Fuck the Objective Correlative 

Kate Zambreno, Heroines

Semiotext(e), 312pp, £12.95, ISBN 9781584351146

reviewed by Kate Gould

Kate Zambreno's Heroines is a tumbling great tale of silenced women. Originating in her blog, Frances Farmer Is My Sister, it is a paean to ‘the mad wives of modernism’, Vivienne Eliot, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Jane Bowles whose work was, and still is, considered secondary to that of the men whom they married and inspired: Vivienne was a figure who both inspired and revolted her husband, Tom, until he left her to be committed to an asylum by her family where she died aged 58; Zelda, desperate to dance and write, faded into a fictional figure of Scott's making and died in an asylum fire;  Jane, crippled by the effects of a stroke and alcoholism, was left by Paul in an institution and with only a numbered wooden cross to mark her grave in Málaga. (Zambreno doesn't mention it, but in 1999, through the efforts of the municipality of Málaga and the Association of Friends of San Miguel Cemetery, a marker was erected for Jane Bowles.)

Zambreno expands the narrative to include other neglected or under-appreciated female writers and threads parts of her own life through it, writing of her passions, creativity, struggles with ill health, and extraordinary everyday experiences. She doesn’t come across as sharing the intemperate nature of the women about whom she writes; rather, she gives the impression of someone whose life is consumed by the creations and words of others. Her book has moments of great lyricism - I'd go so far as to call them brilliance - and, when she's on a roll, her passion is infectious. She loves these writers and wants you to love them, too, and to share her anger at the injustice of their fate. ‘The burst of creativity,’ she writes, ‘the obsessive drive, will always be read as unmedicated, disordered, dangerous.’

In restoring to centre-stage writers who have been marginalised or excluded from the canon on account of their sex, Zambreno has performed a vital service for readers and writers.  Heroines is a powerful rallying cry to women writers - working, wannabe, or would-be - to get their words on paper and their work out there: ‘To say fuck you to these internal and social prohibitions dictating what literature should be about. Fuck you to the objective correlative. Fuck the canon. Fuck the boys with their big books.’

The book's weakness is the lack of discipline in Zambreno's storytelling. That isn't to say that she should tone down her style and temper her exuberance, but Heroines would have benefited from a stricter edit and a more linear structure. Zambreno insists she is not interested in the traditional narrative, and the nonlinear structure may be seen as an apt reflection of the women writers' lives, in all their catastrophe. I can’t help but think, though, that separate essays on each of the women would have allowed for a fuller depiction of them as individuals than the erratic, and often repetitious, way in which details of their lives are interspersed throughout the book.

Though the women as writers are the subject of the book, Zambreno spends surprisingly little time talking about their writing. Instead, her focus is primarily on the women in relation to the injustices - most commonly caused by the men in their lives - that beset them. Biographical details and tales from the women's personal lives make for interesting reading and give a context to their work, but surely it is as writers that she would want them to be remembered - not just as personalities. Their writing is what makes them the heroines of the book's title, more than their appalling relationships. Given the calibre of the women about whom Zambreno writes (including the likes of Jean Rhys, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf), I would have been unable to resist writing about their work - celebrating it, in fact. By focusing so heavily on their personalities instead of their work, Zambreno is in danger of doing a disservice to her subjects, just as so many of their contemporaries had done.
Kate Gould is a writer, campaigner for sex workers' rights at SCOT-PEP and commissioning editor at The Fine Line. She is the author of Exposing Phallacy, a study of flashing in contemporary culture.