December 28, 2011

All The Sad Young Pretty Girls

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What is the issue?

I woke up this morning feeling a bit flattened and depressed. I don’t know why. I think it’s because I was disturbed or agitated by what I was reading last night, and perhaps the only way to get it out there is to write about it here, attempt to formulate more of a theory or thesis or answer (I was interviewed for a teaching job last week, over the phone. I was asked about Heroines, what my thesis was, by the interviewer, a male philosopher. After some stuttering about various feminisms and girls, I finally answered: my writing doesn’t have a thesis). Last night I lay in bed and read all about the hullabaloo surrounding this young writer who goes by the pseudonym of Marie Calloway, who has written pieces about her sexual exploits before on Thought Catalog, usually with accompanying, femme-enfant portraits despite her otherwise anonymity. She recently published a long memoir piece on her Tumblr, since deleted, detailing explicitly a weekend interlude with a male intellectual about twice her age, whose name is pretty easy to discern and even though I had never heard of him before is apparently some major presence in the Internet intelligentsia, for lack of a better phrase. This memoir piece was originally accompanied, allegedly, with a grainy camera photo of Marie with this guys’ cum on her face, an event detailed within the piece. Later Tao Lin published the story on Muumuu House, and in the process certain facts were left out, and the guy’s name was changed, hilariously, to Adrien Brody.

The author known as Marie Calloway

All this was enough to create something like a shitstorm in the online literary world at least, with a frenzy of pieces written about this, and around this, including a large profile of Marie Calloway in the New York Observer, an essay by Roxane Gay on HTMLGIANT wondering about the ethics of confessionalism, and another essay by Emily Gould on her Emily Magazine placing Marie Calloway in a literary tradition of explicit writers of the self (and sex) like Dodie Bellamy’s The Buddhist and Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, which I certainly don’t disagree with, although I have some issue with the notion that Marie wasn’t herself aware of a female literary tradition (which is more of a philosophical concern regarding our usual cultural assumption that the girl is naive or intuitive). The essays I read around this piece were thoughtful, although many of the comments around this were demoralizing to me and painful to read, mostly because of the assumption that “Adrien Brody” lacked literary merit: her story read only as a non-self-aware “true confessions,” read only as the diary-blog of a young, cute, fuckable and fucked girl. An assessment I definitely do not agree with.

Perhaps I was feeling sore because of a recent review of Green Girl, my recently out novel that certainly details the ambivalent messy sexual exploits of a pretty young ingenue, obsessed with the French New Wave, but more Jean Seberg or Catherine Deneuve to Marie Calloway’s Anna Karina (as the New York Observer describes her, although if Marie Calloway is a New Wave muse, she is one by way of Sasha Grey, the extremely literate porn star referenced in “Adrien Brody,” who once said her favorite scene from film is that scene in Pierrot le Fou where Anna Karina turns to Jean-Paul Belmondo as they’re lying on the beach and says simply: Fuck Me). In this recent review, the reviewer took issue with my taking on the existential crises of a PYT (her phrase) as a subject of literature, at all, in some ways echoing some of the uninspired discourse around Marie Calloway’s story. The reviewer writes:

Sometimes a book’s idea, not its execution, can throw you into a rant. Isn’t this angsty-PYT stuff boring to anyone else? Stories of big-city-living with usually white, early-20s, sexually active, generally confused women can be unparalleled in how rote they are. It doesn’t matter if the woman at the center of it is quirky, tragically clueless, impossibly squeamish, or whatever endearing personality trait you’d like to affix onto her. It can be a boring story, where nothing surprising happens and no one learns anything. And when coming-of-age stories are boring, they are less palatable to people who aren’t going or haven’t gone through the exact same things at the exact same time.

I’m actually surprised I didn’t get a lot more reviews like this of Green Girl — it was actually what I was expecting, because historically, the novel of the girl has already been dismissed, her coming-of-age is not seen as important philosophical stuff for literature (too frivolous, or too boring). This doesn’t only come out of the dominant discourse about what literature should be, who should be allowed to write it, how it should behave, swallowing T.S. Eliot’s New Criticism and Flaubert’s idea of the novel, but has also been echoed historically by the Second Wave feminists, who look down on heroines who dare to be ambiguous and not empowered. (Angela Carter looking down on Jean Rhys’ “dippy dames” — I consider Jean Rhys the ancestor of a writer like Marie Calloway, albeit one who has edited her work intensely to be as elegant and economical as possible). In Heroines, I take issue with Simone De B’s dismissal of women writing literature as well as her wholesale dismissal of the girl. I try to relocate the girls’ diary, and then now of course the girls’ public diary, her Tumblr, her blog, as not only a mode that allows her to come to writing, but also as a theater of potentially great feeling and discovery, of experimentalism and play. I write in Heroines: “Disgust for Anais Nin is a disgust for the girls with their Livejournals.”

