To Ann, Finally…

By Alice Butler.

Dear Ann, you were the danger secretary too. You put the secret in secretary. I think of you clocking off from your typist job at the Royal College of Art, and catching the bus to your Notting Hill bedsit, where you would tap away at the manuscript of your first novel. It was named after that painter you had a crush on: Adrian BERG.

Dodie longs to write like Kathy Acker, but I wonder if Kathy Acker longed to write like you.

I think of the final lines of Tripticks, which I’m sure you wrote not knowing it’d be your last: ‘Sitting there brooding, I discovered a breathing space, but a space before the scream inside me was working itself loose. A scream that came from a long series of emotional changes. Fear for safety and sanity, helplessness, frustration, and a desperate need to break out into a stream of verbal images…I opened my mouth, but no words. Only the words of others I saw, like ads, texts, psalms, from those who had attempted to persuade me into their systems.’ You talk of the scream, but you wrote the scream too. Raw. Convulsive. The spit of the affect. It was Barf.

Like [Dodie] Bellamy’s texts of performed transcription, Quin’s novels are also cluttered with writers. The threesome of her second novel Three keep their own diaries, and Quin rubs her fingers in them, writing the forbidden of the personal in fiction. A young girl called S has gone missing, presumably after submitting to the coast’s fatal tides; she’d been lodging with Ruth and her husband Leon at their holiday home, and as they feel the absence of S, the couple envelop themselves in their own domestic tasks—including writing. They distract themselves with everyday stuffs, which mainly comprise objects of speech and language, like diaries, dictaphones and ledgers. Ruth and Leon are ‘R’ and ‘L,’ according to ‘S’, stiff phonetic beings, fully embedded within the self-referential boundaries of fiction. And in the case of S, the written journals and tape recordings, as material semantic objects, replace her corporeal presence in the house: it is her language that is bodily, as in the case of this confessional enumeration: a barf of morphemic excess:

Fertility clinics

On the page the list looks like a scroll, drawn out from the insides of the body and of language. It’s Carolee Schneemann again, the intimate document. The biographer would probably look to read S as an incarnation of the authorial Ann. She was the other woman in a couple of relationships, as when she stayed with the poet Robert Sward and his wife Diane in New Mexico in the late 1960s. In one letter to ‘Bob,’ Ann demanded a merging of their sexual and creative drives: he must both whip her three times a day and give her the best all view work room. The private sketch bleeds into the public fictional space, as the correspondence shadows a journal entry from the male writer in Passages, the third novel of four: ‘I handled the whip, her body as though they were the most natural things in the world, something had always done. Perhaps in retrospect the most exciting part of all this was not so much my whipping the girl, but seeing her so abandoned, submissive and obviously getting more and more excited…’ This is not simply some abject biographical confession or a transcription of real life. It’s a re-writing of the raw stuff in fractured forms. She’s exposing the private, but as ‘I’ morphs into ‘she’ into ‘her,’ with no clear markings of where the surround of subjectivity might lie, the voice of Ann coalesces with the artificial reality. She emerges; then fades within the textual object.

Quin is writing the beginnings of the barf: not only does she translate life into text, a simple equals equation; she performs the private, raw, naked body in a polymorphous language of fractured linguistic material. It is the self as syntax, a writer’s revenge. The biography is left behind as Quin writes a transgressive fiction, or rather a transfiction, as proposed by Ann Rower in the final few pages of the 1990 novella If You’re a Girl:

‘Transfiction: it’s the tension between two different drives, toward fidelity and freedom…In transfiction, you utilize this tension, you let your hands do what they want on the keys…There is always something criminal about writing…Especially fiction: duping. There is something toxic and poisonous in lies: zap, you’re transfixed. Can I help it if put the lie in Li(t)erature, as in Li(f)e? Go ahead Plato, make my day.’


[This is a short extract, the full article is available to read in Issue Four]


Alice Butler is a writer and researcher based in London. She has recently started a PhD on the relationship between women’s experimental writing and feminist performance art.