of a theory of writing and gender?

One might think here too of Wilde’s Salome, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Yeats’ Georgie-girl, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. Who were the women who ‘inspired’ these men, these fictions? “Perhaps Madame Bovary’s disease is not boredom. It’s being trapped as the character in someone else’s novel.” (157) And what became of them? As for Flaubert, “He was milked and fed and cultivated and allowed.” (209) But the women? What were the affordances of their lives?

In this respect the moderns may not have been all that different from the realists and the romantics. “They fetishized the actress-hysteric, the spastic flapper-girl, the witty mystic, the lovely mental patient, they sucked her bone dry.” (85) This character, incidentally, is still with us, for example as the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ of romantic comedy. She takes a critical turn as Hannah Black’s magnificent ‘Overly Attached Girlfriend.’ But today as for two centuries of mostly male writers “she is raw material.” (87)

Here I think Zambreno helps us dissent from Friedrich Kittler’s influential media theory of modernism. For Kittler, the muse gives way to the secretary. Modernism breaks the link between the author’s gesture with pen on page, and converts woman as muse to woman as typist, becoming the intermediary between the great man and the work. For Kittler modernism is about the disaggregation of sensory functions from the body and their attachment to various apparatus.

But what we find in Zambreno is quite different. The muse does not go away. In some cases she becomes a secretary too but without losing the muse function. A more important part of the story, unobserved by Kittler, is her erasure as any kind of author in her own right. Sustaining the myth of the author as creator requires the omission, even the suppression, of those chattering women who were authors of themselves. “The entire history of Western literature is dominated by absolute pricks, I realize, pricks that can’t get hard but yet ejaculate with such eloquent language.” (228)

What Zambreno rescues is not so much women as The Girl, the figure that Tiqqun have labeled the Jeune-Fille. In their account she can only be an avatar of spectacle, an empty sign animating the commodity form. The Girl is a figure nobody quite knows what to do with. For De Beauvoir she is associated with Colette and a certain narcissism that women’s writing has to shed. Most feminist recoding of culture and literature are wary of her. “They neglect the concept that a philosophy of the girl is even possible.” (263) And yet she is everywhere in the shadows of literary modernism, starting with that multi-lingual lass Lucia Joyce helping out her father with her ready capacity for the pun.

It has to be said that the women of modernism mostly did not get along. “The Dinner Party of modern literary women, if it was anything like Bloomsbury, would be pretty vicious.” (93) Anaïs Nin was snubbed by both Anna Kavan and Djuna Barnes, about whom she wrote positively. Virginia Woolf rather despised Viv Eliot, describing her as a sack of ferrets around TS Eliot’s neck. And so on. “Gertrude Stein was basically a patriarch, right?” (226) She held forth with the literary dudes while Alice B. Toklas entertained their wives in the kitchen. Nor was inter-generational contact all that strong. The figure of The Girl and what Zambreno calls The Hag were not there to help each other. “Of course the two women are supposed to be enemies, not former and future selves.” (226)

The Surrealists made particularly vigorous use of the “red-lipped Ophelias” that populated their times. (83) Or they tried to.“They know how to undress her but not how to unravel her.” (153) The Suurealists were arty versions of the bro. “So many brilliant girls in Surrealism who catalyzed books and artworks – they were the empty lovely receptacles he could fill with his own spirit.” (133) Of whom Breton’s Nadja is only the best known. “Breton was not in love with Nadja, he was just surgically fascinated with her.” (151) Or consider Bataille editing and publishing the work of Colette Peignot, but neglecting to mention her political activism. Women were seen as acting out a philosophy for their male writers, but they grow bored with her once they have to deal with her for real.

And then there’s the women for whom certain male Surrealists had what Zambreno calls “revulsion boners.” (130) Bataille for Simone Weill, Breton for Claude Cahun, Duchamp for Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. They weren’t very good at dealing with “Women who nakedly threw off the mask of femininity, who were depicted as grotesques in these texts.” (130) Duchamp’s drag act as Rose Sélavy, like Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary c’est moi” makes the male creator the sole agent and proprietor of the feminine. The imminent reissue of Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook makes me wonder if that was his Emma Bovary.

It is alarming to learn that Leonard Woolf restricted Virginia Woolf to writing one hour a day, supposedly for her health. But at least she got to write some of the canonic works of modernism. Vivien (aka Vivienne) Eliot was not so ‘fortunate’. Virginia says “she was as wild as Ophelia.” (91) And she ended up in much the same state. Zambreno: “They all betrayed her. She was a minor character.” (101) Those modernist men were committed to their art; their women they committed to psychiatric asylums. Viv Eliot was not allowed to see her father’s will. She found herself committed after she asked about it. What happened to her diaries and papers? “Under different circumstances and with more strength and less of a mother who crafted her as an invalid from childhood, she could have been an author. Or maybe if she had not married Eliot it would never have occurred to her.” (107) Still, question remain as to which lines in The Wasteland are actually hers, and as to why the stanza she wrote for it is not in the received and canonic version.

