so dumb we can’t tell what has made her miserable…. She’s an attractive girl but such a sad, ignorant slut that there’s nowhere for her and the picture to go but down, and since, as writer-director, Miss Loden never departs from the misery of the two stunted characters, there are no contrasts. The movie is very touching, but its truths—Wanda’s small voice, her helplessness—are too minor and muted for a full-length film.
I mean, something really irritated her about what she perceived as the unlikeability of Wanda. She also wrote:
Wanda is a passive, bedraggled dummy. We’ve all known dumb girls, and we’ve all known unhappy girls; the same girls are not often, I think, both dumb and unhappy. Wanda is a double depressant – a real stringy-haired ragmop. That makes her a sort of un-protagonist; generally you’d have to have something stirring in you to be that unhappy, but she’s so dumb we can’t tell what has made her miserable. We don’t know why she has become a drifter instead of staying at home….
(Quotes taken from Richard Brody's New Yorker piece on Wanda)
I can't imagine what Barbara Loden must have thought when she read this review. How personal she must have taken it. I do know she never made another film - she also died from breast cancer about seven years after the film came out, briefly, in New York.
I was supposed to write this essay this weekend. I was going to set time aside - finally - to try to get over whatever this block I've been experiencing and write. I have been swimming or doing yoga every day this week. I've started therapy. We've talked about my fear of failure, about my dread of oncoming reviews of Heroines, how personal they might be.
*I will not write anything this weekend, most likely, and will spend it recovering. This morning I read the Bookforum review of Heroines that's in the new issue. I can only describe the experience of reading it as devastating. There has become such a taboo in our literary culture about writing or venting when we receive a bad review. But the thing is, and I've spent some time thinking about whether I should write about it, this wasn't just a bad review, it was a dangerous, mean-spirited, intellectually dishonest review, and the irony is, it was a review that was not aware of itself as committing the same sort of critical crimes against a woman writer, the same sort of shaming and silencing and disciplining, that is itself the subject of the book.
The review portrays me as dumb, self-indulgent, apolitical, infrequently witty, a paranoid knee-jerk feminist, and a bad writer. The reviewer, an editor at Time magazine, reminds me, condescendingly, to read a newspaper and remember that some people worry about paying the "damn rent" and not about things like the alleged disparity over, for instance, the way women versus men are reviewed in literary publications, or the canon. It takes me to task for not including and acknowledging in my bibliography contemporary examples of vernacular criticism I have never read. It characterizes incorrectly an interaction I describe in a flashback scene with another writer. Of the scene, in which I wincingly describe bragging to a boy I used to know in Chicago that I had a novel coming out (O Fallen Angel, which I describe as a "slim, nervous novella," but the reviewer assumes I'm, strangely, talking about Heroines) only to find out that he has an extremely large book coming out, and my projection about how each of our works will be reviewed, or not reviewed (she also characterizes him as a "former flame," which he was certainly not, and namechecks him, when I do not, and it's a short scene in the book, yet the most gossipy, which further strikes me as ironic, as one of her main criticisms is the "US Weekly" level of literary gossip in the book).
After incorrectly describing this passage, the reviewer writes, in the most incendiary section of the review:
"This passage, and too much of Heroines, reads like a misogynist’s broad parody of a feminist artist: slapping at shadows, barking comebacks at scarecrows, all five senses perpetually primed for affront."
This is such a typical rhetorical move, used often to shame and stereoytpe radical feminists seen as somehow too reactionary, too angry over these invisible ideas of institutionalized and internalized sexism. She tries to distance herself ("a misogynist's broad parody") with no awareness of how sexist and charged her language she is still using to describe me—language that almost laughingly mirrors the language of demonology used in biographies of Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivienne Eliot, Djuna Barnes, or their husbands, that I am critiquing within the text. So I am not a feminist artist — but a parody of it—a sort of bogeywoman who doth complain too much. In the space of a few paragraphs, she both accuses me of not being political or aware enough (of the fact that people have better things to worry about, like paying the "damn rent") and too political over things like perceived injustices like the way women have been historically silenced and institutionalized or how women are still written about (obviously, I'm just paranoid).
The review also focuses only on the memoir aspects of the book and not at all on the criticism, which takes up the majority of the book, for instance, how women who write memoir have been often dismissed as self-indulgent historically. She focuses almost no attention to the critical content, and none at all to the form of the book. She insists the existence of Sheila Heti's How Should A Person Be? and the television show Girls somehow disavows my argument in the second half that there has been historically a taboo against women drawing from memoir, even though Girls was not out when I wrote the book and I was not aware yet of Sheila's book (it hadn't come out in the U.S. yet), and anyway, the way both works have been reviewed, so personally, like my book is being reviewed by her so personally, actually confirms what I am arguing. The new novel of my editor, Chris Kraus, is also reviewed and excoriated in the new issue—without much attention to the actual text and with a mean little crescendo at the end of her review that questions whether she has a right to tell her own story at all because she's already written several books.
What to make of this? There is a violence to reviews like this, to reading reviews such as this, that depresses the spirit, that makes me feel silenced, when all I wrote about, which is not even acknowledged in the review, is the theories and histories of women writers who have been silenced by the culture. I feel flayed alive. I feel humiliated and shamed. I feel like giving up. But that's horrible too, all that power, when that is the opposite impulse of the book, which traces my coming to writing and other women's coming to writing and tries to theorize what made them stop writing. What I hate is that so much of the work is aware of how women writers have been historically read and dismissed, and yet I still give that dismissal so much power. What I hate is that I muse about contemporary and future girls who want to be writers, and encourage them to be brave in drawing from their own lives for their literature, despite the taboo against memoir, despite how they will be dismissed, despite how girls have always been dismissed, told that they are silly and self-indulgent and shouldn't have a voice anyway.
I have always admired Bookforum in the past, and they've shown much support for my writing, and I know that at least one editor there really liked the book. But I do not understand why it's ethically okay to publish such inflammatory, mean-spirited reviews. I agree with the piece in The New Yorker today that a "good stupid" review is not perhaps a great thing, maybe not more dangerous than a "bad stupid" one - but there needs to be responsibility about these reviews that seem to be character assassinations, often with works that deal somehow with memoir, and seem to be more often than not written by women about other women, this catty weird girl-on-girl crime, that I think must be perpetuated by editors at book sections, looking for reactionary reviews.
Taboo. Whatever. If I'm not spitting it out I'm swallowing it.