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On Kate Zambreno’s Heroines and the Crime of Dismissive Criticism

HeroinesIn “A Critic’s Manifesto,” one of my favorite essays on the art of criticism, Daniel Mendelsohn puts forth a definition and a raison d’etre for literary criticism. The purpose, he says, is to teach readers how to think, and a good critic effects this by combining both knowledge and taste to create “meaningful judgment.” Taste alone is not enough: “The key word here is meaningful. People who have strong reactions to a work—and most of us do—but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics.”

I thought of this essay while reading the reviews of Heroines by Kate Zambreno. “Much has been said lately about how women are reviewed less in the big literary sections,” Zambreno writes in Heroines, “but not about HOW they are reviewed.” I’m not sure that the “how” has not been addressed, but nevertheless, point taken. Because this hybrid work of nonfiction—call it a critical memoir, if you like—is about the way we talk about women who write, it seems as important, in a critical examination of the book, to look at its reception as it is to look at the text itself. And because some of the reviews have served essentially to trivialize and dismiss a book whose subject is in fact the historical, systematized trivialization and dismissal of work by women writers, it seems all the more urgent to question those responses.

The problem, to be clear, with the two reviews of Heroines I’ll be focusing on in this essay is not that they are “negative.” I don’t believe that criticism should only be admiring, and Heroines is a complex, contrarian work that invites argument. The problem is that they fail to judge the book in good faith; they do not accurately represent the book—its form and its formal concerns, its ambitions and intentions, its themes or even its basic subject—before rejecting it as unstudied and uninteresting.

I don’t wish to perform a meta–hatchet job on these reviews—just to show that their authors don’t reveal enough knowledge of or intimacy with the book and its purpose to give their judgment what Mendelsohn calls “heft,” and to put out a call for a more considered criticism, a criticism that teaches us how to read, to be better readers, not simply encouraging our worst habits and validating our laziness by telling us what not to bother with.



Part criticism, part history, part memoir, part journal, part manifesto, Heroines defies neat genre conventions, so it’s difficult to label, but it isn’t difficult to read. Perhaps because it was published by an imprint of Semiotext(e) and looks like the kind of academic text I have only purchased in college bookstores, I worried initially that Heroines would make for labored, slow reading. On the contrary, I found it difficult to put down, as easily devourable as Frances Farmer Is My Sister, the blog where Zambreno began working through the ideas presented in the book. Part of what makes her writing and persona, especially on her blog (to me, never having met her in person, her writing and persona are the same) so compelling is that she is either unwilling or uninterested in playing it cool–as in chilly, distant, controlled, removed. Instead she runs hot, easily agitated and angered; she is openly revealing of her own faults, her bad habits, her imperfect life, unhappy streaks, self-destructive tendencies. Some would dismiss it all as “too much information.” And this is exactly what Heroines is about: the historical project to control women, contain them, silence them—measures which are ultimately more maddening than they are counteractive to madness.

Zambreno explores this silencing primarily through the lens of “the mad wives of modernism”—women like Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot, Jane Bowles, Virginia Woolf—women who struggled to be writers and artists in the shadows of their more respected and sometimes abusive husbands or the generally oppressive conventions of the time, women who were consistently pathologized, institutionalized, prevented from working. She writes of the treatments foisted on hysterical Victorian women (“hysteria” inherently gendered, coming from the root for “womb,” as in hysterectomy), the “rest cure” for nervousness satirized in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the bromides and sedatives prescribed for their fits. The side effects of these treatments were in some cases worse than the symptoms they were intended to treat; at least, they complicated the picture, but the effects of the drugs were not treated as separate from the supposed causes for taking them. (Leonard Woolf “repeatedly uses the word ‘violence’” to describe his wife’s behavior, Zambreno notes, but doesn’t distinguish between the underlying condition and the effects of her treatment: “the prescribed ‘hypnotics’ which in large quantities can lead to all the symptoms of mania.”)