And then there’s Zelda Fitzgerald. She wanted to work, at ballet, or writing, but she wasn’t allowed. There could only be one creator. Zelda on Scott’s The Beautiful and the Damned: “plagiarism begins at home” (117) Zambreno: “She doomed to immanence, he allowed transcendence, or the time to procrastinate wildly and eventually get the words on the page, words marrying more words.” (169) She did write a book, however, called Save the Waltz. “In Waltz we get a sense of the heroine’s daily insurrections, her loneliness and apartness.” (196) But Scott would not allow her to write about her own life. As he wrote to her: “I am the professional novelist, and I am supporting you. That is all my material. None of it is your material.” (218) Lawyers were involved. Zelda ended up in an asylum. She endured shock treatments. She died in a fire in the asylum, identified only by a shoe. So while it is true enough that “Mr Fitzgerald is a novelist, Mrs Fizgerald is a novelty,” how much force did it take to keep her down? (243)

Zambreno is aware not only of the external but also the internal forces that can keep women from becoming more than the authors of their own appearances. She compares Christopher Isherwood’s Sally Bowles to todays “art school chicks.” Zambreno: “Today Sally Bowles would totally audition for America’s Next Top Model and be cast as the alterna-crazy.” (116) They find themselves rewarded for spectacularizing themselves. But Isherwood based Sally Bowles in part on Jean Ross, a leftist journalist. As with Bataille’s version of Colette Peignot, the litrary avatar of The Girl is a construct based on erasing the praxis from the life to leave just the appearances.

Is it really the case, however, that women writers do more justice to other women, when turning them into characters? Zambreno does not want to too quickly erase the difficulty here. “Perhaps making someone a character is a way of alienating them from themselves, so that their lives are read through the character.” (155) After all, Djuna Barnes performed this kind of erasure too, in Nightwood. The literary efforts of the girlfriend on whom it is based are erased from the story. Still, Zambreno thinks a case can be made that Anaïs Nin understood June Miller better than Henry Miller did, and renders more of her agency on the page. Comparing André Breton’s women to Tennessee Williams’, it is not hard to see the difference. Williams loved them.

Zambreno follows up the interwar story with two women who became famous in postwar American letters: Elizabeth Hardwick and Mary McCarthy. These are the generation after Zelda and managed rather better to become authors rather than just characters, despite the difficult negotiations with their literary husbands. Still, Hardwick did not know what to do when Adrienne Rich left her husband and became both a lesbian and a poet. I have to say I never quite understood the cult of Hardwick, who seems to me to embody all the vices of mediocrity in what is still regarded as ‘literature’ in postwar America. That Hardwick, like McCarthy, did not know what to make of second wave feminism does rather point to the limits of their worldview.

Zambreno: “I feel compelled to act as the literary executor of the dead and erased.” (110) This might not just be a question of putting new content into the old canon, however, but might involve a reassessment of what even counts as the literary, even after modernism, or particularly after modernism. “Inherent in any dismissal of women writers who draw from memoir is a bias against autobiography that comes out of modernism.” (235) Perhaps we are still under the spell of TS Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’, where for a text to be literary, strong emotion has to find its correlative objects and situations.

Modernism emerges as a kind of disciplinary regime, yet another way of observing, cataloguing and containing women’s bodies. “The masculine modernist process of creation (author/muse), mirrors not only the mystic-confessor relationship but also the doctor-patient relationship in the Freudian talking cure…” (117-118) The wild young women of the modern era, having given up their images and stories to literature, all too often ended up telling them again to psychiatrists. The flighty young thing just couldn’t fly hard or fast enough to escape her role as object of another’s desire.

There’s a sense here in which modernism was not modern at all, but a rather reactionary movement, or ‘family’ of movements. Raymond Williams writes eloquently in The Long Revolution of the gradual process of the democratization of the right to create. At first, only God was the Creator, and all of art merely mimesis. Romantic poetry claimed a special right to creation for an elect few, against the background of a merely imitative culture.

What modernism should have been, and in some rare versions actually was, is the further democratization of the right to create. Proletkult was one such modernism; negritude is another. In both cases deep questions of a revolution in form had to be posed and answered. They might start with the master’s tools but they built new literatures. To give just one example: Andrey Platonov’s factory of literature, which asks in a profound way what an entirely different production process might be for the creation of proletarian culture.