In the Observer profile Marie is quoted as saying, “I wrote to express my worldview/subjectivity because it felt then that no one had any idea.” Isn’t this why people write? Why is her crisis not read as existential? Because she writes about Forever 21 or hot shorts or nail polish or wanting to look cute, amidst all of her agony of wanting to be seen by this intellectual father-figure, and I say father-figure in terms of her desire to be a writer, to be taken seriously, to be read, to be part of the conversation? In Green Girl I cast Ruth as the blonde idealized naif, who is seen as the ultimate cipher in society, a sort of false cultural ideal, cast in films, literature, as mute. We may not like her, but she is what we have been given by the culture, and what we all must recognize with and against, and for some, through. We’re bombarded with images of the pretty young girl, and if she’s only an image, and never given a voice, even a flawed, imperfect, bad-faithed perspective, this is a huge fucking problem. (Of course, we need a diversity of voices, and a greater recognition of the diversity of female experiences, but that shouldn’t take off the table the subverting of this glossy image that the dominant culture itself has created, even as a subject of literature. I am struck by how many girls of all backgrounds and positions have written to me that they saw a mirror of themselves in my Ruth, which reminds me how much this narrative of the girl by the girl is actually lacking in our culture. Girls write to me, hungry and deprived, of these narratives, that I urge them to write as well, themselves. I am not bored of reading these narratives, theories of the girl written by Ariana Reines, Kristen Stone, Marie Calloway, Jackie Wang, Megan Boyle, and then, more from the distance of memory, by Suzanne Scanlon, Chris Kraus, poets of the Gurlesque. I crave to read more of them. I wish I had these narratives when I was 21, that I had read Chris Kraus, or Kathy Acker, or Ariana Reines and what I did have were Anais Nin’s journals.)

Here’s a passage from Heroines that I think speaks to this:

I think about Jean Seberg’s character Patricia Francini in Godard’s Breathless, the girl-reporter who wants to write novels and not be a sidekick in some film noir. I wonder if Godard was conscious when making the film how much he makes Patricia a cipher, and shows this blank character who is searching for an identity, for a self outside of men, but is never really able to escape it. She wants to write novels, someday, like Faulkner, but she needs to sleep with her editor to write articles, and she must be a muse-baby for the famous novelist in order to get his attention. And her self-worth is completely bound up in how others see her, through another’s gaze, and like a Jean Rhys heroine part of her only wants a Dior dress and the man who loves her, but there’s this other part, that’s just forming, that is having a complete identity crisis, that is Simone de Beauvoir’s woman questioning her immanence, questioning her lack of freedom, wanting something more, feeling dreadfully incomplete.

Yet Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex doesn’t have much respect for the existential crisis of the girl. She sees her alienation, her sense of apartness, as frivolous, showy, without reflection: “Oppressed and submerged, she becomes a stranger to herself because she is a stranger to the rest of the world.” To her the young girl is doomed to immanence, she is Emma Bovary as Flaubert not Mary McCarthy has imagined her, enraptured by herself as her own heroine in the fantasies she has concocted.

There has been no female Trial or Ulysses, deB writes in The Second Sex, because women writers don’t interrogate the human condition. “A woman could never have become Kafka: in her doubts and anxieties, she would never have recognized the anguish of Man driven from paradise.” “Man” is the capitalized eternal, the transcendant—the woman has already been driven away, has always been excluded from this category.

Perhaps the woman cannot recognize the alienation of Man, but she certainly can understand Eve, and what it means to be rewritten.

Claude Cahun’s series of monologues entitled Heroines, where she takes fictional characters such as Eve or Salome and gives their mythologies a hilarious, contemporary gloss, revisioning them as both flappers and aborted authors. She dedicates these pieces to girls everywhere.

In her girl portraits often published in “pulp” (hence not literary) journals like College Humor, Zelda writes of the young girl perennially imagining herself as a character, performance artists of surface and frivolity, although inside is this sense of apartness, of unexpressed sadness. There is a loneliness and lament to these pretty girls. Throughout the author-narrator watches these girls, from a distance, perhaps the distance of the former self. There is Gay, in “The Original Follies Girl”: “The thing that made you first notice Gay was that manner she had, as though she was masquerading as herself.”