Zambreno tells these women’s stories in a stop-start fashion, latching onto certain details, jumping from couple to couple, fast-forwarding and rewinding, weaving in quotations and references, and blending their stories with her own, as in this passage (the initial “they” refers to male authors, such as Gustave “c’est moi” Flaubert):

They represent their process as a pregnancy. That image of Henry Miller in Tropic of Cancer, carrying around underneath his shirt that bowling ball of a book, like a cancerous tumor, people give up their seats to him on the train because of the book he is carrying around with him, that book he is about to birth so ecstatically. Nietzsche, who thought of writing as a “spiritual pregnancy.” (Although writing elsewhere that the best cure for an intellectual woman with pretensions to write would be actual pregnancy.) Artaud’s daughters of the cunt (although he would stop speaking to his women friends once they became pregnant).

I am now taking prenatal vitamins because of my thinning hair. Stress, maybe the veganism. When I buy them I feel everyone watching me—am I paranoid?—I feel the cashier at Whole Foods giving me a special look.

If Molly Bloom was a real woman writer, she would probably be dismissed as mad and unnecessarily pathologized. We glorify our male literary hysterics who often channel women and condemn our female literary hysterics. They can play women, fetishize her excesses. Make fun of her frivolity. They don’t have to be women.

KZambrenoThis blending, this back and forth—an embodiment of Zambreno’s intense identification with her “heroines”—is made possible in part by the form of the book, which is not organized into neatly labeled chapters (the Woolf chapter, the Plath chapter). Instead, the book just flows, with all the stories intermingling. (“I begin to cannibalize these women, literally incorporating them,” she writes, “an uncanny feeling of repeating, of reliving.”) It’s less like reading a typical scholarly work and more like taking a class with the author—a brilliant but eccentric and discursive professor. You go to class to hear her lectures, which are as much about the asides and digressions and the sudden rants as the ostensible subject of the class. This book is in some ways closer to a lecture than a text, complete with the open spaces left for discussion, for you to get in. I love books written in this form, discrete paragraphs with tenuous connections, as in Maggie Nelson’s lyric essay Bluets or Mary Robison’s novel Why Did I Ever, the latter supposedly written in such a way that if you wanted to you could read it backwards. (See also any number of philosophical or theoretical texts, from Pascal to Baudrillard.) When books plow forward in multiple-page-long paragraphs with few breaks and little white space, I can feel a kind of claustrophobia as a reader, a fear I’ll get trapped in the book with no place to escape, as in a subway train stopped in a tunnel. Heroines has a bite-size, Reese’s Pieces—kind of appeal: Read a lot or read a little! But more than that, the space between paragraphs gives the ideas room to breathe, room for lyric leaps.

Most poetry by nature leaves these gaps for the reader; Zambreno, as a writer of prose, seems to have poetic instincts, and she constructs the book so as to maximize these synapses, where the connections between memoir and criticism are not overtly explained, allowing for ambiguity, for the reader to fill the gaps. She swings back and forth between confessing scenes from her own passionate, occasionally co-dependent marriage to a writer and rare books scholar named John and scenes from the lives of Tom and Viv, Sylvia and Ted, Scott and Zelda. Insofar as there’s a narrative, it moves in a kind of zig-zag, forward but also back, obsessively. (Alice Fulton has called poetry “recursive”: “A poem beautifully, seductively, and partially resists the reader. When poetry resists successfully, it sends you back up the page as much as it sends you forward.”) If you come to this book expecting perfectly coherent, linear academic prose that constructs an argument sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, you might be baffled, even annoyed, by the more diaristic format. But it would be wrong—and lazy—to dismiss the text as an unedited journal. It is evidently honed and edited; as in “The Waste Land,” the stream of consciousness effects are not the result of an unedited brain dump or “automatic writing.” Unedited notes would jump arbitrarily from subject to subject; in Heroines, the links between points and paragraphs may be delicate, but the through-line is always there:

The violence, perhaps, of being made into an object.

The SCENES she throws (he incorporates it into his own SCENES, she is scratched out, she cannot write).

Lucia crying, “I am the artist!”

Zelda in the asylum hallucinating Fitzgerald’s voice: “I have lost the woman I put in my book. O, I have killed her!”

Perhaps Madame Bovary’s disease is not boredom. It’s being trapped as a character in someone else’s novel.

The fragments are arranged so as to reveal the connections that led to the final insight: the thinking as well as the thought.


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.

