S. D. Chrostowska & Kate Zambreno

Kate Zambreno and S. D. Chrostowska discuss Permission, the vagaries of readership and publicity, rag-bags, and the transgressive novel as essay, commodity, and monster.


Eight of Hearts with notes penned by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Twenty-seven such playing cards were found along with the manuscript for Les Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire at the time of his death.

Kate Zambreno Your novel Permission follows Fearn Wren, a pseudonymous narrator who has embarked upon an experiment—to write a series of “notes” over email to an unnamed artist. These notes consist of meditations and interrogations on writing, memory, atrocity, and solitude, among other concerns. Wren sets out the terms of this experiment quite strictly at its origin: the notes (not letters, Wren insists, not journal entries) will comprise a book, of which this chosen recipient will be the first reader and whose begged-for silence will operate as tacit permission. I was struck by how contemporary these concerns are while nonetheless engaged with the slow, weird birth of the novel as Henry James’ “baggy monster.” It’s a history Wren is quite aware of, with sources in both the bourgeois epistolary novel and nineteenth-century adventures in serial publication. (I’m twinning this in my mind as I Love Dickens. Forgive me for the pun—I just taught Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, a work that Permission reminds me of formally, in the idea of a one-sided correspondence with a famous thinker that allows the narrator to essay, to attempt, to come into being as a writer, and also in just how radically discursive both works are: novels daring to be philosophy and how this is, in a way, not permitted in our contemporary landscape.) Which brings me to the reader, this reader we as novelists are supposed to be always hyperaware of—what the reader wants, what the reader likes, what the reader needs. I love this concept that I see in Permission of the writer-narrator taking an ideal reader somewhat hostage.

But I was also intrigued by how your work circled around questions of a contemporary readership, and whether this reader, even if only one, is necessary for the writer to be a writer, that one has to know now one will be read in order to actually write. Does the writer exist anymore without the reader? I have been thinking lately that Pessoa’s scraps or Rilke’s notebooks seem impossible in our current age, although writing to some degree always seems impossible. I have been thinking lately too of how writing for me involves, somehow, a need for witness, both to witness others and to be witnessed, an idea of writing as communication that Permission speaks to as well. And also how this is a contemporary concern—the need for an immediate readership, for writing to occur somewhat in a public or semi-public space, and how technology can ease this pressure, a pressure felt not only by writers, of recognition and of witness.

I feel now I have taken you hostage with my litany of questions, but I really just want to hear your thoughts on the contemporary reader and readership, and the notion of writing as communication and witness, and perhaps, yes, something of technology, and how you philosophized this within Permission.

S. D. Chrostowska Forgive me for somewhat crudely paring down your thoughts to respond to the excellent points you raise.

I am struck by your comment that Permission is a “novel daring to be philosophy, how this is, in a way, not permitted.” I know you have a special interest in—and perhaps are exploring in your new work as well—“being illegitimate.” To those judges of literature who have already made up their minds as to the degenerate impotence of literary experimentation, it seems to serve no purpose and is merely transgression for its own sake, somehow threatening to tradition, to the canon. Literary disobedience is not even antic, not even an amusing diversion. It comes down with the weight of a hammer upon the gavel, the canon, all that venerable stuff. “Disobedient” books still get skewered, chiefly as pointless exercises in form, for their stylistic “debauchery,” their inconsistency of voice, narrative indeterminacy, and hodgepodge-ism. While such exaggerated and variously justified reactions must be seen against the backdrop of what has been tried and true before them, the novels that incurred them were far from objectively lawless. Rather than be traditionalist, or worse, bourgeois, they sought to liberate themselves from the cage of traditional laws of Literature. They derived legitimacy from themselves in opposing society, going against the grain, and aiming for something fundamental and timeless, or something new and yet unrecognized, a visit from the future. And they can even, in some well-known experiments, be law-giving and full of laws internal to themselves. Literature now is as culturally contested, as policed, as ever. The internet may encourage new forms, but the backlash against them is just as strong. And in one important sense this is not a bad thing, since it testifies to continued public attention and literature’s continued relevance, even if that public and that relevance are more diffuse, more niched.

As you pointed out, Henry James—in appreciation of French literary theory of the fin-de-siècle—condemned the novels of Thackeray, Dumas, and Tolstoy as “loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary.” And, in the interwar period, the Polish writer Witkacy coined the word novel-sac, with fond reference to the novel as pure art, speaking of his own novels—art almost only for art’s sake. The novel gets compared to bags a lot. Rag-bags, Gladstone bags, bags of tricks, overstuffed suitcases. This seems to get at the novel’s capaciousness, including the capacity to take in other literary genres, like history, theology, science, art and literary criticism. But while neither eclecticism and roominess, nor internal generic multiplicity and hybridity were ever sins with the novel, its lawlessness, or in James’s words monstrosity—that is, instability, incoherence—was and remains unfashionable. The novel can contain the grotesque, but not to the point of becoming grotesque itself. It can pull the world into its orbit, but not so far as to lose a grip on itself. Free, but not so free after all.

