• The Attack of Difficult Women Prose

    Gail Scott Considers Lit-Crit’s Underestimation of Female Genius

    Like old snake-oil purveyors, writers have to travel. To display their wares before the shelf life expires [to be female’s to be well-versed in the irony of that!]. Infinite, over centuries, have been the efforts of women on the move to release their particular geni(us) from the bottle. Kept plugged, she’s perfume. Uncorked, fusty. Indecipherable. “Nothing happens in this novel!” “Maybe she would make a better poet.” Even New York writer Lynne Tillman, whose prose is sister to that of Jane Bowles, cites difficulty in deciphering how Bowles entraps dreams, fantasies, waking life, conscious and unconscious thoughts in one sentence. I remain, she writes, surprised, even dumbfounded, by how she does it. One could ask of so many female writers for at least a century . . .: WHY?

    Sentences. Running sideways. Back. Forth. Beginning one way. Turning, unexpectedly. Like insects in a glass. Or people rushing round her bench in the airport. Woman sniffs profusely. “ Take care of Mommy.” Daddy telling worried boy toddler. Lesbian sitting. Trying to hide her longing. Entire airport echoing within. The lover gone. The space between them. Mobile.

    Have you noticed, between sentences, you can move the spaces?

    Choosing, driving back to town, road under misty trees under the bank of the city. Passing favorite building in Chinatown. BREATHE. Red + white-checked front. High rotting bay windows. Covered with pigeon shit. Two skinny ragged youth. Walking in front. One raises bandaged arm. The sentence as gesture.

    Have you noticed you can move the periods?

    She parks in the heat. Enters a room. Still white in morning light. What ruins. Half-empty wine glasses. A bottle marked Barefoot. Rounder goblets with sticky brandy traces. Colliding. Over- charged with meaning. Re-membered silhouette. On knees. Arched back and pretty raised hand. Fingers bent. And plunging—Did the neighbors hear? Did they feel disgust?

    A sentence may (even) be constituted as a figure of synthesis in violation of syntax [old Oxford dictionary]: Obs written after.


    A word about the DIFFICULT: In the alchemy between art + estrangement, notably in times of left + right populisms, failure to mirror the familiar brands the innovative prose writer as not blue ribbon. If under the sway of a desire to reach the widest audience, a tendency to bend toward the obvious may result in . . . the flaw, the error of first sight [which] is to see, and not to notice the invisible. Contiguously, so-called “difficult” work may be said too feminist of persuasion, or disturbingly transgender, or slapped with any other diverse minority identitary tag, + not assessed for its art. A critic in a prestigious Canadian literary journal, puzzling over the lack of active verbs in my millennial novel, My Paris, written almost entirely in present-participle phrases, concluded—and this was not intended unkindly—that my novel must be a case of lesbian aesthetics.

    So-called “difficult” work may be said too feminist of persuasion, or disturbingly transgender, or slapped with any other diverse minority identitary tag, and not assessed for its art.

    It was with Beckett, I travelled. Dragging my battered steamer trunk behind. Full of stacked notes, marked reading copies of his + lesser-known avant-garde novels. Not to mention facial care treatments, feminine hygiene products. A redingote! The trunk becoming plastered, over time, with identifying stickers: FEMINIST, LESBIAN, LEFT-WING, EXPERIMENTAL, ANGLO-QUÉBÉCOISE. Beckett, ambling along beside, bearing underarm a simple handcrafted leather case stamped WRITER. Getting off trains, I glanced back to see his case was not forgotten. Pandering to ancient catechisms of protecting masculine freedom to be charmingly distracted. Immoderately seduced by his penchant for resisting “sense,” on which literary barristers have heaped so much respect. Courage, says a friend [etymology (Fr.): heart- anger]. “Think of it as noise. As I do with Adorno.” She stands as if on stage. Bright magenta lipstick. Skirt just above knees. Hair blowing cinematically. She/Anaïs walks to the window, flings it wide remembering a similar gesture made by Elizabeth Taylor and Alice B. Toklas . . . This action throws resentment to the wind . . . assuring that the pleasure of the moment is hers.

    In what utopia is Anaïs’s gesture in the aperture of the enclosure a trope for women wanting to approach, intuit, touch, to seize upon the inextricable of the world? Is not Anaïs’s gesture, within the portal, followed by double-work [we are also familiar with the irony of that]? . . . first she writes then she impresses the writing on paper. All the while restraining her energetic spirit from bolting up to whoever’s apartment as she does not want energy to be mistaken for desperation. Her self-published letters, commodious in their way of explaining women to men, wrought in language the tender male of the species finds neither emasculating nor unreasonable. One could also ask: Is her gesture—one could say strategy—leashed to impulses learned in the figurative enclosure, an impediment or ticket to freedom? And once released, once beyond the gate, will she, Anaïs, be full participant in public discourse?

