Joanna Walsh is the author of two books this fall, the short story collection Vertigo, and the nonfiction book Hotel, the latest in Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series. Walsh writes on the notion of female genius, and looking back at the women who influenced her own writing.
In her “novel from life,” How Should a Person Be, Sheila Heti wrote, tongue-in-cheek, “One good thing about being a woman is we haven't too many examples yet of what a genius looks like.” I’ve been wondering recently how much it matters to me as a writer to have “geniuses” to look back at, and whether it matters that some of them were women.
In the last few years, I’ve discovered for myself the work of experimental British women writers of the late twentieth century: Brigid Brophy, Anna Kavan, Ann Quin, and especially Christine Brooke-Rose, among others. If I were to look for past “geniuses” as examples, these are the sort I would be looking for—all of them trying to do something new. Yet even having found them, I feel I have to justify why I find the influence of those women writers particularly important—of a slightly different quality to the influence of male writers, for example Georges Perec, whose work influences me as well. What is the particular kind of connection I feel to female experimental writers from the past? Why should that difference exist?
Brooke-Rose herself at first denied that she felt “different” as a woman writer of “indeterminate” work, a term she preferred to “experimental.” Yet later Brooke-Rose “became aware that the woman experimental writer has more difficulties than the man experimental writer, in the sense that, however much men have accepted women’s writing, there is still this basic assumption, which is unconscious, that women cannot create new forms.”
I find I’m often compared to women writers and rarely, if ever, to men. I’ve heard this is something that often happens to women writers, which can be a problem as there are so many more historical male “geniuses” to go round. I’d like my writing to be thought of in terms of my male influences too, but this bias toward women writers is understandable: I write mostly, though by no means exclusively, about women, and, if I do manage to “create new forms,” my impetus has often been the difficulty I have found in accepting conventional narratives of women’s lives, around sex, marriage, family, work. The experiences of women I know, and my own life, seem so seldom to fit the stories I’ve been told. “Experimental” writing is sometimes used as though it were an offensive term, as though the desire to experiment were an aggressive and unnecessary tinkering with something that should be immutable. Perhaps there is something in this. For me, “originality” is specifically female: a desire to rework the stories and language I was given, which crumbled in the face of experience.
For Brooke-Rose in particular, this awareness that women’s lives were different translated directly into her work. Critics have latched onto the phrase “utterly other discourse”—which the author used in her novel Amalgamemenon—to describe her techniques. But “it doesn’t refer to the writing,” Brooke-Rose insisted in an interview, “it refers to the woman reading and thinking quite other things until she has to switch back to talking to the man.” Meanwhile, the stream-of-consciousness of Amalgamemnon’s Cassandra-like narrator, who can use only speculative and future tenses, and whose unstable nouns slither into tricksy puns, seems a narrative strategy created by the character’s job insecurity, and her relationship with her exploitative boyfriend who’ll “speak without thinking and meanwhile I’ll think without speaking . . . since my speaking to any purpose other than sado-elegant pub-lounge strategies will already begin to make him angry.”
In her essay on gender and experimental writing, “Illiterations,” Brooke-Rose claims there is no space for a woman within the traditional parameters of artistic practice where “all she can be is beautiful, and hence not understand beauty,” or create it. In Brooke-Rose’s “The Foot”—which might be the only short story narrated by a phantom limb—a fashion model, crippled in a car crash, decides that, as she can no longer use her beauty, she’ll find another way to earn her living: “I thought, perhaps, I could write.” “Oh yes,” replies her “sexy-eyed” doctor, “Love stories you mean? Or spies?” but no, she means a translation of her situation into words. “She is thinking of me to write about in order to get me out of her system as they call it,” says The Foot. “You are cherishing your symptoms my dear says Mr. Poole,” the seductive surgeon. “And are you occupying your mind?”
I suspect myself —occupying, as these writers did, the double fold of uncertainty born of a woman’s attitude to her own situation, and of her knowledge that it is a situation which puts her both inside and outside it, so suspicious of her own mind that her voice splits helplessly into utterly other discourses—of cherishing these women’s obstacles, because they were generative of the means they used to vault over them.
It would be boring if the only thing I took away from reading these great writers was their life stories, which, set as they were in the late 20th century, provided them with so many more obstacles than most British woman writers face today. And there are differences, of course, between one “indeterminate” woman writer’s experience and another, and mine. Quin and Brooke-Rose were brought up Catholic; I was not. Kavan had a wealthy, international childhood; Brophy was an animal rights activist. I can read French but Brooke-Rose was a native speaker, as well as a fluent germanophone who lived to the age of 88; Quin killed herself at 37. Brooke-Rose’s personal life was relatively conventional; Quin’s was more sex drugs and rock ’n’ roll—when she could afford it.
I have never been one for the way biographies iron lives flat into years. I don’t want to be sentimental. The desire for likable female geniuses is as pernicious as the desire for likeable female characters, and the “dream dinner party” with your favorite authors, living or dead, as guests, seems a nightmarish idea. I don’t expect to like these women, or even to write like them, but it is important to me—now—to know that these women were there before me, working toward something “new.”