Having said all that, I resist the idea that Permission somehow dramatizes the tension between the novel and philosophy. The first problem is that the book’s frame makes it less of a novel, if by that we mean something “more noble” (to invoke your words), or, in Roland Barthes’ sense, intransitive (following an urge to write, not interested in external objects, its own referent). If we mean novel as André Gide described it, as lawless, the go-to form for literary transgression, then Permission might just be as novelistic as they come. But given its premise and its method, I tend to think of it as essayistic, or what Barthes calls transitive: the book became my predicate, and it does not bracket references to reality outside it, beyond the here and now of the writing act. And then it is only semi-fictional.

The second problem, even if we concede that it is a novel by some standards and that it also has this essayistic (experimental) dimension, is that Permission is not exactly essaying philosophy. It is a trial that evades being tried—tried for trying and failing, that is. The most entertaining was for me always the escape artist, and there is a bit of that spirit, even if this book is not exactly a fun read. It does with philosophy what a caterpillar does with a leaf. (I mean, it is not always serious—listening in on the “madmen” on the bus, for instance: does the narrator come off any saner in the rant that follows?). Perhaps it is like a dizzy, drunken “other” of philosophy—to spin Judith Butler’s idea (of philosophy outside orthodox, disciplinary philosophy, in such hybrid humanities fields as literary theory or cultural studies).

You seem to want to break down the spectrum of the writer’s relationship to the world into the pure writer, able to derive their identity from the activity of writing alone, and the writer who is in search of a reader, his/her identity inseparable from this relation of external validation, which, I sense, you take as a form of amour propre. To this I would add a third option: the writer who is satisfied with being their own reader, concurrently or at a later date. Like the already old Jean-Jacques Rousseau of the Reveries, creating in advance a resource for his dotage to remind him of the pleasure of writing it (on the backs of playing cards!) and to enjoy in his decrepitude the company of his younger self.

This is a problem you are wrestling with, I can see, since I came across it in another interview of yours: “The idea of not publishing is wonderful!” You resist the idea of writing as perpetuating the mentality of capitalism, writing for financial gain, I assume, too, and of writing as work. I found myself disagreeing with you, maybe because I am new to this sort of publishing and used to publishing into the academic void. Maybe over time I would begin to feel like an exhibitionist, or a sell-out, or find myself guilty of vanity. As creative writers, I think we delight in working, refining, and finishing things we value, which cannot (yet) be taken away from us and of which we remain genuinely proud. We willingly work overtime (which can be a way of resisting the idea of a working day, and of the workaday—much as the very notion of writing creatively and setting our own work pace as well as work space). It is the desire in ourselves we could call divine, the source of the six days followed by rest, all of which long predates capitalism. We derive satisfaction from the process of writing and from the release of completion. The often forced kind of writing done in universities does have a tangible connection to capitalism, done as it is for professional advancement, for a pittance or nothing, with less and less creative thinking going into it. The humanities are resisting this, as one of the designated bulwarks of benign creativity, but such pressure to create in order to survive as a field of endeavor, for the institutions to turn a profit (publish or perish on an institutional scale rather than, as was formerly, the individual), is turning sinister in an environment that is far from disinterestedly supportive. It is, more and more: create, or else! I exaggerate, of course.

But the rest, so far, is free occupation, work that is also play, unconstrained by capital, investment, exploitation, but only by the existing rules and the ones we bring to it to “make it new.” It can go on without succumbing to writing as commodity production. We can always find a semi-public, shared drawer that does not confine us. There may come a time when you will want to stage a protest. But if I were to put my cards on the table I would say that Permission may offer an alternative.

Your second point, in connection with this somewhat idealized writer of old, is that this “tricking ourselves” is particular to—or particularly acute in—our time. Here I am inclined to agree. Gratification has never been easier in its most basically sufficient form: getting someone to respond, eliciting a reaction, a rise, a compliment from someone we don’t know, and we are hooked on expanding this circle of readers to unprecedented size. But, on the other hand, I want to say that the myth of the solitary writer has grown precisely around the practice of sharing, and would be impossible without it. In other words, this idea has a lot to do with the writer’s need, even desperation, to share their writing: reading it to friends, describing its progress in letters, publishing it in installments, having it performed at festivals, declaimed by actors, or sung the world over.

Now it seems I am challenging you point for point. But I know I am succumbing to Stockholm syndrome [inaudible laughter].