The snarky, dismissive tone of Jessica Winter’s review of Heroines in Bookforum is immediately apparent, but it’s not immediately clear what exactly her problem is. For example, she spends some time listing 10 or so authors that either cover similar thematic territory or write in a similar hybrid form, all conspicuously, as Winter would have it, absent from the (already lengthy) bibliography:

In blending criticism and memoir, Zambreno again has excellent, albeit unacknowledged, company, including Janet Malcolm in Reading Chekhov, Wayne Koestenbaum in The Queen’s Throat, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Tendencies, Susan Howe in My Emily Dicksinson, Alison Bechdel in Fun Home, and many others who likewise don’t make the cut in Heroines’ bibliography.

Okay, but what is Winter’s point? Can you think of any book that includes in its bibliography every other book which is like it in form? That would lead to some unsustainably Borgesian libraries. And it’s not what bibliographies are for.

Winter seems to have come to the book looking for some other form of political activism; she says the book “takes Elizabeth Hardwick to task for not identifying a political component in the many medical and marital crimes committed against Zelda Fitzgerald, but it never opens a newspaper.” What might it find there? Something like this muddled complaint?

Zambreno complains that “we are weighed down in society by the expectation of capital, an advance or salary proves our worth or value,” without pausing to consider that most of us veterans of the Great Recession are actually weighed down by the expectations of paying the damn rent.

I’m not sure what this actually means—that one writes not to prove one’s literary worth but to put food on the table, I suppose? But this isn’t a counterargument; both things are true. You can trade money for food, and it’s also a symbol of status. Does it matter that housing and employment are lower on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than status or respect? Invoking supposedly more pressing or immediate problems is a good way to avoid protesting any injustice at all; it’s tantamount to telling a vegetarian there are more worthy causes than animal suffering or unsustainable farming practices (have you volunteered at a homeless shelter lately?), or telling a feminist that there are more universal problems than women’s rights.

Further, she complains that the book isn’t funnier: “If it’s unlikely that Zambreno has repressed the self, or even the id, in this book … at times she may have repressed her wit.” On the contrary, I found it frequently witty, but it’s a grimacing kind of wit, a wit through anger, as when she calls Bataille with his prostitutes a “Surrealist Charlie Sheen,” or when she notes, following a conversation with a male writer about the length of tomes such as Tristam Shandy, Ulysses, and Infinite Jest, that “canon” comes from a Greek word for “measuring rod.”

More troublingly, Winter’s review is not self-aware. She finds it “curious” that Zambreno must defend confessional art against “unknown attackers,” citing Girls as an autobiographical work that is also one of our era’s “most critically acclaimed”—but it’s somewhat obtuse not to acknowledge that Girls is also highly controversial, as abhorred as it is loved, and that Lena Dunham has been the recipient of a lot of published contempt and vitriol, much of it evidently gendered (she just doesn’t look like an actress, especially not one who should be parading around half-naked on screen). And Winter herself attacks the confessional bent of the book, implying that Zambreno’s admissions of masturbating while reading, indulging in “online shopping for vintage Herman Miller chairs,” or fighting violently with her husband are an expression of the “id” that would have been better off repressed.

And finally she accuses Zambreno of not having edited the book (“Perhaps asking a writer to self-edit is another form of repression”), calling the book “rough-hewn,” “let-it-all-hang-out,” “sloppy,” “self-handicapping.” This is not my experience of the book. As a random example of the style, take these two (consecutive) paragraphs, from page 75:

The woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a writer. She writes as a means of survival. To fight against her utter isolation and invisibility. She keeps a journal she must hide.

Yet it’s so impossible to shut out all the voices. Not only: no one will read you (Nietzsche: non legor, non legar.) But: you are mad. When you are told that you are ill, that is something you internalize. 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.

Although Heroines is not exactly transition-driven, this is not “sloppy” writing, any more than “The Society of the Spectacle” is sloppy. It feels sloppy to call it sloppy—I picture something much sloppier when I hear the word “sloppy”—but it’s also naïve to assume that any sloppiness is the result of poor or no editing, as opposed to a deliberate, labored-over effect. There are valid reasons why Zambreno might blur the distinctions between her heroines and herself—to enact the extreme identification she admits to, the completion of her empathy; to suggest that in her research, she confused her own experiences with those of her subjects; to suggest that her mental faculties were sometimes less than 100% acute—to toy with us, perhaps. Is the author a little crazy—by today’s standards? Would any of the “mad wives” be mad by today’s standards? Can we even evaluate them, more leniently now, outside of their labels, their categories already named?

