Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Garbage of Inattention

Lisa Robertson describes the process by which certain literary careers go extinct:
My reading into previous eras, reading into community and situated writing activities in different periods and places, suggests to me that at any place, at any given time—in early 19th century London, for example—there are many fabulous women writers. Do we read them now? No, mostly not. Can we even name them? No, not beyond Wollstonecraft and Shelley. But there have always been women writers. And they have been publishing and active and popular and read, bought, discussed, and have been vital parts of their societies and cultures. The problem, I think, that continues, what has been the problem and is the problem now, is that the institutional formations that are responsible for the continuity of literature as a canon have continued to resist placing writing by women in the macro narrative and economy of literature.

And so, continuously there has been this ongoing process of rediscovery. Like, wow, there was feminism in the 19th century, can you imagine? Every single generation we go through this ridiculous re-discovery. In the 80s we thought we were inventing feminism. In the 70s we thought we were inventing feminism. Every single generation is put in the situation where we feel like we have to invent this thing. Why? Because there is no continuity. No narrative has been formed. But women writers have always been present, brilliant, and even plentiful. Not rare.

And so, in this sense, I think it's the same situation now as it was for, say, this Paris expatriate women's modernist writing community. You could put your finger down in any city and find this vital, articulate, educated exchange of literary activity among women. Then the first thing that happens is that books go out of print. As soon as a book's out of print, it's dead. It can't be taught or exchanged. It can become a sort of absent cult object: did you hear that X did this. I mean, one major difficulty in the reception of the Paris women modernists is that all of those books were out of print for a long time. You couldn't even get your hands on their work. Often, the work does not leave its original micro-context. It becomes a kind of mythology. It has to be belatedly rediscovered. It can’t slowly develop a readership over time. The same could be said of women in Montreal writing from the 70s through til now. If publishers don't take care of the work and keep it in print, and if a seriously sustained discourse and scholarship does not construct itself around it, the very same thing will happen. It will fizzle, and, in a couple of generations, people will say didn't you hear there were once these interesting writers. The fact of this community of work will become a kind of retro culty thing. Whereas, everybody knows that the Montreal women’s writing experiment is the great and strongest thing that's happening now intellectually. The same garbage happens every generation, so far as I can see. The garbage of inattention.

1 comment:

Patrick Warner said...

This is where libraries come into the picture, or should: they gather books and hold them until people are ready to pay attention.