Because you touch on a very important point, something increasingly dear to me and very close to you—not only in your powerful, latest book Heroines, but throughout, in a more maternal guise, or perhaps better, that of a ministering angel—you bend over a character to communicate with those who would identify with it—and that is the idea of writing as communication. I can imagine that many writers would recoil at this idea.

KZ When I consider Permission as a work that engages with philosophy, I am considering it a novel—in the tradition of which you describe. I still find myself dedicated to the novel, with its history of disruption, of trying to dismantle and invent anew. And I know James is speaking derisively of Dumas, etc., with his “baggy monster” comment, but I like this idea of writing monsters, like a teenage Mary Shelley throwing down the gauntlet. But I think my considerations of what a novel is, the disciplining and policing that you describe, are probably inspired by my recent move to New York and thinking about the works that are considered “Great and American,” which seem to be structured entirely around identification and empathy for the reader and, in this way, to be throwbacks to the nineteenth century.

But I do like the idea of writing as essaying in the tradition of Montaigne, to essay as to “attempt,” revealing the failure within the form. I tend to think of my own writing this way, a work like Heroines, which I regard as a failure, but with a sort of swollen and tender pride. Lately I have been thinking of the stroll-like movement of the essay, the movement of wandering and walking and searching, as the movement that I’m interested in for my own work.

It’s true, I’ve voiced some ambivalence lately towards the public, towards publicity—how terrible to be held accountable to words tossed off carelessly in an interview!—which has been somewhat an experience of shame, of being made to feel shamed, or dumb, or dirty somehow, dingy. I think this is probably because I’m read, erroneously at times, as drawing entirely from my life for my own writing, so often it has felt as if I myself am on trial. And my writing and self read as quite gendered, the work is always too feminist or not feminist enough, so there’s more scrutiny, perhaps, or a different type of scrutiny, and that is the opposite of anonymity. But I still do love the idea of a book out in the world, the idea of a book taking on a life of its own and having readers have their own experiences with it, that communication, that gift, as you situate it within Permission. This is partially why we write, for this experience. We write to be read! And of course I take the writing in and of itself—the work and play, as you describe them, quite seriously. I have realized lately I am probably the sort of writer who lives to write, the rest of my existence a sort of poverty, the frenetic hermit.

I think you’re right yet myopic in some of the terms you’ve set up. Literature is thriving and alive in the small press world. But what if you are not attached to an academic institution or not in a stable way, as many writers are? What if you have to think about how to survive and thrive as a writer, while continuing to innovate and experiment and write what you wish? What if you write works that are not published willingly by small presses (too long, not poetic enough, etc.)? And regardless, of course, writing is still constrained by capital, by its existence as a commodity form, with marketing strategies and grant applications and adjunct jobs and interviews and Amazon.com numbers. Of course it is. I have a friend, who writes poet’s novels, one slim, perfect novel every decade, who has still confessed to me that she checks her Amazon.com rankings constantly, or looks to see who reviewed her on Goodreads, and how an anxiety about invisibility impacts her. I think alienation might be part of being a novelist. I am interested, in my next work, which is, I suppose, an essay-novel, in this dialectic between disappearance and ego for the writer: to write the great, searing work, yes, for one’s self or just one’s friends, but also to want to be remembered, to be known. I read the other day that Kafka actually hired a news service to keep track of any public mentions of his name—Kafka, who wanted his writings destroyed, who conversely lived to write, put all of his life and body and day into these works, and yet he was basically proto-googling himself. Can one try to resist the experience of the public and think of the work for itself, disentangle writing from having a career as a writer? Of course one can try. Yet you seem to view the world of creative writing as some sort of utopian space, which has not been my experience, versus what you see as the forced production of academia. And oh, no, I don’t wish to be anyone’s mother! [quick cackle of horrified laughter]. Or angel!

SDC I sensed words like maternal and angel might be risky. Since I am not attached to either of them in any personal or religious way, I should have simply said care. You radiate a deep sympathy for your readers, especially the younger readers, male or female, who will discover your work casting about for their selves. Heroines ends in a manifesto. It is searing language, burning through the “lessons” we’ve learned all too well; it is certainly not the language of a pedagogue, governess, or nurse.

By semi-public I did not mean small presses and poetic novels. I am not arguing for writerly oblivion, for self-mortification for the sake of Literature, unless as a ritual of asceticism. The existence of this literature is, as you point out, largely funded, dependent on grants and academic support. I am not romanticizing this. And I share what I take to be your concern over the increasingly public nature of writing as encouraging automatic over-sharing and self-indulgence. I think the book industry still keeps a tight rein on this, but not for long as literary publishing continues its transition to the digital. The blog and the book each have something to offer us. The blog is great for unlacing, for defining oneself by overstepping limits normally in place or, in the way you conceive it, as a counterattack against self-censorship, against the self-discipline that leads to partial self-erasure. The idea that no one reads us does, as you say, liberate, and publicness constrains. Anonymity is not the answer because we identify with Anon too. Nor is the answer to the problems that come with publicity to be found in the handwritten diary—not, anyway, for the self-aware writer who expects his/her private work to fall into the hands of others. As the standards relax thanks to the fluidity of written communication, professionalism and relative formalization catch up with us in the permissive online environment, which is neither a womb nor a solipsistic mind.

