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Heroines

I am beginning to realise that taking the self out of our essays is a form of repression. Taking the self out feels like obeying a gag order – pretending an objectivity where there is nothing objective about the experience of confronting and engaging with and swooning over literature. The comments on Frances Farmer Is My Sister and allied blogs that have built sometimes to this glorious other text, this communion, this conversation, this casual liquidness, the superlative nature, that is generative and affirming as opposed to dismissive, that uses our own language instead of theirs.

And when I think about so much of the writing happening online, I think about the notebook form, and especially what Hardwick performs in Sleepless Nights, the drifting anecodotes mixing real-life characters with literary references, this tapestry. Also: Joan Didion’s The White Album, Renata Adler’s mosaic Speedboat. Elizabeth Hardwick was inspired especially by Speedboat for her Sleepless Nights – both scrapbooks that are kaleidoscopic, anecdotal, self-aware, witty, and intensely nostalgic. Both women who previously needed to rely on the objectivity of the critic {Adler with film, Hardwick with literature}, but in their nonfiction novels they write the self, their experiences. In Sleepless Nights, Hardwick critiques what has been historically considered worthwhile material for a novel: ‘It certainly hasn’t the drama of: I saw the old, white-bearded frigate motion on the dock and signed up for the journey. But after all, “I” am a woman.’ Sleepless Nights shows a mind, a library at work, an old woman surrounded by her books.

All these experiments being written online-notes for projects never written, resembling sketches from Camus’s notebooks, experiments in the epistolary, the fragmented, this casual, cultural criticism, some of it in the comments. It is all ephemeral, not wanting to be formalised. I am beginning to think of this note-taking as the project itself.

Bhanu Kapil dismantling the novel in her Notes on Ban, notes for a character and a work that stands in for the work itself, some of these she writes online, in the margins, others published, formalised. Suzanne Scanlon who accretes such amazing bodily stories, who writes of her past of being a fucked-up girl in a way that reminds me of Mary McCarthy, or Colette, while collaging throughout a variety of literary sources. Suzanne’s pieces are often fictionalised, the myth is that when one writes from the self one does not also invent, alter, shape, adjust the text’s rhythms. It’s astonishing to me she doesn’t yet have a book. What she does have is a brilliant and, yes, literary blog. I remember telling her once when we were having drinks in Chicago that she needed to publish some of what she was writing on her blog – and she got this look on her face, like what would it be? Fiction? Creative Non-Fiction? Still this question of genre strangles us. Of fiction, of distance and form. But perhaps these blogs are a new form, a new genre. Like Montaigne’s essays self-reflective, circling around itself.

I think this whole question of publishing what we are writing online really begs these questions that remain from modernism – what is the work? Who is an author?

Yet perhaps our writing needs to be fragmented to fit our fragmented times. Sometimes, yes the online notebooks feed our other writing, as experimental incubators, like Rhys with her Ropemaker Notebook. But sometimes the posts are just what they are –unfinished, fragmented, explorations into something. We don’t wish to formalise them into books. We want them to remain as they are – RAW, our own material. And how liberatory and open this virtual space can be, we are allowed to present different personas, performances, like Pessoa’s heteronyms, like Viv’s heteronyms for The Criterion. And online we get absolute permission not to push towards ‘finishing’ towards ‘polish’ towards ‘professionalism’.

The Professor Xs would hate our blogs: unfinished, bodily, excessive, nakedly autobiographical, even when written under pseudonyms. Perhaps all the reason to write them.

Yet what happens to the blogs and Tumblrs, these infinite, immaterial notebooks? One can erase them but even then they may persist, traces of them still saved somewhere on the Internet. Who is archiving these scraps of our existence? Those who decide what is important or not to archive. Who to preserve, what to throw away. If you are considered important enough, John tells me, any note or scribble relating to your work is valuable.

This is a memory campaign. Who is canonised, who is remembered. It begins with reviews and filters down to who is taught in schools and then whose papers are collected by which library. If you are a Great Author – then EVERYTHING needs to be saved and documented. Salman Rushdie’s laptops saved at Emory. David Foster Wallace’s undergraduate philosophy thesis published. And how carefully their materials are handled, unlike Vivien{ne}’s notebooks mouldering or lost in the Bodleian.

Fitzgerald saving carbons. His detailed life ledger. Documenting Zelda’s abortion. He preserved everything, his letters, notebooks of observations, character ideas, some published posthumously in The Crack-Up. {He preserves everything except his wife, who he helped destroy.} The notes at the end of The Last Tycoon. He died before he could finish it. Heart attack in Hollywood, tended to by his mistress. Plath’s notebooks in the end, all notes, ideas, works, sketches. Ted Hughes wrote that this was a sign of a spiritual death, she was dead before she killed herself, as her notebooks dissolved into notes. The idea being, I suppose, that those who catalogue their lives exhaustively stop existing when they stop documenting the self amidst the clutter of other voices and events.

What does it mean to be aware of one’s own preservation? To preserve the self. I save myself, my days. This archive of the self. These women who haunt me, I want to save them too, to carry them forward with me.

It is the wives and mistresses perhaps who would have blogged and tumbled their fragments, all of their delicious brilliant witty urges they instead scrawled into journals and notebooks like Zelda, Jane and Viv, into letters, into conversation later snatched up by the male author. I imagine Jane Bowles would especially have found this form rather freeing, she who suffered for thirty years from writer’s block, which I think about now as really being blocked because of this oppressive idea of the massive BOOK in our culture, totalising and emblematic of our talents as writers. I’d like to think that the women of modernism would have forged a community of their own in this space.

This is an excerpt from an ending passage of Heroines by Kate Zambreno published by Semiotext(e).



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is an American writer. Heroines, her 'critical memoir' centered around the women of modernism, partially incubated on her blog Frances Farmer is My Sister, was published by Semiotext(e)'s Active Agents, edited by Chris Kraus. A chapbook, Apoplexia, Toxic Shock, & Toilet Bowl: Some Notes on Why I Write was released as part of the Guillotine series in 2013.