It does not look like a poetry collection

Sophie Collins, Who Is Mary Sue?

Faber, 112pp, £10.99, ISBN 9780571346615

reviewed by Rosanna Hildyard

Who Is Mary Sue? is a collection that views itself but refuses to comment. It ranges over forms of poetry, essay, confessional writing, witness statement. (It is even part-review itself, for example in ‘a whistle in the gloom’, which considers Pauline Réage’s The Story of O.) Specifically, as in this example from ‘As bread is the body of Christ, so is glass the very flesh of the Devil’, it is aware of the way in which readers view both a text written by a woman and the female writer:

‘I know someone watches me (I watch myself). Perhaps this
is the difference the words make.’

To start with, a witness statement. The case: an investigation into the apparently two-dimensional Mary Sue. After a short prose preface followed by five poems, the reader arrives at matter-of-fact prose in the eponymous section ‘Who Is Mary Sue?’:

‘Coined by Paula Smith in 1973, ‘Mary Sue’ is a pejorative term used by readers and writers of fan fiction to describe protagonists who are believed to be thinly-disguised versions of the writer’s non-idealised self.

[…]

I begin to collect quotations, responses.’

Collins gives us these responses, which show that the ‘Mary Sue’ is part of a larger double standard in readings of women’s writing. Female authors are often treated as though they can only succeed when writing of their own (narrow, often domestic) experience. (They are permitted less imaginative freedom than men.) Even if dubbed a success in this way, the work then risks the accusation of being a ‘Mary Sue’ and therefore of being only reflective, not creative. (By extension: ‘poorly constructed, without depth’.)

Collins quotes feminist academics, shares anecdotes of responses to female authors, uses transcripts of interviews with writers whose literary protagonists are read as versions of the author. ‘I begin to collect quotations, responses’, shows Collins gathering evidence to build her case. This is documentary, the layering up of example after example. In this section, the narrator refrains from comment. The point is all too clear: women writers are limited in the scope of what they are permitted to write. Women’s writing is patronised.

Jumping from prose to poetry, drama, reportage and translation, different forms make the argument in different ways, the essay form explicitly demonstrates that women’s writing is disregarded in a reading culture which assumes everything women write is (a) biographical or (b) inadequate; but it is the poems themselves that prove the subtlety of the Mary Sue fallacy. First Collins tells, in the essays, then she shows. The poems demonstrate in practice how women’s voices are marginalised, by making readers aware of our presumptive ways of reading.

Even in small ways, such as the poems titled with self-consciously incomplete or unspecific names (‘A.S.’, ‘Poor Clare’, the pointedly truncated two-letter ‘Ed’), emphasise that the reader’s knowledge of the female subject is lacking, prodding us to realise that we usually expect poems to explain themselves. Particularly while reading ‘Ed’ and ‘A.S.’, as we gradually realise that the ungendered name refers to a ‘she’, we become guiltily aware of our own reading practices. What is emphasised here is simply that we expect to know the female speaker from reading her poetry – and notice this as we are rebuffed; Ed and A.S. keep a small advantage. Who is Mary Sue? is full of small butts to our presumptions.

The entire collection emphasises that reading is not a neutral practice, but one that involves hierarchical power structures. An example: the poem ‘Ed’ has a footnote at the line mentioning Ed’s ‘speculative novel-in-progress’. The footnote is an extract from Ed’s novel, ‘*On Gravity – ’ longer than ‘Ed’ itself. ‘*On Gravity – ’ could plausibly stand apart from ‘Ed’ as a poem in its own right (for example: it has a title, uses anaphora and metaphor, takes up a relatively large space). Here, we are presented with two poems; equal, yet one is banished from the Table of Contents and reduced to being an explanatory note. The visual layout is a reflection of the structures that lead readers to form value judgements.

The context of the discussion of ‘Mary Sue’ takes this particular point further. The literal marginalisation of a female-authored ‘novel-in-progress’ is clearly a metaphor to emphasise the frequent marginalisation of women’s work. The ‘Mary Sue’ way of reading ‘*On Gravity – ’ would be that its protagonist, Anna, sheds light on Ed – indeed, the whole scholarly tradition of making literary arguments based on allusion and connotation would lead us to make this connection. Yet the fact that we, reading this particular collection, are already alive to the ‘Mary Sue’ fallacy makes us aware that there is not necessarily any link between ‘Ed’ and ‘Anna’, though cultural reading practice makes it easy to suggest that there is. The idea that the author’s intended meaning is the primary meaning of a literary work has long since been debunked, yet Collins makes the point that readers still limit readings of female-authored fiction to the intentions of their author. ‘Ed’ and its footnote show that the ‘Mary Sue’ way of reading is simply part of the way we still read in English literary culture. ‘Anna’ is distinct from ‘Ed’, and yet still linked to her within authoritative and authoritarian structures of reading.

As well as being a poet, Collins is a translator and editor. Her work in translation questions the authoritative hierarchies around translation; for example, by questioning dominant geopolitical narratives around their source countries, or the idea that it is ideal – or possible – to find a fixed, definitive meaning when translating a text. In the introduction to Currently & Emotion, an anthology of contemporary translations, Collins writes that she compiled the contents on the basis of ‘their potential to challenge dominant perceptions of poetry translation’. In Who Is Mary Sue? this interest in disrupting ‘the values of an overarching patriarchal literary system’, as Collins puts it in the above introduction, remains clear. For a start, it does not look like a poetry collection. Many poems look unfinished, with footnotes and ellipses, or the lines reach the edge of the margins, like prose. Where are the rhymes and stanzas? The poems are fragmentary: ‘The Engine’ ends abruptly on p. 49 and is continued 19 pages later, breaking the progressive forward-march of reading. ‘A Course in Miracles’ is split in two by unexplained ellipses.

These disruptions make plain our assumptions about reading, by breaking them. ‘The Engine’ halting means that we become aware of just how seamless the normal, unbroken way of reading is. It progresses to a conclusion. In contrast, the gaps and disjoints in this text provides an alternative way of reading that challenges, rather than soothes, the reader; asking them to make their own links and interventions within the text.

In Collins’ previous book-length work, the essay small white monkeys: On Self-Expression, Self-Help and Shame, directly relates theories of trauma and symbolism to Collins’ process of writing a poem (‘The Engine’, included in Who Is Mary Sue?). It would be fascinating to see more explanation from Collins herself as to how the poems in Who Is Mary Sue? are written and read in reaction to the ‘Mary Sue’ assumptions – in a collection which documents interpretations of other female writers’ work, to leave out her own seems an evident gap. But making the reader respond to a gap in their understanding is part of the point of this collection, and for Collins to tell us how to read is beside it, as, overall, Who Is Mary Sue? asks the reader to step back from dominant narratives of interpretation and think outside the framework through which they read both texts and authors. This is a questioning, difficult book, and withholds resolution.