• Unruly Writing: On the Problem with the Fragmented Art History Book

    Dalya Benor Considers the High-Concept Hybrid Taking Over the Literary World

    There is a disturbing trend that has emerged in the literary world as of late. Let’s call it the “Fragmented Non-Fiction Art History” book. These titles look good on bookshelves, with their aesthetically-inclined covers and trendy lineup of female artists they purport to be about.

    The covers are tastefully minimalist with just a hint of bold color, signaling to the audience it is after: artistic, curated, cool. They have cream, or maybe pastel pink backgrounds, titles with big, bold lettering, and maybe a black and white photograph that conjures Downtown New York Art World. They have become talking points for a certain in-crew; names to drop at literary parties for readers that subscribe to The Paris Review and can speak to the feminist oeuvres of Chantal Akerman and Agnes Varda. They’ve become status symbols, garnering plenty of fans, but has anyone actually read these books? There seems to be a lot of “I love this book” and Instagram posting of covers without any further analysis. I wonder, because if they had, perhaps there would be more critical discourse about what’s written in their pages.

    This type of book, a high-concept hybrid that resists categorization into any one genre, is one part revisionist art history, told through a feminist lens, and another part hazy fever-dream personal narrative. One review in The Guardian of Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, goes: “On glancing at the names gathered… I cynically wondered if the scrupulously fashionable London dinner party chat-list (Deborah Levy, Maggie Nelson, Sally Rooney, Chris Kraus, etc) was strategically calibrated to shore up the author’s own cultural capital by association.” Add in a generous dose of vague, ephemeral language (“the ways in which women’s art-making can be halted not by some external force, like a child, or a husband, but by an internalised warning: alert! alert! we are entering dangerous waters!”) and a fragmented structure that leaves the reader so confused they can’t tell which way is up, and you’ve got a pretty good formula for the rise of the trendy “intellectual art girl” book.

    They lead with high hopes, but ultimately fall short in their execution. Some, like Laing’s book, are a haphazard journey through art and literature, while others, like Katy Hessel’s The Story of Art Without Men attempt to overcorrect for centuries of male-dominated art history, but both types cover the ground between overgeneralized narrative and opaque personal essay.

    *

    Lauren Elkin’s Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art, gets its title from Jenny Offill’s “novel-in-fragments,” Dept. of Speculation, in which Offill writes, “my plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things.”

    Using Offill’s concept of the “art monster” as a jumping off point, Elkin sets out with grand ambitions, intending to write about “monstrosity and creativity,” and “about how difficult it was, for a woman artist, to take up space in the world.” With this as her Trojan’s Horse, Elkin entices her reader: “That, at least, is what I told my publishers I was going to write about.”

    I picked up Art Monsters thinking it would provide a composite image of art history, but a few pages in, I realized I was mistaken. The Art Monsters cover, with its black and white photograph of the artist Hannah Wilke at work at her studio at the Chateau Marmont in 1970, one leg mounted on a chair, the other on the ground, hints at some sort of artistic revelry, but it never really gets there. After reading the winding, scatty, and dreamlike tome that flits in and out of consciousness—nearly 300 pages later, I’m still not really sure what this book is about.

    Using examples from art and literary history that range from Virginia Woolf’s essay, “Professions for Women,” to Kara Walker’s Sugar Sculpture, to Carolee Schneeman’s work, Interior Scroll, Elkin’s book is a mix of art history, academic theory, experimental personal narrative and cultural criticism, collected under the umbrella term of “art monster.” However, her definition of the term expands as she sees fit, slapping the label onto a long list of female authors, artists, and philosophers whether they make sense or not. Elkin’s project soon spirals like a tornado, gathering characters along the way that become too many to keep track of.

    Virginia Woolf is Elkin’s north star throughout Art Monsters. She opens with an anecdote of Woolf in the bath, weaving her in and out of sections on artists like Helen Frankenthaler, Maria Lassnig, Ana Mendieta, Eva Hesse, writers like Kathy Acker, Virginie Despentes, or the more recent Emma Sulkowicz and her 2014-15 project, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight). Elkin repeatedly references Schneeman’s 1975 piece, “Interior Scroll,” in which she reads from a scroll she pulls out of her vagina, yet the connection between each of these artists becomes increasingly blurry. Art History-cum-critque-cum-theory like this one regularly appear: Lynda Benglis, “in putting us in front of filth, confronts the viewer with what might usually be exiled to the realm of pornography and worse, not to the kind of tasteful art-cum-pornography that sophisticated consumers of art could recognise as belonging to a Sadeian, Bataillean heritage, but to a debased—read, working-class—American buffoonery.”

    Not all of the women Elkin writes about are “art monsters,” in the Offill definition of the term, not all consider themselves “feminists,” and not all create work about the “body” or beauty for that matter. Rather, it’s a ragtag crew, and while each of them has made significant contributions that deserve individual focus, lumping them together reduces them to that common denominator of “women.”

