SARAH: Both of us took some serious umbrage with Emily Keeler’s review of Kate Zambreno’s most recent book Heroines in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and our frustrations with that piece tie rather nicely together with a lot of other conversations we’ve been having lately about public performances of femininity (and the Perils Thereof). I’m not even sure where to start unpacking the review, but I think one point of entry is the idea—which is certainly not limited to a single reviewer—that women’s attention to, and interest in, fashion and presentation is inherently problematic, shallow, and invalidating of our intellectual capacities. That “a glittery silver toenail polish from OPI’s Swiss collection” has no value as a signifier (as opposed to, I guess, a byline in the LARB). (To be clear: I haven’t yet read Heroines, though I’m a fan of Zambreno’s earlier novel Green Girl and her blog, Frances Farmer is My Sister.)
MEG: Clearly there’s about five hundred directions in which we could take this, and I’m not sure where to start either.
As for your not having read the book yet, it seems that Keeler’s criticism is about a lot of ideas beyond the text. I think this was part of our “WTF, LARB" response. It was partially a defense of Kate, whom I know we both think is brilliant and like As A Person too, but also a reaction to what we both find to be a familiar and tired critique of the ladies at large. Emily Keeler is talking a lot about women and fashion and hysteria, more so than about Kate’s book. I find it interesting that she liked Green Girl (which is rife with such “shallow” obsessions like clothes, makeup, sex, etc) but disliked Heroines for these same motifs? I have a lot to say but am still trying to get to the root of what upset me so much.
Keeler writes: "What does it mean to reject the psychopathology offered by Zambreno—as a reader, as a writer, as a woman? To disinvest myself of disorder in my response to this text? To reject hysteria and mania, to refuse the glamor of the broken woman writer?"
Which is not something I entirely disagree with. It would certainly be nice—or at least more productive—to disinvest myself of disorder, to “fix” everything, per se. I don’t think being a broken woman is particularly glamorous; I would like for eating disorders to not exist and I would like if we weren’t fascinated by coked-out tragic starlets in the tabloids. It would be real nice if nothing about being a lady related to the aforementioned psychopathologies. But this simply isn’t how it is, and to ignore (and scorn) the messy neurasthenic (and her wardrobe and makeup) doesn’t make any of us better. We don’t need to refuse or reject the hysteria — but not-refusing isn’t necessarily praise, either. It just is, and it’s worth thinking about.
Keeler also reacts against the rigid gender binaries set up in Heroines (“HIM” and “HER”) which is of course something I’m also down with. But I don’t read anything Kate’s ever written, or any l’écriture féminine for that matter, as an endorsement of those binaries as much as an indictment of that system, a testimonial to how shitty and confusing it can be living in a world that’s set up like that.