Women Are Mad, Men Are Geniuses: ‘Heroines’

Kate Zambreno’s Heroines is a hard book to read. Every page is a reckoning with the unbearable phallocentrism of Writing as An Institution, and for the reader who’s also a marginalised, struggling writer and/or female, it’s a memory trigger. There’s a thread running through Heroines that memory-work is political. That the literary canon is “a memory campaign that verges on propaganda, that the books remembered are the only ones worth reading.” It’s impossible to review the book dispassionately. Zambreno’s style invites personal recollection; it’s affecting, and in order to get what she’s doing with this book one has to be able to feel it.

Heroines is part literary criticism, part literary history, part memoir, part feminist polemic. In its form and in its writing, Heroines is what the author is trying to rescue and reclaim: to use Zambreno’s favourite words, it’s messy, girly, and excessive. It’s also sharp, finely-structured, and meticulously (voraciously) researched. Heroines grew out of Zambreno’s blog, Frances Farmer is My Sister, or more precisely, the blog grew out of ideas for a book. In an interview with The Rumpus, Zambreno talks about her earlier plans to write a fictionalised notebook titled “Mad Wife”—and is comprised of many things, but is most clearly made up of equal parts rage and reflection.

Zambreno began blogging after her partner took up a university job in Akron, Ohio, and the early sections of Heroines record much of what Zambreno finds stultifying and destabilising about being The Wife in a new place: “I have become used to wearing, it seems, the constant pose of the foreigner.” Like Helene Cixous in “Coming to Writing”, Zambreno begins to form an invisible community—communing with the women writers and the “mad wives of modernism”—a community borne out of invention, yes, but also need. The brutal honesty with which Zambreno recognises her particular condition—“I am realising you become a wife, despite the mutual attempt at an egalitarian partnership, once you agree to move for him”—is both disruptive and comforting to the reader. Here is a truth alongside other truths and someone is finally speaking it, but here is the truth and we must now face it.

At the end of reading Heroines, I had accumulated about 17 pages of handwritten notes. Heroines brought into clear view for me names that had only circulated vaguely around my head from an undergraduate survey course in Modernism in Literature. Perhaps my professors had mentioned Zelda Fitzgerald and Vivien(ne) Eliot’s writing, but then why didn’t I remember any of it? The result is that I read the early sections of Heroines with a kind of numb shock. As Maggie Nelson writes in her blurb for the book, “if you didn’t know much [about the “wives” of modernism], your mouth will fall open in enraged amazement.” Vivien(ne) and Tom’s troubled and troubling marriage; Vivien(ne)’s writing cast aside, T.S. Eliot the writer winning the Nobel Prize a year after her death—after he left her, after he hid in bathrooms allowing his secretaries to calm his “mad” wife, after using her lines, her typing services, and disregarding her worth as her writer. Vivien(ne) with her female maladies, staining the bedsheet red. Zambreno tells us of what Vivien(ne)’s brother said to Michael Hastings, the British playwright who wrote Tom & Viv: “Viv’s sanitary towels always put a man off.”

Dear reader, I read that and saw red.

These “wives” of modernism didn’t just suffer at the hands of various men, including their husbands, but were also negated or ignored, made invisible or an object of derision by other women, particularly women writers like Virginia Woolf who had to slay their own demons both in life and on the page. Woolf, who so memorably and wittily describes Vivien(ne) as “this bag of ferrets … Tom wears around his neck”. Zambreno writes: “I think of Viv as the mad double Virginia both identifies with and wants to disassociate herself from.” And this is perhaps also something that infuses Elizabeth Hardwick’s critical writings of other women writers.

Hardwick’s essay on Zelda Fitzgerald in Seduction and Betrayal is curiously committed to omitting the recognition of gender and patriarchal norms; she talks of Zelda and Scott as being twins, and how “only one of the twins is the real artist”, seemingly complacent in her acceptance of the accepted notion that F. Scott Fitzgerald was the real artist while his wife was merely mildly talented, but more of a dilettante. It seems like a neverending senseless loop, this question of artistry, genius, and legitimacy: only a real artist like F. Scott Fitzgerald would be acclaimed; thus, because F. Scott is acclaimed, he is the real artist. Nowhere in this interrogation does Hardwick devote much attention to how phallocentrism structures the creative output of men and women, and how it structures how those works are received. As Zambreno points out, even while Hardwick seems sympathetic to Zelda’s situation, she seems keen to distance herself from that kind of “mess”, to render a particular form of female experience as sick, perhaps, and dysfunctional, and therefore something to be pitied but not common or predictable or in any way relatable.