The struggle for a women’s writing is I think analogous. Like proletkult and negritude, it points to the formal conservatism and atavism of modernist literature. High modernism made the non-white, the worker and the woman into ventriloquist dummies, saying the lines it rather romantically assumed were theirs. And of course the rival claim to creation of the woman, the worker or the non-white has to be denied, erased, consigned by means of ‘taste’ to the non-literary — when not erased by disciplinary power, as in the case of Zelda and Vivien. Zambreno: “This process, this model of the writer as god, as Creator, obliterates whomever came before.” (145)

Heroines digs up the dirty secrets about the more ‘difficult’ women of modernism, the Vivs and Zeldas, rather than those who could be more ‘positive role models’. Of course one needs both, but the latter is a different project. Somebody really should translate more Claude Cahun, that wonderful dissenter from gender norms, aberrant surrealist, and heroic resister of the Nazis. Or: forget the surrealists and let’s move on. Michèle Bernstein was not only a cofounder of the Situationist International, but she wrote two terrific short novels, The Night and All The King’s Horses, which are alive with subtle strategies for negotiating love, sex and gender within the constraints of the postwar modernist avant-gardes. Or more recently, there’s Béatriz Preciado’s lists of an alternative ‘canon’ of non-gender conforming artist-activists. One could list many more.

Zambreno’s particular project is different, and framed around two darlings of The Great American Novel: “I decided someday I wanted to write the Infinite Jest for fellow fucked-up girls, for the slit-your-wrists girls like me. I hadn’t even finished Infinite Jest, but I knew it didn’t speak to me, just like I knew Kerouac’s On the Road didn’t speak to me, because he kept on writing about jumping into girls, and I knew I was one of the girls who were fucked and forgotten.” (250) A big down-payment towards that ambition is her novel Green Girl, about a modern-day Ophelia, working as a shopgirl, treading the dank streets of London, trying to get her shit together.

Zambreno’s writing, in both Heroines and Green Girl, certainly struck a chord with some of my students. I think it is because she does not write about ideal heroines. This isn’t ‘feminist realism’. It’s a writing about unformed characters, ‘toxic girls’, where the messiness of their lives finds a ‘subjective correlative’ in a fluid literary form. It is related to memoir, but also different from what memoir has become as a commerical genre. There’s no therapy-lite path from confession to redemption. Zambreno’s heroines are always dealing with their protean, inchoate selves. They don’t need fixing. They need forms that allow them to remain usefully unfixed. In both Heroines and Green Girl, Zambreno succeeds in providing them.

There is already a counter-literature that might point towards a different approach, an alternate, low modernism. Zambreno: “I wonder what would have happened if instead of reading the great gods in my twenties I had stumbled upon Jean Rhys…” (266) Or, looking at more contemporary writing, there’s Kathy Acker, Cookie Mueller, Dennis Cooper, Eileen Myles, Chris Kraus, Lidia Yuknavich… There’s a whole other literature of low modernism and its successors in which minor characters, fuck-ups, toxic girls, losers, queers, become the creators of their own forms, thus actually living up to the promise of what modernism was supposed to be for Williams. If not quite in the form he expected.

There is a media theory story here, but not quite the one Kittler finds. Modernism is the era of mass print and mass literacy. So much of what became canonic modernist literature – even some supposedly leftist ones – reacted in panic against this. The tools of creation were not to be put in the hands of just anyone, if reactionary modernism could help it. Thus it came up with good and some not so good theories as to why this could not be so, of why creation had to remain a privilege.

We are at one of those junctures again. Zambreno: “How Kathy Acker would have loved these tumblrs.” (279) Zambreno detects a new kind of online textual presence, “the girl as ecstatic and promiscuous reader.” (278) Heroines started as an online blog, before being massively redacted, rewritten and edited into book form. There’s interesting questions here about the extent to which the internet should be thought as a new form as a space for a literature, and to what extent it is an uncreative raw material.

Or more to the point: it enables an asking of questions about who gets to be an author, who gets to create, who ‘owns’ what, and whether words can ever actually be owned at all. Here what Kenneth Goldsmith calls uncreative writing might be a useful counterpoint in thinking not just the democratization of creation, or the reaction to it from above, but the critique of it from below. The postmodern is revealed in this light as a boys-own attempt to recapture the high ground by shifting the terms of what ‘creation’ might mean. But this too can be brought low, returned to the popular spirit of détournement.

Or as Zambreno says, “compose yourself”! (76)