GreenGirlZambrenoZambreno may take to task the constraints placed on women, both in life and on the page, but she is perfectly capable of writing about out-of-control behavior in a controlled manner. She can, as she puts it, “be disciplined and write of the undisciplined.” One doesn’t opt out of form and this book is far from formless. The form is deliberate, and nowhere (aside from pointing out that Zambreno didn’t invent the critical memoir) does Winter really comment on it, on the actual structure of the book and its purpose and effects. Does she assume the form is not considered? Whether or not the form of Heroines is truly innovative, it is not the default style for criticism or memoir, and not to remark upon it in a review of this length except to call it sloppy without convincing example is borderline dishonest.

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.

Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Emily M. Keeler also describes Heroines as “messy”; though she uses the word in a way that Zambreno would understand, as a symbol of feminine excess, Zambreno celebrates messiness while Keeler seems mildly disgusted by it. Her main avenue, however, for dismissing the book is its supposed reliance on glamour, on the pretty paraphernalia of girlhood: “It’s a messy and fragmentary text where essays on, say, June and Henry Miller, or Paul and Jane Bowles, are punctuated by the names for shades of lip gloss, or trips into town for glittery eyeshadow.” Keeler quotes a section of the book in which Zambreno records, while sitting in a library, her own outfit in a notebook (this list like a poem: “soft grey jacket with the high collar that is almost backless / black cloche hat / soft stretchy black pants …”). Keeler claims that “the clothes and makeup are integral” to the book; she then closes the review with this anecdote of her own:

Earlier this year I met, for the first time, a certain writer I admire. She’s about my age, and we live in the same city, and I was excited to meet her. After we were introduced, she complimented me on my coat, on my dress. We talked about where we like to shop. As it turned out, we have similar tastes in clothes.

I was depressed for a week. I felt that there must have been something much more vital — and much more fun — to discuss between the two of us.

The crime here is one of “contextomy”—the fallacy of quoting out of context—and, as in Winter’s review, a stunning lack of self-awareness that is either intentionally misleading or simply obtuse. Because what comes before and after the above list of items of clothing is absolutely crucial.

In the quoted passage, Zambreno is visiting the Mary Reynolds Collection—Mary Reynolds was a bookbinder and Marcel Duchamp’s mistress—at the library of the Art Institute in Chicago, in search of works by Unica Zurn, which they (“unsurprisingly”) don’t have:

I always experience a kind of chilly, paternalistic air when in these rare books reading rooms, like they are worried your heat could somehow damage the immortal material. The tweedy rare book librarian doesn’t want me touch the more fragile books. He voices his skepticism about how much of the vision behind these extraordinary bound books are Reynolds’, he suggests that they are mostly Duchamp’s design, which he just told Reynolds what to do. Of course he thinks that. I mean, of course he thinks that. But it’s also a case of peddling—the items acquire more value being the brainchild of a great man, as opposed to his mistress.

So already we’re primed to think of the woman’s body, its sloppy and damaging heat, in opposition to the “chilly” intellect of man. Then (still in the room):

I write notes in my notebook because I assume I’m supposed to.

I write: I am not a scholar.

I write also: I do not know French or German.

Then (emphases mine):

I also write down for some reason what I am wearing:

soft grey jacket with the high collar this is almost backless
black cloche hat
soft stretchy black pants (semi-harem) tucked into black boots
old old dark gray Hussein Chalayan cardigan, which has permanent pit stains

That “for some reason” reveals a pointed ambivalence, a questioning of her own instincts, because Heroines, with all its “buts” and “yets,” is fundamentally an ambivalent, a self-questioning text. (And ending the list with “pit stains” punctuates the disgust that Zambreno, as a woman, is made to feel toward her own body.) And after the list, she writes:

All my beautiful pieces I keep like in a museum, because I don’t want them ruined somehow by the stink or casualness of my body.

I leaf through old issues of Minotaure. The only female presence the gorgeous photos of Lee Miller and other Surrealist models, and Bellmer’s mechanical dolls.