    I sit on the edge of my hotel bed. Fe-male, but not skirtable enough to rustle, fashionably bespectacled, impeccably professional [a mite flirtatious], in the folds of the codex. Though why should a woman not use every wile in her repertory to achieve her considerable ambitions? My concern: One’s choice of sociability may risk impacting creative outcome. But why then travel with the likes of Beckett? Is my heart-anger, if bedazzled by his genius, not risking hesitating to move forward at the edge of a precipice? If the line simply continues without being crossbred with the non-esthetic fact, nothing is ever created. I am taking the non-aesthetic fact to mean expression of the entire range of exclusion: Gender [all of them]. Race [for those not people of color, the task is, I believe, to participate in a critical construction of whiteness]. Class [always class].

    . . . they are burning coal down the road to power this light
    I want my poem to be worth the heart of a mountain

    Walking, nights in my redingote, I am fiction: a lesbian. To a voice in the dark querying what males most need to change, I shout the gaze. Yet, knowing full well that to be Fe-male’s to be a-part of it. Sometimes, I wonder if “she” in-the-feminine is not akin to Marx’s Specter—that mysterious aura that gleams off + heightens value of consumable objects on way to market? Attention, warned Marx, the aura is not an essence; it is a secret that is all the more secret in that no substantial essence hides behind it . . . The effect is born of social relation . . . And Marx goes on to say this Socius binds on the one hand men to each other. On the other hand [I intervene], it attempts to bind me to the agents of custom . . . . . . . . . . . . HA!

    A critic in a prestigious Canadian literary journal, puzzling over the lack of active verbs in my millennial novel, My Paris, written almost entirely in present-participle phrases, concluded that my novel must be a case of lesbian aesthetics.

    It STINKS, my old steamer trunk. When I open + let fly yellowed scraps attempting to speak the unspoken, mixed with recipes, dark underwear, old makeup, accoutrements to prevent odor, conceal shameful body [mis]-function [increasing with age]. I laugh, though, like my sisters, I am vacillating between full, proud expression of heart-anger +incommodious outbursts that diminish, in the eyes of many, one’s literary efforts. We who are by no means homogenous, wherever we are on the gender spectrum, are various in our choice of strategies, as we strive to be eternally young before the world. Craving . . . that youth, [its] capacity to feel all the world’s flows mixing together in a completely unexpected and completely inextricable way. Utopia is the force of feeling this . . . Hence, my question for master Beckett: how, for instance, to stick 3 heads in 3 vases, fill speaking mouths with love-betrayal, the stuff of women’s romance fiction. And win the Nobel:

    W1: till all dark    then all well    for the time    but it will come
    W2: poor thing    a shade gone    just a shade    in the head
    M: all as if    never been    it will come    Hiccup. Pardon.
    W1: the time will come    the thing is    there you’ll see it
    W2: Laugh . . .  just a shade    but I doubt it
    M: no sense in this    oh I know    none the less

    His hubris: to take the simplest of words between a man + his competing women lovers; to make a lattice of them, a pattern, contrapuntal, setting in relief that site where abstraction + iterative custom meet. The efficiency of the gesture, almost shocking. Actress Juliet Stevenson, who initially found his work pretentious, abstruse . . . , to be declaring: It’s interesting, Beckett so often wants to contain women. So . . . it was a complete revelation: to come inside the material, and explore it and inhabit it. And I realized he really is a genius.

    Another word about DIFFICULT: For me, the formal dispersal of the writing subject over an accidented terrain is what signs adventurous prose. The divets in the narrative arc thus rendering the novel or story relatively subject to the aleatories of language, + diminishing definitive author/narrator/character divisions, in the way of poetry. But not quite poetry, inasmuch as one has to also deal with the forward impulse of sentence movement toward that definitive stop, the period. But the call for quick answers in the face of contemporaneous calamity may leave experimentalists, already struggling against the decline of teaching of poetry in the academy, deep in the smog. Who needs the defamiliar in this pandemic winter, spring, summer, fall, when the facts are already estranging in themselves? NO ONE HAS SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS BEFORE.