    For example, Elkin admits “there is no ‘essence of femininity’” in the work of Helen Frankenthaler,  an Abstract Expressionist who made paintings with bright, bold swaths of color. But still, Elkin tries to lump her in, clumsily shoehorning the artist’s work into her narrative. “That does not mean [she was] not grappling with what it meant in [her] times to be a woman through the formal properties of the work itself, whether or not a political movement called ‘feminism’ existed when they made it,” she writes, a conclusion that feels as reductive as the misogyny she rallies against.

    Critic Jillian Steinhauer addresses the issues this poses in her review of Katy Hessel’s The Story of Art Without Men. Steinhauer writes, “Hessel’s particular version is tinged with the boosterism of girlboss feminism… Neatly packaged products like these answer loud, ongoing calls for more cultural representation. Yet they also run the risk of oversimplifying their subjects, grouping wildly disparate practitioners from different times and places under the bare header of “women”—or in this case, “not men.” Elkin’s desire for tidy narratives ironically ends up putting women back into the container she attempts to break them out of. The muddled connections between them feels like forcing a conversation that isn’t necessarily there.

    Elkin begins by focusing on the work of women artists and “what it was that they were so bent on doing that they ran the risk of being called a monster.” But a few pages in, she already changes her mind. “As I’ve looked at work by writers and artists like Woolf and Schneemann, I’ve become less invested in legislating whether someone is or isn’t an art monster.”

    Parsing Elkin’s many arguments thus falls onto the reader. Which leaves me wondering, what responsibility does a writer have to their readers? What is the line between reading a book as art or narrative, and how do we judge a work that dances between the two? She writes of “masturbation as literary process” in reaction to the “self-censorship” of writing. But there is a difference between censorship and editing. Instead, Elkin hands us her stack of manuscripts, landing with a thud, and says, Here! You deal with this! 

    Rather than memoir or encyclopedic reference, Art Monsters reads like a compilation of notes, musings and meditations, without a clear narrative—“My scribbled reactions, too many to bring together, resist cohering into a reading, a viewpoint.” If Elkin’s aim is to assert these women’s place in a history that has overlooked them, she does them a disservice by fracturing their stories throughout the book, sending the reader scrambling throughout the pages to piece them all together.

    The latest novel/memoir/auto-fiction-what-have-you is Sheila Heti’s Alphabetical Diaries, a genre-less book created from the author’s ten years of diary entries that comprise around 500,000 words. Heti used Excel to reorder the sentences alphabetically, each chapter beginning each sentence with the same letter, and voila, book done.

    As reviewer Madeleine Crum writes,

    Are these high-concept projects gimmicky? French philosopher Montaigne, who scoffed at “those poets who compose entire works from lines all beginning with the same letter,” would’ve said so. The Theory of the Gimmick author Sianne Ngai would agree. In her 2020 book, Ngai writes that a gimmick is a “labor-saving device,” a work (or joke; gimmicks are often funny) that fascinates its audience and also makes them feel cheated.

    *

    The writer Hélène Cixous’s concept of Écriture féminine, or “women’s writing,” encouraged women to write from a stream of consciousness as a way to break from “phallocentric discourse.” “Women should write, Cixous said, in order to smash everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the “truth” with laughter.”

    Elkin writes that she was inspired by this, using it as her cue to write in the same freestyle, associative way. It is a formidable task, one that requires letting go of self-control. Yet in order for it to work, one has to commit to the bit—Elkin has to be much more radical herself in order for it to be successful. She references the writer Kathy Acker’s deconstructionist texts, looking to her “literature as collage, as bricolage, as slash,” which were meant to offend; their unpalatability a form of radical protest. But Elkin lacks this rebelliousness, trapped between textbook historical writing and attempts to create personal connections that at times feel glib.

    At first, she writes that Acker’s “voice had never particularly spoken to me.” “It wasn’t so much the violence or the filth that turned me off. My issues with Kathy Acker have had far more to do with our differing attitudes towards literary history: who we write from, and towards.” But then, quoting a passage by Acker that includes, “Stray sprays of my sperm streamed down the stuffed animal’s left leg,” Elkin writes, “This is why I avoided Kathy Acker for so long… I do not want to see Kathy Acker’s muff.” She balks, writing that “this segment is forcing a phallic reading of the work, the kind that made me resist it all those years.” Acker may not be for everyone, and that’s perfectly fine—but including her feels like trying to force her down like medicine.

    The same could be said of authors like Cookie Mueller and her recently reissued collection of stories, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, even “though her writing makes me seasick!!!!” wrote author Nicolaia Rips. Alas, the cache must prevail, and down the medicine must go.

    Another example of criticism-cum-memoir comes by way of Claire Dederer’s Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, a journey through thirteen different chapters on creative and monstrous figures, mostly men. A winding refrain of critical essays, Dederer by the end doesn’t provide an answer for the question she has posed—that age old, can we separate the art from the artists? Round and round the inquiry goes until the engine runs out of gas.

    Writers like Gertrude Stein, Susan Sontag and Maggie Nelson have all experimented with the use of fragmented, free-flowing text. But underneath the seeming disorganization, their books have strong organizing principles—the fragments have an accumulative effect for the reader, so that by the end, the parts amount to a whole.