I am realizing these muses of modernism were often objectified twice over, through literature and often through psychiatry (both reducing them to their BODY).

“She is the doll,” Hans Bellmer said when meeting Unica Zurn […] Later his photo of her naked bound torso on the cover of a Surrealist journal with the caption: Keep in a Cool Place. The meaning is clear: She is a piece of meat.

I quote at such length to make clear all the meaning and nuance that Keeler’s quotation excises from the passage. Keeler uses the list to demonstrate a shallow frivolity, a vanity that has no place in the text, zeroing in on the brand name. But of course the list is important to the text. Zambreno doesn’t report it so we’ll admire her fashion sense. She reports it as a kind of condemnation of a culture that considers a woman’s looks and sense of style before Roomanything else, that objectifies the woman’s body, coupled with self-condemnation of her inability not to participate in this culture. Because that is the curse of the male gaze: the woman who must watch herself weeping (she references John Berger) at her father’s funeral.

For Keeler to dismiss Zambreno’s work as superficial, without representing the complexity with which the book tackles the subjects of “beauty” and superficiality and how women are so often dismissed with and caged by these terms, is a critical crime. She refuses to engage with all the book has to say about the specter of the “ugly feminist,” the gendered double standard, how men are never dismissed as simply being vain, even when they “write in a mirror,” the cultural trivialization of anything associated with the feminine. Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own (Zambreno quotes this part): “Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial.’” Woolf goes on: “And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.” Woolf wrote this in 1928, and it’s still true. The work of the woman, the woman as subject, is considered trivial.

Zambreno, in her retellings of the lives of the modernist wives, seems most consumed by Zelda Fitzgerald’s story, her husband’s stifling and erasing of all her attempts to create. Through original documents such as transcripts and letters, Zambreno makes a convincing case that Zelda’s sizable literary contributions were suppressed and destroyed through the paranoid machinations of Scott, who helped to see to it that she was treated (by her contemporaries and future onlookers) as mad. Zambreno quotes from a transcript of a conversation between Zelda and Scott, with a doctor and stenographer present, in which he commands her to give up her craft:

“I want you to stop writing fiction … whether you write or not does not seem to be of any great importance.”

“I know, nothing I do seems to be of any great importance.”

“Why don’t you drop it then?”

Mr. Fitzgerald tragicomically misses the irony of Zelda’s statement: Nothing I do seems to be of any great importance. He simply agrees! I feel this same poignant irony returning to Winter’s and Keeler’s reviews after having finished Heroines. They’ve so wholly missed the point, I find myself wondering why they bothered to review the book at all. Am I saying it’s impossible to criticize Heroines, because it’s a book about the problematic criticism of women? Of course not. Nor do I claim that Heroines has no flaws. But if you’re going to attempt the task, you have to be willing to grapple with the book’s form and subjects, and be wary of succumbing to the same fallacies the book is attacking. You have to at least acknowledge the parallel, when you call a book “messy” that is itself about how women’s work is so often rejected as “messy.” And good criticism should be as valuable after you read the book in question as before. It should reveal new readings, not make one question whether the reviewer reached the end.

Zambreno speaks of the exhaustion of defending women writers, this thankless task. I feel this too. While working on this piece, I had several minor arguments with a writer friend who betrayed a vague suspicion toward the book, assuming it dismissed him as a man and so preemptively dismissing it in turn. (Having a “women’s studies” sticker on the back doesn’t do much to increase your reading base.) In the book, Zambreno’s husband asks her if she thinks Fitzgerald drank out of guilt. Does the existence of a book like Heroines make my friend feel guilty, or rather annoyed that he is supposed to feel guilty? He’s not supposed to, of course—he’s not personally responsible for the patriarchy.

Women’s stories—like Zambreno’s, and the mad wives’ as seen through her eyes—should be read not out of a sense of guilt, or to evoke one, but for their own value. The final passages of Heroines are a plea for women to take back their stories: “The only way our narratives will be told is if we write them ourselves.” We must write them, and we must read them. They’re half of history.

Elisa Gabbert is the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and The Self Unstable (forthcoming from Black Ocean). She lives in Denver and blogs at The French Exit.