Experimental Women’s Writing in the 21st Century

Lidia Yuknavitch
Lidia Yuknavitch
Jennifer Glaser (LARB) praises Yuknavitch’s new novel, The Small Backs of Children, as a fine example of experimental women’s writing
The terrain of contemporary experimental fiction has been largely claimed by male writers. This is nothing new. As Andreas Huyssen pointed out years ago, despite Gustave Flaubert’s assertion that Madame Bovary “c’est moi,” he spent most of his career carefully distinguishing his high modernist literary sensibilities from the popular tastes of the feminized masses. The contest between high and low, difficulty and ease, in fiction continues to travel along these gendered lines — particularly in conversations about American literature. Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus’s 2002 row over the value of experimental fiction and the fate of the novel in the pages of The New Yorker and Harper’s marked not only a new, meta-ethical turn in fiction after 9/11, but also a continuation of age-old male anxieties about the feminization (or “Oprah-fication”) of the reading public and what this meant for male novelists concerned about the size of their … impact. Later, Franzen tangled with a new foe, so-called chick lit author Jennifer Weiner, about a related topic: the perils of self-promotion for writers of literary fiction. This conflict, in turn, developed into a larger battle about the absence of women writers in the contemporary American canon — with Weiner and Franzen as its unlikely antipodes.

“The terrain of contemporary experimental fiction has been largely claimed by male writers. This is nothing new.”

These periodic conflagrations may overwhelm the Twitterverse, but they don’t do much to move the literary conversation forward. Instead, they largely reproduce some of the most ossified assumptions about the differences between men and women and the kinds of writing they are capable of doing. Women write about (and read about) the body and personal experience, while male writers are invested in the heady realm of ideas; the difference of opinion only comes from how much value we assign to each. Perhaps most strikingly, these conflicts about gender, difficulty, and the novel — not to mention the binaries they uphold — mask the genealogy of experimental women writers whose radicalism rewrites the very history that these authors and critics continue to debate. The Small Backs of Children, Lidia Yuknavitch’s challenging new novel, offers a worthy rejoinder to critics who elide the story of women in (American) experimental fiction. […]

Embodying Difference

The idea that women writers would be drawn to rendering the body in language has a long history. The French thinker Hélène Cixous coined the term “écriture féminine” in 1975 in order to grapple with the idea that women writers had a different, and more embodied, relationship to representation than did male writers. For understandable reasons, this celebration of women’s embodied difference has never really caught on in the U.S., reeking, as it sometimes does, of a certain kind of romantic, continental essentialism that marginalizes women even as it places them on a pedestal. If The Small Backs of Children can be said to possess a flaw, it is this one: it sometimes seems too in love with the idea of the capital “w” woman, treating its characters as representatives of some eternal, feminine body-bound essence. This lack of specificity is particularly evident in the secondary female characters, like the two prostitutes with whom the Poet has a night of wild sex. Although Yuknavitch gives erotic life to the Poet’s sexual escapades, she deprives the prostitutes of the same juicy particularity; they are merely metaphors for Eastern European and African otherness, the lovemaking between the Poet and a Polish prostitute described, awkwardly, as a kind of “Warsaw uprising.”

Hélène Cixous
Hélène Cixous

Apart from these occasional moments of forced metaphor-making, Yuknavitch’s writing in The Small Backs of Children is ever lovely and precise. Its bold imagery and fragmentary style recall The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, even as its meditations on photography and war, not to mention Yuknavitch’s aphoristic style, can’t help but invoke Susan Sontag. It is these ghosts that make The Small Backs of Children such an important book. From Duras and Sontag, to Gertrude Stein and Yuknavitch’s former mentor Kathy Acker, the spectral presence of radical women artists haunts the novel.

“[…] the spectral presence of radical women artists haunts the novel.”

Yuknavitch’s investment in exploring the relationship between gender and creativity is evident everywhere in the novel. Indeed, she opens with an invocation of the muse, describing this figure in an epigraph as “a woman, or a powerful force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration and agency for a creative artist” and “an imagined feminine.” She does not rest there, however, moving quickly from the muse to an image of the feminine calculated to challenge the conventional idea of the muse and its casual invocation by male artists. Experimental women writers and thinkers seem like the real muses of The Small Backs of Children. They ask us not only to rethink the body of the woman and its place in literature, but also the body of the novel and how women writers might lead the way in remaking it. Yuknavitch’s novel, like the work of the radical artists who inspire her, is difficult in the truest and best sense of the word. While male writers, such as Franzen and Marcus, remain busy debating the value and future of experimental fiction, Yuknavitch and her female peers have written their way into its canon. [Read the Full Article]

This post is an abridgement of Jennifer Glaser’s review, which you can read in full at the Los Angeles Review of Books website.

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