Essays by both Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveney, cutely dedicated “to my co-author”, tackling American writers in the 1980s. I was curious about Elizabeth Young by way of icon, and was only able to find this collection of essays by her (which also includes essays by Caveney). The stage is set in Young’s first essay, Children of the Revolution, describing how the excesses of the 80s spread into publishing as well, “vast advances… were paid out for mountains of disposable airport rubbish. Forests were felled to produce door-stop paperbacks embossed with gold and stuffed with cotton-candy verbiage. The Bonfire of the Vanities was considered a serious book… No one knew–or cared–what art was any more.” Younger readers were courted with books by Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz. Speaking of Ellis, the co-authors are absolutely bonkers about him, devoted an excess of praise-y pages.
Citing critic Fred Pfeil, television has been the biggest destroyer of the old unified ego, replaced with a “‘consumerized self’ whose identity must constantly fragment and dissolve in the face of relentlessly invasive marketing. The private sphere has been offered up to the dominance of the market-place. ‘Public and private space are lost,’ writes Baudrillard. ‘The one is no longer a spectacle; the other no longer a secret.'” Young goes on to reiterate that the unified ego only functions now when facing primitive threats:
Otherwise the sheer confusion of contemporary consciousness, our identification with different aspects of a fictive media, the odiously intimate constant consumption and recycling of mass fears and fantasies which comprises the media process leads to a blurring of what we regard as the self and the loss of our capacity for authentic, autonomous action without the shadow of self-consciousness. More importantly, this endless strip-mining of the collective self leads to one end. When the tide is out and we can see the naked palings, what is exposed is hunger and desire, in the deepest, most atavistic sense.
Applying a line from forgotten James Leo Herlihy to contemporary novels, “She is an object to stare at and think about. This is why: she wears on the outside what most people wear on the inside.”
In Young’s Library of the Ultravixens, she mostly skewers Tama Janowitz, Mary Gaitskill and Catherine Texier for not doing enough, for playing into the bad girl trap that came on the waves of post-Second Wave feminism:
The chaoticism of women’s literature after feminism can be further explained by the urge the desperate need to “catch up” in a pitifully short time. While much hitherto neglected women’s writing from the past was excavated and published, contemporary women novelists had to contend simultaneously with the past and the present. They had to deal with the weight of literary history, they had to re-assess their own, frequently male, literary influences and they had to grapple with all the cultural imperatives of postmodern society. They had to try and form both new identities and new literatures in the teeth of great blasts of feminist theory. It was a formidable task and thus hardly surprising that instant, skimpy “traditions” emerged.
Janowitz is deemed “positively infantile”, while the lot of them are subtly criticized for using their own very similar “move to New York, try to be a writer” lives in their own work. Young singles Janowitz out for more lashing, calling A Cannibal in Manhattan “overtly naive, confused and possibly even racist,” summing up that “everything was wrong with the book.” Gaitskill is dismissed with “Her feet may have been in SoHo but her heart is with the New Yorker.”
Young sums up her review of these writers saying they have performed a valuable service to document the lives of girls in contemporary New York:
However it would seem that the considerable freedoms available nowadays to women are expressed almost exclusively in the sexual arena; the emphasis on sexuality is constant and unremitting. However much one might wish to approach these texts without this constant stress on sexuality and on the gender of the authors, feminism itself has rendered this impossible… It would seem, looking at much recent women’s fiction, that a rampant libido is mandatory for the liberated woman, that it virtually defines liberation… The sexual freedom had to pre-date any other freedoms. But now surely there are a great many other freedoms available to all the women who choose to live on the edge in the big cities? There are many, many other ways of living dangerously, if one so desires… For the time being in America, the most exhilarating women artists are those working in visual or performance art, where all these textual problems need not apply. It is significant that most of this confrontational art occurs without the intervention of language. Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger in their paintings and installations, and women like Karen Finley, Diamanda Galas in performance art, and particularly Avital Ronell who manages to stress language deviancy in her performances and essays, are all doing what the novelists should be doing: creating monstrous art.
Whew! I wasn’t sure if Young was going to continue eviscerating women writers throughout the rest of the book, so it was a welcome surprise to read her next essay on Lynne Tillman, Silence, exile and cunning. Tillman’s work is “complex” and the underlying tension in the work is “philosophical, an oscillation between the need for language to contain and communicate thought and the abyss of postmodern nihilism in the fact of its limitations.” Young begins the essay with a diatribe about how no one reads anymore:
Will anyone, apart from scholars, read at all in the future? Surveys suggest that relatively few people read books even now… “Serious” fiction seems to belong increasingly to academia, to the creative writing class and the beleaguered intellectual rather than to the public at large. It has become too frail and etiolated a plant to survive out there in the world amongst the crashing music, the clamour and the cartoons of contemporary life.