In the eighties, we began to see writers popularly crafting new prose types—namely the one we now call “Creative Nonfiction.” More specifically, we began to see quite a few women (though fewer men) embarking on what we’d recognize as personal and autobiographical criticism.
This is not to say that Kate Zambreno’s Heroines is solely inspired by the eighties. Zambreno often describes her book as a “critical memoir,” which is something I’d like to explore more fully in this review. To illustrate a bit more clearly, “personal criticism,” as defined by Nancy K. Miller in Getting Personal, “entails an explicitly autobiographical performance within the act of criticism.”
And boy, has Zambreno given us a performance.
Her immediate identification as a traveling spouse gives us her seeing eye from the book’s very beginning. “I am trying to learn how to be a serious writer and write important books,” she writes, “yet I cannot deal with all of the silence.” Then, we see what her eye sees: the lives of those Zambreno calls her “muses of modernism,” the wives, lovers, and girlfriends of those “classic” men we’ve read in school: T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf (we can argue she was always more important than her husband, Leonard). Many of these women—these muses—were considered mad in their day, overcome with hysterics unknowably caused by their dormancy.
“A definition, I think, of being oppressed, is being forbidden to externalize my anger,” writes Zambreno. Is Heroines, then, the product of an oppression? A product of a new life as a shadow?
Heroines implores that we revisit the questions that the critics, and the critics of critics, have asked throughout the past couple decades: where has all the critical memoir gone? How have we managed to miss so much written about representativity (an obstacle in all, not just Feminist, Literary Criticism)? What does it mean to us as readers for a woman to write the world she sees rather than just spill her guts?
Days I worry, wonder—what if I’m not a writer? What if I’m a depressive masquerading as a notetaker? Is this the text of an author or a madwoman? It depends perhaps on who is reading it. Who has read it first. For once you are named it’s almost impossible to struggle out from under the oppression of those categories—it is done, it is done at a price, and the price is daily, and it is on your head.
What Heroines gives us is the portrait of an attentive reader, not just one of literature but of the world itself. She quotes mid-book the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven “who wrote: ‘I am keenly conscious of my ownself as if I were a theatre and a spectator in one—only not the author.’” And this is the effect of Zambreno’s (personal) criticism: we readers are spectators, but we get to see the proudly autobiographical performance of the author, playing the roles of both spectacle and spectator.
“Writing should be composed,” writes Zambreno. “Should be transcendent. In the calm communion with and recognition of one’s ancestors. And one has to somehow sacrifice the suffering man to make great art, to transcend one’s own state.” Isn’t this what we want from our reading writers? From those who, like Roland Barthes or Virginia Woolf, give us careful observations of themselves, of the ways they observe the literatures and the world around them? I cheer for the writers who read the world—for the writers who, like Kate Zambreno, show us which of their thoughts enter the margins, and are rarely, if ever, afraid of showing off a little idiosyncrasy.
Literature produced by writers like Zambreno can show us what it really means to be a critic—of one’s own life, one’s own experience, and one’s relationship with all the things one absorbs as (s)he develops and flourishes. Zambreno asks, “What is the purpose of literature?” The immediate answer she provides:
To reveal the human condition, to explore, to agitate, to experience recognition, to escape, to cause intense pleasure or feeling, to make you reconsider your existence, or reconsider language. There are many potential purposes, none of them specific to the experience or the pretense of being entirely manufactured.
But there is no pretense in Zambreno’s manufacturing. Her subjectivity here should be proudly displayed, because it interrogates all those things she’s listed as important to literature. She has explored. She has experienced recognition. She has reconsidered language. And among the things she does with her literature, she should take pride in the reclaiming of perspective—in her ability to show and tell us what’s so damn important as she looks out of her quiet and lonely window.