frances farmer is my sister

I once told a very serious writer/poet I knew about how obsessed I was with various women’s lives. I think I was talking about Vivien Leigh at the time, as I was working on a book dealing with former screen legends, that I have since abandoned. Or perhaps the mad wives. I don’t know. This poet was very serious, very pure. Derrida in the AM. Pronouncing his name correctly. That sort of thing. She fixed me with some look - this was maybe 7 years ago - and said - more than a bit dismissingly - oh, you’re very interested with lives. Or maybe she said: Oh, you’re very interested in these women’s lives. And I said, yes, I guess I am. I remember feeling guilty—like this wasn’t a writerly thing to be interested in, the subject of others’ lives. That this was gossip. That being unliterary, somehow. This devouringness. I have since realized that most of the works I’m interested in, are about absolute obsession with other people’s lives, often real-people’s lives, and these works become unserious biographies, avant-garde acts of gossip, while still working within the structure of the novel.
—  Kate Zambreno (I just can’t stop posting Kate Zambreno related entries!)

I finished reading Heroines by Kate Zambreno last night. It is a really impressive book, and I got a lot out of it. I don’t consider myself a writer really, but by the end of the book I felt like I could be one. And that is, I think, what the author intended. A sort of empowering exploration through the injustices done to women authors over time, and her own experiences as a writer, combining to create this indignant powerful appeal for women to create themselves and write themselves and own their own stories.

The bulk of the book is about literary women who were censored and  silenced by their literary husbands through psychiatry and the rhetoric of madness. She focuses particularly on Zelda Fitzgerald, Viv(ienne) Eliot, and Jane Bowles, but also talks about a huge number of other women authors from the 20th century. Many of these women were institutionalized at some point in their lives, perhaps repeatedly, and many were subjected to things like shock therapy and insulin comas. Their writing was interrupted by this and also by doctors recommendations that writing was likely to “excite their delicate conditions”. Some of these women were forbidden to write for long periods. Or only allowed a short time each day to write under supervision.

Whether any of these women actually suffered from mental illnesses seems besides the point when their cases are considered in conjunction with their male equivalents. While madness in women undermined their writing, for men the response was to legitimize it. Men were driven crazy by the depth of their writing and their genius. It only added to their credibility as authors.

In this way the current literary canon has been formed. Dominated almost entirely by men, some who also suffered mental illnesses, who are lauded as genius’s, while the womens works are consistently seen through the lense of their illnesses and discounted because of it.

I think one of the best parts of this book is the exposure I have gained to so many women authors and their major works, which I had previously never heard of. I certainly hope that ideas like these will permeate into literary culture and allow so many of the women authors who have been erased and silenced to be rediscovered. I have certainly added a lot of new (to me) books to my ‘to read’ shelf thanks to this book.

If anyone has read this book, or wants to read this book, or just wants to talk about this book, I would love to talk about it more! Please message me or whatever!