I am trying to highlight that there is no escape from publicity if you are a dedicated writer. Giving it up is not an option. One can resist some of it, discipline oneself spiritually for being overly invested in one’s public self, distracted from core concerns. And one can certainly fight against its pernicious systemic effects. This is what I find so refreshing and valuable in your work.

Isn’t it possible for the tide to turn? For certain writers to become semi-private without feeling they are sacrificing something—ambition, praise, recognition? For writers to go underground, where it is safe to say that with the aid of modern technology their work will be preserved for those who come later when the tide turns again? For writers to embrace ephemerality, not as preparatory for the real work of writing, not as a means of working up to the world of the book, but as valid in itself? For writers—some writers at least, or for some of the time—to self-semi-publish?

What I mean concretely: I tell myself now that it is only to make this larger point, to communicate the possibility of a still more radical step beyond the current literary conjuncture, that I wrote Permission. Perhaps there will always be promiscuous literature, the kind that we, as writers, have no choice but to love because it touches us intimately and, sometimes, makes us feel it is addressed only—that it belongs only—to us. Literature au grand public, reaching a public sphere of readers reading. There will always be, it seems fair to say, also some kind of clandestine literature, the community of so-called writer’s writing, the aesthetic avant-garde of small presses. The step beyond this dichotomy, the third culture I am playing with, is the semi-private art of the novel, the essay, the letter, or generic writing, in whatever genre. Minor literature out of major circulation. But by no means fated to be mediocre, by no means low-flying. Literature that makes no obvious compromises, because it doesn’t have to; that values craft and the fulfillment that comes with making something worth communicating, if only with one or several other persons; that never becomes packaged as a book. The very fact of communication is already quality control. As more people come to write it, semi-private literature will become more plausible.

This sort of writing has nothing to do with humility, with self-effacement, or with the secrecy of such fellowship, but, instead, with transvaluing the priorities of publicity and recognition—even the little of it available to literature in the mainstream media. Not as protest, but as withdrawal. As a return to the private. To stop holding one’s breath, to quit checking one’s rank. Paying attention to popular taste and what sells needn’t be the writer’s predicament forever. The concerns of campaigning for public attention fall away. This is what Permission gestured at without itself enacting. I’d like to see in this what you credited as my book’s contemporaneity, which I hope counterbalances its sentimentality.

All three kinds of literary culture I just mentioned could coexist, and writers could move from one realm of reception to another. This is a cultural dream of sorts: literature no longer only in playing by the rules or else in the transgression (of boundaries of genre, theme, social taboo) but also in pushing back the social sphere of artful writing, of the Literary as we know it: by connecting our private lives directly, without middlemen. Capital-L literature having run its course as the only serious game in town.

KZ I find this all fascinating, and I think we are more in agreement than not. Although I do think my ideas of the blog or the online space have somewhat changed from the utopian conclusion I make at the end of Heroines. The Internet, of course, is no womb, but I do agree that technology can offer ways to be a writer, to quietly continue the practice of writing while resisting the market. I think, however, some of my favorite literature can come out of a solipsistic mind, out of the circling of a self and then somewhat beyond the self—works that I put Permission in the tradition of. I’m thinking the great rants of a Bernhardian narrator, or Dostoevsky’s underground. I love the idea of writing in a space that is beyond the book, beyond the idea of writing as always being about a project, an embracing of ephemerality, which I have been thinking about so much lately. And I’m so glad here, too—in this public space—we’ve been able to connect.

S.D. Chrostowska is the author of two books, Permission and Literature on Trial (2012), aside from miscellaneous short works published in New Writing, Rampike, Janus Head, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Exile Quarterly, Wet Ink, Convolution, and Stand (forthcoming). She teaches European Studies at York University in Toronto.

Kate Zambreno is the author of the novels O Fallen Angel (Chiasmus Press) and Green Girl (to be reissued by Harper Perennial in May 2014). She is also the author of the critical memoir Heroines (Semiotext(e)’s Active Agents) and the anti-memoir Book of Mutter (upcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2015). She is at work on an essay-notebook, Scratches, and a novel, Switzerland. She is teaching this year in the creative writing program at Sarah Lawrence College and the MFA program at Columbia University.

The Ecstasy of Influence: Kate Zambreno by Elizabeth Hall
Heroines Body