She isn’t writing the American Dream perhaps, but the Frivolous Girl Dream.

Fitzgerald of course dismissed Zelda’s stories as not saying anything greater about the human condition: “Did she have anything to say? No she has not anything to say.”

The difference is privileging in literature a hero as opposed to a heroine. The difference is dismissing anguish that is seen as feminine, and not “universal” (i.e. masculine). Perhaps Gregor Samsas also takes the form, in literature, of 18-year-old chorus girls, or unraveling divorcees, or suicidal overachievers from a prestigious woman’s college.

This is an issue I have with some feminists in the Second Wave and how they often read writers of the girl — for one, they often dismiss the idea that these writers are actually philosophers of the girl, just like the Professor Xs do. They neglect the concept that a philosophy of the girl is even possible. But also, there is this sense reading deBeauvoir and others that the woman writer must write an empowered woman, like Jo in Little Women or something. Maybe these women writers’ heroines or antiheroines are not empowered — but maybe they render honestly a flawed and skewed subjectivity. My main problem with deBeauvoir is that she seemingly doesn’t give the silly girl any space to revolt. Maybe the girl seeks revenge by wedging herself into the larger cultural conversation.

When I was reading all of the comments surrounding this Marie Calloway story and Marie Calloway, this figure, this girl-author, I kept on thinking about the major canonization going on of Ben Lerner’s poet’s-novel Leaving the Atocha Station, a novel about a young privileged white neurotic man on a Fulbright in Spain who basically stays inside his apartment, looks up porn on the Internet, gets high, takes benzos, fucks pretty Spanish intellectuals who he doesn’t even try to get to know, and is basically feted in the novel for his poetry. The brilliance of the novel is how aware the character is of his own fraudulence — his poetry, the way he treats women in his life, his English-language, American-culture imperialism. My god though has this book been feted — written about rapturously in The New Yorker, in The New York Review of Books, etc. Since Ben Lerner himself went on a Fulbright to Spain, etc., had the same background as his character, a la Christopher Isherwood in The Berlin Stories, we perhaps can assume the novel is at least semi-autobiographical. But no one asks about his ethics behind writing these encounters with girls he basically falls into and fucks around with, like some sort of Ivy League Kerouac. I don’t argue that there is an ethics for writing the autobiographical. However, those who are all agog that Marie C. wrote about a real, locatable person, insular in a literary scene, must not remember or know the history of modern literature, where this happened all the fucking time (D.H. Lawrence sending up Bloomsbury in Women in Love, Mary McCarthy writing of her affairs, Robert Lowell’s The Dolphin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Beats, I mean, I could go on and on and on. And most of the time in modern literature it is the more famous man writing about his wife or mistress). What I don’t understand, or rather, I do understand all too well, and don’t like, is why in these situations it is almost always the girl branded as the criminal for the “confessional” and asked to feel bad, to feel guilt or shame for writing the truths of their experiences, are sometimes even diagnosed as being borderline, inappropriate, toxic, messy, etc., while men have written of their affairs and sexual relationships always and their ethics are rarely questioned. This to me is a form of discipline and punishment that we internalize, which is why so many women writers self-censor. You know what it’s called when male writers write of their sexual exploits? LITERATURE. And I kept on thinking reading through all the comments, essays, dialogues, etc., around this one girl and her story, a dialogue that was mostly moralizing or dismissive, as if her youth was a disease she would outgrow someday, is that if the Guy in question — the Marxist scholar, the pop-intellectual, had written his version, it would have been published in the best locales and feted. We would never have been questioning his ethics. We would never worry or wonder that he was writing these female writers or artists as ciphers, as muses, as opposed to embodied women. In Heroines I write, in a long section discoursing on “confessionalism”:

Yet of course HE can write the autobiographical, but his work is read as aspiring to something greater. The ruins of his self are the ruins of post-war society. SHE is read as simply writing herself, her toxic, messy self, and her self is not seen as legitimate as literature according to the theories their husbands themselves espoused.