    The answer is that many of us are not, in the context of our everyday, cast in a mold that reproduces the psychology of what is generally considered ‘the familiar’. Perhaps, also, there is a stubborn refusal of the déjà vu. Dithyrambic reviews of certain novels that are larded with sentiment, lauding what seems so obvious, so always already said, have sometimes made me want to shout: Take your thumb out of your mouth. Marguerite Duras, more elegantly, was of the opinion that there are often narratives but very seldom writing: And Charles Bernstein, more empathetic: . . . I see the fate of all of us as related to a lack of judgment, a lack of cultural and intellectual commitment, on the part of the PWC[publications with wide circulation].

    I long for a time when writers wore upstart intellectual performance as a badge of honor. When will more of us return to speaking up? And in whose interest is it that we do not?

    I long for a time when writers wore upstart intellectual performance as a badge of honor. There is, in the CBC archives, a hilarious 1977 interview with young Margaret Atwood suggesting on national TV that interviewer Hana Gartner would be better off reading Harlequin romances. This in response to Gartner’s declaring she cannot empathize with Atwood’s depressing stories. Atwood is no difficult writer but she is a Canadian literary figure who has not hesitated to don the mantle of bitch when the situation required. When will more of us return to speaking up? And in whose interest is it that we do not?


    RUSSIAN Viktor Shklovsky’s early post-revolutionary Formalist novel Zoo was written in exile in Berlin, where he fled from a Communist regime’s growing censure + surveillance. A little more than half a century later, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale recounted extreme patriarchal suppression + constraint of women for reproductive purposes. It coincided with a gathering concern that we were once more entering a society of surveillance in Capitalist regimes. Not long after that, in a New Yorker cartoon: A man, sun hat pulled down, expectant look of pleasure on face, beach grass blowing in a way that signifies New England. But no sooner had he settled on his lawn chair + opened the precious object, his book, than a soldier approached, informing the man that . . . We don’t consider Dostoevsky summer reading. You’ll have to come with us. This hints at the degree to which American liberals were already concerned prior to 9/11 + the invocation of the Homeland Security Act, with the question of surveillance. What the cartoon implied is all the more relevant today: i.e., 1) Dostoevsky, trope for the literary, is still a danger from which citizens may need protection. 2) An inference, with the arrival of the soldier, whose presence seems a warning to the guilty subversive in each of us, that to like Dostoevsky [i.e., the literary] might be a cover, an auto-repressive gesture; the man on the beach might really be hankering to read something even more seditious. The soldier, being both less + more substantial than he appears = champion of the obvious, as determined by some moody overload of information keeping public opinion too frantic to concentrate on anything more complex. We’re too tired to make love . . . We need to overthrow the government . . . We’re too tired to overthrow the government . . . The bottom-line mentality of the soldier at once balloons up into a reminder that public opinion is . . . US. We who are too exhausted to be troubled, to make an effort.

    The “dead author [Dostoevsky]” pun offers one more fusty portal. In this epoch of “virtual” extension of “self” via an endless stream of information, there have been continuous claims that Author as Arbitrator of the relation between language + thinking is dead. Musty. Past expiry date. Literary efforts to split, flay, mock, deconstruct + reconstruct thought, from Dada onward, seem to preclude this moment when people, materially dispersed by politics + economics, + increasingly uncertain of origins, are meant to be in search of comforting bromides. But, as the younger generations are teaching us, new global circumstance is ultimately less about free expression of the bounded individual, than it is about finding a balance between independence/inter-independence of being. To wit: behind society’s notion of the ‘feminine’ as commodious, seductive, there lurks—until she begins to crack the glass that contains her—a question that needs an answer. A question deeply embedded in what is meant by balance of power in the Polis.


    “Attack of the Difficult Women Prose” from Permanent Revolution © 2021 by Gail Scott. Used with permission of Book*hug Press.

    Gail Scott
    Gail Scott
    Gail Scott is the author of Spare Parts (1981), Heroine (1987, re-issued in 2019 with an introduction by Eileen Myles), Main Brides (1993), My Paris (1999), Spare Parts Plus Two(2002), and The Obituary (2010). Her essays are collected in Spaces Like Stairs (1989) and in La Théorie, un dimanche (1988) which was translated into English as Theory, A Sunday(2013). Scott is co-editor of the New Narrative anthology: Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (2004). Her translation of Michael Delisle’s Le désarroi du matelot was shortlisted for a 2001 Governor General’s Literary Award. A memoir, based in Lower Manhattan during the early Obama years, is forthcoming. Scott lives in Montréal.

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