But then I think of Linda Wagner-Martin’s biography of Zelda, and how she writes that “Zelda’s crack-up gave [Scott] both alibi and cover.” If men’s wives are officially mad—diagnosis confirms it!—then men are never to blame. Badly-behaving, outright misogynist husbands can be forgiven, excused, comforted, and indulged. But as Zambreno points out through all her meticulous research of these ignored and sidelined women, all Zelda wanted to do was whatever she needed to do at the time: write, using her own life—herself—as the material. This made the Real Writer of the marriage, the husband, really, really angry. Scott tells Zelda, “You were going crazy and calling it genius.” Hardwick seems to buy this assessment in her essay. Zambreno explains: “In a way, Hardwick’s essay reads as an elaborate defense of the supreme rights of (male) artist.” Wagner-Martin, in her biography: “The irony of the Scott-Zelda relationship from the start, however, was that Scott regularly usurped Zelda’s story.”

Heroines is thus also a meditation on writing and the act of creation: whose lives count as “material”, and who gets to use and shape the material into the story? Whose hand guides the words? When it’s women who are mining their own lives for both material and meaning, it’s all-too easily seen as easy, lazy, unreflective, unworthy work. “The self-portrait, as written by a woman, is read as somehow dangerous and indulgent,” Zambreno writes, and asks, “Why is self-expression, the relentless self-portrait, not a potentially legitimate form of art?” For me, these questions bring up attendant questions about writing and accountability, about how the need to create can be an almost-parasitical hunger that feeds on people’s lives, even (or perhaps especially) their own.

Zambreno takes exception to Toril Moi’s aversion to a certain type of women’s confessional writing in Sexual/Textual Politics, where Moi dismisses it as a kind of “narcisstic delving into one’s own self”. Yet these are questions that trouble me, and I can’t oppose them as clearly as Zambreno does, to see all objection to narcissism (or even the use of the term narcissism) as a form of censorship that attempts to silence women’s writing. Clearly the fact of sexism structures how writing and publishing operate as an institution, and Zambreno certainly makes a fine case about just how openly and covertly patriarchy attempts to silence women’s voices that do not fit its image of “good woman”.

But I also wonder about the dangers of looking inward, the idea of the self that might harden and become its own kind of hegemony. The danger when one starts to believe that one’s condition doesn’t reveal a particular human condition, but is the human condition. Can looking inward feed upon itself so thoroughly that it, does, in fact, become a form of narcissism? Where you’re so attuned to your own pain that you’re unable to recognise the pain of others, or worse, imagine that your pain is the pain of others?

I recognise that a big part of Zambreno’s project in Heroines is its effort of reclamation: as such, she tells the stories of the neglected, abandoned, derided writers and writer-wives of literary history in order to project a different, erased history. As such, her perspective is clear and focus is sharp: these women are rescued from formerly patriarchal narratives and given new forms of being in the pages of Heroines. Still, all of these women are white, and most of them come from a background with roots in bourgeois respectability, and so I recognise that while another story is being told, the whole story is, perhaps, still unclear.

Heroines is a record of how these women were wronged, and it’s a necessary intervention into both literary history and criticism, but we don’t hear anything about how these women may have used their class and social position and their whiteness in order to get ahead, how they may have exploited other people, people who were economically, politically, and socially positioned as middle and upper class white women’s lesser others. (I think of Toni Morrison’s 1989 interview in Time magazine, quoted in Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman, where Morrison talks about the old-boys network and the “shared bounty of class.” Although many of the women writers Zambreno writes about were often deprived of independent income, and some even fell into poverty, I still wonder about the class networks and social connections that may have worked in their favour, even when patriarchy stood in the way.)