One of the major strands around Marie Calloway, brought up in the Observer piece, is whether Marie Calloway is a feminist, whether her writing is feminist. This should not be the point. It does not matter whether the story is feminist, whether the writer is feminist. She should not have to shoulder that burden, while writing, to speak for others, to try to pretend empowerment. What I liked about the story — and if I hadn’t said so — I really liked it, so much so that I’m surprised by its wholesale dismissal — was how flawed and vain and messy and toxic, yet totally self-aware, the character is. No the story’s not perfect, yes, it could be edited, but I liked the vernacular it was written in, and I wasn’t bored, or if I was bored, I think tedium was kind of the point, an atmospheric decision. I think the character was “bored and vapid,” more than the story was, and I think there’s some commentary there, the beauty stuff, the routine sex going through the cum-on-my-face rituals, I think the tedium conjured was actually very successful to the piece. In terms of style, there did seem to be some sort of Tao Lin-mimicry, a flatness that I didn’t think benefited the story, Tao Lin also like this god-figure looming above the story, Marie’s story, her character’s story, like this Marxist Internet intellectual, just like Ford Madox Ford edited and shaped Jean Rhys’s diaries (but she’s a young, obviously talented and brave writer. Let her find her own voice, however she must). It seems to me that Marie’s story could be read in a way as a take down, or discourse, about Marxism, which is a conversational strand in the piece, at one point in the story Marie asks Adrien whether he’s an idealist or a materialist, and he notes that she’s definitely a materialist, because she’s a Marxist. I do think she seems to be sending up herself as well as this other character, their pseudo-intellectual conversations undercut by their banal sexual encounters, in a way that reminds me of All the King’s Horses, the bubbly roman a clef by Michele Bernstein, Guy DeBord’s wife, that parodies in some way the father of Situationism and their daily lives that reads instead like an episode of Gossip Girl. The piece reads to me like a delicious revenge piece, the cipher-girl taking back her story, telling her own perspective, and a kind of “dumb cunt” answer to the great male intellectuals — I’m stealing that phrase from Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, and I do see the correlation Emily Gould makes, it’s a good one, between Dodie’s The Buddhist and Chris’ text, because both are writing back, against their toxic obsessions and affairs with these male intellectuals, and in doing so, are refusing to be erased or silenced, and privileging writing the explicit and emotional, and yes, sexual (bodily, materialist) self. That is perhaps the feminism of such a project here — the reclaiming of the confessional, the refusal to be silent, the decision to write the body.

Against accusations that my reading of Marie Calloway is hyperbolic — I would say — it’s totally obvious she’s talented, and I really enjoyed this story. I also think I have pretty good taste. Also, my essays are often spirited, rants, and that’s because my criticism, the way I read, comes from a place of deep feeling, and I experienced intense emotions reading all of this, all of the fucknotery of the whole thing, measured against what I still argue is an interesting, often beautiful story. But beyond that, if a student had showed this to me in a workshop, I would doubtless have praised and encouraged them as well, and seen total promise. I would have been thrilled to have seen this story in workshop (is this why I can’t get a job teaching? maybe, I don’t know.) The rules stories like this break are exciting to me — even though I will agree, and have said, there appears to be a certain sameness of style with the writers associated with Muumuu House and Tao Lin — or perhaps it’s a school, young writers raised on texting and Livejournal etc. who write of their emotions and their quotidians, their anxieties that are somehow tampered by drugs illegal and legal — like a Xanax school of writers, I’d even fit Ben Lerner’s book into that, I’m sure he’d hate that, although Leaving the Atocha Station isn’t as Facebook or social networking aware. But more than this — more than this — it is a massive part of my belief system — I believe in championing young women writers, and supporting them, and believing in them, and learning from them, and viewing them not only as mentees but more often than not as slightly younger peers, not chopping them down to size, because that’s what is obviously happening anyway in the culture. If Marie Calloway had emailed me her story I would have told her as I’m writing here — this is good, this is really freaking good. And more than that, this is important, to write our lives, to attempt to measure them out, in any way, in pills, in fucks, in fashion hauls, in toxic holiday dinners, in coffee spoons. Despite what they say, we have just as much a right to attempt to make our existences and our observations into literature as anyone else does.

It does not matter whether Marie Calloway propositioned this writer for the sake of a story, or for an experience — this is something some girls do. When I was a young 20-something I did most everything, including sexual exploits, for the sake of “experience,” but more than that, because I did see myself as an author, and wanted to write someday about these experiences, I didn’t know how, and I didn’t have predecessors at the time to give me permission to write about being a messy, fucked-up girl. There is a performance to this sort of confessional writing — the performance and testing of the self, of limits and boundaries, not only what one could do, but whether one has the nerve or dumbness to write about it, to publish it — so besides Anais Nin and Jean Rhys, Dodie Bellamy and Chris Kraus, Marie’s piece also reminded me of a young Sophie Calle or Tracey Emin or Marina Abramovic, fucking for sport, performance, commentary. Certainly she’s being talked about. I just worry about the conversation. TC mark

Kate Zambreno

Her forthcoming book is Heroines, to be published by Semiotext(e)’s Active Agents series in September.

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