    Experimental writing, especially with fragmentation, is a tricky one—it wants to be wild, to be unruly, untamed. And perhaps it should be.

    “It’s been a very good decade or so for the fragmented novel of a woman’s consciousness,” writes John Williams of the genre. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, the works of Clarice Lispector, Annie Ernaux’s The Years, Animal Joy by the lesser-known Nuar Alsadir—these books, part non-fiction, part memoir, part criticism, stop and start like a sputtering engine. They require a certain dedication to see them through, requiring the reader to maintain focus when the narrator prefers not to. Still, finishing them reaps its rewards, even if it’s a sense of accomplishment for completion.

    Kate Zambreno and Moyra Davey, both fragmentary novelists, rely on the structure as a way to eschew having to string together complete thoughts. “You have found the perfect form: a novel made up of fragments, using the note-taking practice you find so vital,” says Davey to Zambreno in an interview. It’s a style of writing that seems to be gaining traction, if less for the content and more for the “idea” of what it represents—an aesthetic of artisticism, intellectual superiority, and a refusal to abide by the rules.

    In the beginning, fragmentation found its home in feminist literature as a way to reject patriarchal order—borrowing from the aforementioned Écriture féminine, which was a feminist take on Andre Breton’s male-centric Surrealist Manifesto. In the way of Gertrude Stein, it was avant-garde—a reflection on the page of what artists at the time were doing on the canvas.

    Later, it was Renata Adler’s Speedboat, and Kathy Acker’s collaged, rebellious musings. These writers have been rediscovered and reissued, popular for a “pick it up and put it down as you please” mode of writing. Historically, the style is a form of protest. But now, a rebranding of “stream of consciousness” writing has the next generation in a chokehold.

    In Elkin’s book, the experimental style feels misaligned with high-minded phrases like “the abject,” the “internecine strife among feminists,” “the materiality of his argument, his reading of opacity as a key element in the way we relate to one another, as a safeguard of our individual personhood.” Elkin regularly uses academic jargon to buy authority, relying on a mishmash of names that the average reader has to Google:

    We are so far from the realm of the Kantian, Brechtian, minimalist aesthetic of critical distance and reflection. There is no standing back from Fuses. Likewise, we are far from the Bataillean/Sadeian vision of sexuality as violence, as irony, as comedy. I think here of Hannah Wilke’s dedication to making “formal imagery that is specifically female, a new language that fuses mind and body into erotic objects that are nameable and at the same time quite abstract,” which is even appropriate at the level of its vocabulary.

    Sentences like these are common—rhetorical inner monologues that read like a page out of a rough draft dissertation paper. They don’t activate the reader to engage with the concepts, and the sentiment comes off as name-droppy, liberal arts school pretension.

    Elkin asks: “And what grows in the joints, but courage, and liberation? And what about what is not on the canvas, or on the page; what has been left out, or obscured, those present absences, pointed to but not articulated? How do you speak the silent body?” These are questions that don’t quite get answered, not by Elkin or the narratives she has presented. She invites the reader into her personal life only in rare, opportune moments—slivered rays of light that peek through dense clouds: “In the video of our son’s bloodless bris, eight days after his birth, my arms as they hold him are painted in angry purples and yellows. When I went to the pharmacy to get some arnica, the pharmacist asked who did that to you.”

    The main problem is that Elkin doesn’t commit—not in her retelling of personal narrative or art history, that by the end, the reader feels exhausted from trying to keep up with her way of thinking. Her guarded distance (“To me, a feminist who came of age in the ironic 1990s, it’s clear the S.O.S. images are not meant to be read straight”) seems inherently at odds with the “monstrousness” she espouses. The short aside about the birth of her son quickly cuts to intellectualizing it as “the decreation of motherhood: the acceptance of the self as finite, the act of procreation as prolongation of the material of the self, and the unbearable knowledge and impossible acceptance of our children’s eventual finitude.”

    The line between evaluating a book as artistic expression or as traditional narrative is a fine one. Yet there are still ways to determine what makes a piece of art successful, the same way that books with fragmented structure can accomplish something cohesive. The risk is that the writing can come off as lazy, an excuse to leave sloppy writing on the page and call it “radical.” Experimental writing, especially with fragmentation, is a tricky one—it wants to be wild, to be unruly, untamed. And perhaps it should be.

    In Elkin’s case, one senses that she has borrowed the cache of a radical tradition without having the rebelliousness and originality it calls for. Messiness works when it is precise. It takes effort to make things seem effortless—an underlying element of control that, invisible to the reader, pulls the right strings at the right times. Elkin instead, puts that effort onto the reader, one that requires a certain mental fitness to make sense of what is clearly a very bright, intellectual and capacious mind.

    Dalya Benor
    Dalya Benor
    Dalya Benor is a writer from Los Angeles, currently based in NYC. She writes about art, culture, and the in-between. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, W, SSENSE, Dazed, AnOther, Document Journal and more. She holds a master's degree in Journalism from the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU.





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