As such, these women tend to come off uniformly victimised, wholly victims of patriarchy and nothing else. And while I recognise Zambreno’s need to record instances of “girl-on-girl” crime, it also makes me somewhat uncomfortable—as though all writing by women, then, is somehow necessarily above criticism. This is a grey and complex area, obviously, but I can’t help but wonder if this lets women writers off the hook a little too easily. Criticism from other women critics can often stem from internalised sexism, no doubt, but other forms of criticism take to task certain forms of confessional writing by women writers because it stays silent on issues of race, class, and sexuality, or worse, considers those issues unimportant in relation to one’s own work. Zambreno writes:

“This idea that one must control oneself and stop being so FULL of self remains a dominating theory around mental illness, and, perhaps tellingly, around other patriarchal laws and narratives, including the ones governing and disciplining literature.”

This is certainly true, but I would rather not see it as an either/or option: either write, FULL of self, or suppress the self and suffer. The problem of writing the self is that the self can become all-encompassing, preventing the writer from hearing the stories of others. Being full of self can work as a form of self-care and self-preservation, and this is necessary, but sometimes the self needs to be shattered open into recognising and accepting other possibilities. So there is a danger, perhaps, in not interrogating statements like “The subaltern condition of being a literary wife,” when literary wives may at least get a stab at writing and giving voice to their thoughts on the page, while the true subaltern (may speak, write, shout, scream) and remain unheard by ears that are trained only to listen to the voice of the self or voices that sound similar to the self. There is a form of power in writing, despite how it’s received—and perhaps this is a power that is all too conveniently ignored by those of us who do write.

And Zambreno does exhort her girl readers/writers to write—“to write and refuse erasure while we’re living at least”—and is ecstatic about the proliferation of Tumblrs, blogs, and Livejournals by girls and young women that are at turns “emo, promiscuous, gorgeous, dizzying, jarring, irreverent, cinephilic, consumed, consuming, wanting, wiity, violent, self-loathing or self-doubting”, to quote just some of her adjectives, I’m also wondering about the attendant tyranny of these forms of social media and blog platforms that demand and require the personal. If we’re writing on the internet we’re using some if not most of this technology, and all of us are daily exhorted to share, divulge, like, favourite, promote, or take a gpoy or a selfie.

While it’s true that many subvert the rules of engagement on social media and blog platforms—by posting deliberately unappealing selfies, for example, or selfies of the ungroomed self—the internet is also run by corporations who try to exploit, in increasingly covert and “creative” ways, users’ personal information. And the young, pretty, wayward girl is now profitable data in a still (still!) sexist society. So much of girls’ writing online, like in the case of Marie Calloway, is (still!) used against them. One thinks about the problem of encouraging girls to write and also to be responsible and accountable to themselves and to each other; the problem of how to use oneself and one’s loved ones as material or content with care in a culture of increased surveillance, especially when the technology we use for writing and performing is also the technology that enables the surveillance and scrutiny.

In her earlier works of fiction O Fallen Angel and Green Girl, Zambreno gave us devastating yet finely-wrought portraits of girls in distress—portraits of acute suffering, where the girl in question (Maggie in O Fallen Angel, Ruth in Green Girl) is unable to consider the world outside of her because she is, in some ways, trapped inside. This, I think, is a testament to Zambreno’s intelligence and artistry—and a cultivated sense of empathy—and also a searing portrait of the fractious and unstable female self and its relation to mental illness. An important theme in Heroines is the institutionalisation and medicalisation of women—how the same misogyny that brings about or catalyses the splits in self in the female subject is the same misogyny that is applied to treat and “cure” it, and it is in these passages that Zambreno is particularly acute, sensitive, and moving. As she points out, language is itself complicit: “I’ve always found the language of borderline personality diagnosis, a label assigned to women almost entirely, compelling in that it’s an identity disorder which is defined almost exclusively by not actually having an identity.” Zambreno writes about always having had a “tremendous fear of being institutionalised”—and relates this to how works and canonised:

“(She was institutionalized, as Mad Woman, as Bad Wife, and he was institutionalized, as the Great American Author.)”

Institutionalisation is also a memory campaign, where the man-artist is generalised and the woman-artist individualised. I’d like to think of Heroines as a cure for this wilful, institutionalised amnesia. It’s a book that has lodged itself in my mind and likely to stay there for a long time, despite, or maybe even because of some of my problems with certain sections of the book. It seems fitting to let Zambreno have the last word:

“Fuck the canon. Fuck the boys with their big books.”

RATING 8 / 10