Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Things I wrote

Happy May Day, y'all. My sweetheart is still quite sick and it's snowing (AGAIN), so I'm not sure what's happy about it yet, but maybe I'll see a herd of elk in Golden again?

I wanted to point you to some new work up online. First, a selection of poans (poem-koans!) from The Self Unstable at Boston Review. They look like this:

I was bitten by a feral cat, who left her fang behind in my hand. My dream life has its own past, memories I only access when asleep. When something hurts in a dream, where do you feel the pain? Is there an analog in the real world? And likewise, for the beauty? If we can’t change the past, regret is a waste of time, but not worry or longing. Still, I prefer regret. If time is a vector, we are passengers facing the rear of the train.

Many thanks to Timothy Donnelly for selecting these pieces for the annual National Poetry Month feature.

Second, a long essay (refill your coffee) about Kate Zambreno's Heroines and its critical reception: "The Madwoman and the Critic." Here's a paragraph from the essay:

It’s risky to write a memoir, or anything resembling one, because you will inevitably be judged on the basis of your self, your personhood, and not simply your writing. You may find yourself to be an “unlikeable character.” And if a reader takes a strong dislike to you, they may have trouble disentangling that from their opinion of the book. Reading reviews of Heroines, even before I had finished the book, I wanted to argue with their authors, because the rhetoric felt suspect on its face. There has been a tendency to get personal, to reveal judgmental attitudes toward Zambreno’s life choices or her emotional responses. (Has she any right to be unhappy, to complain? Isn’t her life relatively cushy? But this of course is not how depression, how happiness, works.) But I’m not going to try to convince you to like Kate Zambreno. I just want you to take her seriously. Zambreno is a radical, and we need radicals. We need people who go too far and say too much, people who are so passionate they’re angry, who are a little out of control. Like a Michael Moore, she is probably not going to convince anyone on the far right to become a feminist, but she might convince a leftist that they’re not progressive enough.

It's basically an act of meta-criticism, and I use most of the space to dismantle two reviews of the book that I found particularly "problematic," in that they either misrepresent the book or attack it using the same dismissive language, used for years against women, that is essentially the subject of Zambreno's book.

I'd like to say more about my complicated feelings re: writing and publishing this essay, but I'm not sure how. Suffice it to say that I am not against "negative reviews" done right; I don't believe in sparing the artist's feelings. However, I take issue with spiteful, unfair, or manipulative hatchet jobs. To avoid what I call dismissive criticism, you should come to a book generously, read it carefully, and engage with it honestly before laying down judgment. If you're incapable of doing that (because you hate the book on sight, say), maybe don't review it?


  1. Your essay on Heroines is brilliant, EG. I especially appreciate the part you quote here about needing people who "say too much," especially women who do, and especially because what's often labeled as "too much" for women writers and performers is much, much less than what might be considered "too much" (too much information, too much confidence, too much conflict, too much unlikeability and so on)for men.

    It reminds me a little bit of an interview that was on the radio yesterday with the comedian Amy Schumer whose "project" is very different than Zambreno's, but which gets kind of similar criticism in the TMI/out of control department:

    I like her point that "People get more riled up about a woman having confidence in herself than anything else, I think. And when you have confidence, they're like: Does she have a right to have all this confidence. Well, yeah. I feel like I have something to say and then I have a right to say it. And if I'm not their thing, that's fine. I think it's good for people to see a woman who's unapologetic and unafraid of what the response is going to be."

    1. Thanks so much, K. I think Zambreno's writing bravely embodies this style of "feminine excess" that has always icked people out, but at the same time I experience it as very controlled and deliberate. Controlled madness! "Mad" is especially appropriate because she is (rightfully) angry. I almost quoted this paragraph instead:

      In the end Winter seems to mock the very idea of “repression.” She diagnoses Zambreno with “precognition of rampant misogyny.” I resent this bored dismissal, this yawning refusal to grant that all the world’s problems haven’t been solved, or at least that “repression” is a problem worth getting one’s panties bunched about. Misogyny is rampant. (If you don’t have PMS, you’re not paying attention.) I feel protective of this book because I know how few its sympathetic readers are, how few people care what a “crazy” woman has to say about “crazy” women.

      I'll check out the Amy Schumer interview.

  2. Also, re: "likeability" and how women writers/characters/personae get critiqued much more for a lack of it, I thought Claire Messud's point about it was very well-made:

    1. Yes, I just saw that! Convergence. I'm no fan of Claire Messud, but amen.

  3. Great essay. I too feel protective of Heroines. I want to lend it to everyone, to make everyone read it, and at the same time I want to keep it away from people, because I don't want to hear them say something stupid about it. The stupid things are right there, they're so obvious (ew she's depressed, she shops, TMI, if she had REAL problems...), and it's just, please pick something else to say, people. PLEASE.

    1. Agreed, I am tired of hearing the same old sexist criticisms. It's a difficult book so it needs patient readers.

  4. Elisa Gabbert's latest foray into prose, The Delft Unstable, does not depart from the somber, elegiac tone of her first two novels, but it marks an abrupt change in focus. Where her debut novel The Socialism of Fools mourned the end of the era of distinctive cities, and her sophomore effort Old Buffalo wore its anti-capitalist heart on its sleeve, The Delft Unstable turns sharply inward. The narrator (whose name we never learn) describes the world around her with a sharp visual sense, but with a flat affect. She spends most of her time world-building within her head, endlessly tinkering with ideas until they have taken on a life of their own.

    The novel starts with a thought experiment posed in an undergraduate philosophy class, about a "Delft stable." The class moves on, but the narrator can't let go of the idea. When her boyfriend gets a job in Paris, she goes with him - mostly for the opportunity to visit Delft, we suspect. But once she arrives in the little Dutch town, things go wrong very quickly. I won't reveal the crucial plot twist, but suffice it to say that the narrator finds herself in desperate straits in a country she is ill-suited to navigate. Things play out more or less as they must, but it is to Gabbert's credit that even the most predictable developments never feel that way.

    Gabbert's depiction of the narrator's breakdown is delicate and haunting. At the beginning of the book, the narrator adroitly manipulated her mental world, shaping her ideas like soft clay. By the time she is in Delft, that mental world has become stiff and friable, its stress fractures plainly visible. As the pace builds to a frantic speed, and as the narrator's prejudices come home to roost, the looming trauma almost seems beside the point: she was going to crumble in any case.

    Elaine Blair has criticized the endings of Gabbert's previous novels, noting that The Socialism of Fools "does not so much end as it runs out of ways to mock Brooklyn." This is unfair, and in any case few readers would consider the thrilling, nihilistic ending of Old Buffalo to be unsatisfying. But Gabbert will not silence her critics with Delft - like Socialism, it struggles to bring finality to a story that by its nature cannot end neatly. Unlike Socialism, though, Delft does not simply fade away. Instead, the book leaves us with its poignant question: Are we anything more than our thoughts? And if not, can we ever escape ourselves?

  5. The Zambreno essay made me think hard about criticism-- but not the outer-the other. The extent to which we internalize these voices (so often other women's/so doubly and trebly internalized/buried even.../we are graves for these pronouncements of what is worthy to say) it kills me... sometimes kills my writing (much worse). So thank you. As I get working on the last 3rd of my recent thing I needed this prodding out of someone else's shell.