So often I feel crushed by the sheer canonical weight of books I’ve failed or forgotten to read that it comes as a huge relief to find, this fall, that there are only two novelists.
There is Jack Kerouac, whose On the Road is in its re-re-re-renaissance. Walter Salles’s movie adaptation is playing film festivals, and a new biography by ex-girlfriend Joyce Johnson is on shelves. Humbly titled The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, it’s much-discussed in Canada for its examination of the dead Beat’s French-Canuck roots, and elsewhere for its assertions that Kerouac did not, in fact, write On the Road in a spontaneous, unremitting, eight-hour stream of his own holy ejaculate.
Then there is David Foster Wallace, the Infinite Jest author and essayist made forever a genius by his 2008 suicide. The D.T. Max biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story is by all accounts beautiful, satisfactory even to Wallace’s most fanboyish – and fangirlish, but mostly fanboyish – fans. According to GQ, it is “the only literary biography you need to read this fall.” Of course it is, and hey, remember when Esquire published a 2008 list of “75 Books Every Man Should Read” and only one book was by a woman?
Anyway, you will be obliged to forgive me for reading neither the biography of Wallace (though I genuinely want to), nor the Bret Easton Ellis ragings against him, because dudes: We know. Instead I’ve been loving Kate Zambreno’s Heroines: a modernist-era study of bad wives and madwomen, evolved from her prolific blog, Frances Farmer is My Sister.
Heroines is a feverish, obsessive collage, a sort of dead female poets’ society, framed by Zambreno’s own fraught experiences as writer and wife. To me, it feels like a collective memoir. She calls it a “memory campaign.” In freely revising the myths of great men, Heroines follows Virginia Woolf and her “Shakespeare’s sister” invention, or Germaine Greer’s incredible retelling of art history, The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work, or The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired by Francine Prose . You could add that Kerouac bio, if she didn’t still revere him, and maybe Paula McLain’s novelization of Hadley Richardson Hemingway, The Paris Wife.
These women’s works can seem historically fabulist, but does it matter? Does it matter whether Lee Miller’s art was as “important” as Man Ray’s, or whether Viv Eliot’s diaries were as “great” as those of her husband, T.S.? What was is often not as interesting or telling as what could or should or might have been.
What matters to Zambreno is how, if she had discovered lesser-known women writers before her late 20s instead of reading “the big books by men,” her work/life might have begun differently. How we might, by remembering and revising, escape what feminist scholars Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar called “the anxiety of authorship.”
“Who is canonized, who is remembered,” Zambreno writes in automatic style as per Surrealist tradition. “It begins with reviews and filters down to who is taught in schools and then whose papers are collected by which library. ... 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 Eliot]’s notebooks mouldering or lost in the Bodleian [Library].”
Zambreno’s mistake is in maligning the “door-stopper” success of contemporary great male authors, but ignoring great female authors (there are many, if not enough). She is right to dismantle the clichés of the male genius and the female neurotic, though. And she is timely in taking David Foster Wallace’s legacy to task.
Wallace lionized his depression, expressing it in great fiction, not in the much-maligned first-person essays of “ladybloggers” and the like. Then he died from it. Memoirist Elizabeth Wurtzel – in a New York magazine piece after his death – wrote of his depression through hers and was castigated. But she is alive (and was also empathetic to Wallace, while he savagely typified her in his short story The Depressed Person).
Zambreno, still following Woolf, dedicates Heroines to all the sad shy writer-babes: “Why is the girl so fearfully depressed? She feels she cannot write of her breakdown, of her interior state.”
Perhaps I’m lucky: I have always read women writers and have rarely been afraid, but I find this no longer true. Zambreno admits to not reading contemporaries during the writing of Heroines, and six months later, finds herself “on the other side of thinking about confessional writing, almost worrying about it.” In those six months came Cat Marnell, the xoJane.com beauty editor and junkie turned breakdown columnist for Vice, and she is only the most famous of those who write naked, their blogs a 24/7 reality-show confessional booth.
I'm more inclined to believe these girls are depressed because they can write of nothing but their breakdowns. We see openly sad or mad girls as victimized and openly sad or mad men as heroic. Be your own heroines, says Zambreno to women. But if we need heroes at all, I think men need heroines too.