I’ve written about fanfiction (see “Fanfare” in “Ghosts in the Desert”), I am a writer who happens to be a woman and I write reviews so am very aware of how women’s literature is portrayed and often undermined by being written off as “domestic” or “autobiographical”. Therefore a poetry collection where a central section explores a fanfiction trope should have appealed.
The main concern of “Who is Mary Sue?” is how women’s writing is read and received, how critics undermine a woman’s ability to create fiction by assuming she is writing from autobiography and how women’s writing is categorised when writing by default is “writing by white men”. Diverting readers’ attention from the writing to the writer can leave writers questioning whether they have the ability to write, whether they deserve to take up space on a page and share thoughts with readers. But women’s lives are entwined with men’s and women’s writing shares space with men’s writing. “Scaffold” provides a useful metaphor where the scaffolding is given a female persona,
“We are rarely independent structures she said
before she dropped a bolt pin
which released a long section of tube
which released another bolt pin
which released several wooden boards
which scraped another tube
and made an unbearable sound.”
How many mothers are the linchpin of the family? In heterosexual relationships, how often does the woman end up as the household manager ensuring the fridge has food, the laundry is done and chores are undertaken? How often is this only noticed when a task is not completed and the household rhythm is disrupted?
“The Engine” is a long sequence broken into two sections, this is from the second,
“The dinner is ultimately disappointing. I had nothing to say, barely knowing any of the names the curator mentioned, and, on the few occasions I purported to recognise one, further discussion revealed me to be inept. I feel terribly guilty after the drink wears off.
“I remember at one point noticing in my behaviour that I was more or less pretending to be the curator’s daughter.”
The female narrator, who is knowledgeable, finds herself in the role of listener. The curator’s dialogue is a monologue and he has not noticed he is not addressing his dinner date as an equal partner but as inferior. She casts herself as a daughter rather than a colleague, dismissing herself, which allows the curator to continue his monologue. The frustration at his inability to recognise their imbalance and her conditioning to keep the peace rather than confront him leads to disappointment.
Another sequence, “whistle in the gloom”, focuses on the story of Dominique Aury, the pseudonymous author of “Story of O”,
“I recently read, in another poet’s poem, a passage that claimed apparently impersonal poems as the by-products of trauma.
“I witnessed, noiselessly, a thought forming; I watched it take shape as one watches a small movement in the distance: with a fleeting sense of calm.
“I read the passage again, and I understood it. I understood it, and I felt the shame rise; I knew the poet was right; I knew the poet was absolutely wrong.
“Creating isn’t imagination, it’s taking the great risk of grasping reality.”
[horizontal line is part of the poem]
The final quoted sentence is from Idra Novey’s translation of “The Passion According to G.H.” by Clarice Lispector. The “understood” is important enough to be repeated, but not explained. In quantum physics, a particle may be simultaneously ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but outside of the quantum state, it has to be one or the other. The reader is left to decide. Sophie Collins is inviting readers to think but offering no guidelines.
“Who is Mary Sue?” is fragmented prose, often a gathering of quotes. The definition of a Mary Sue is taken at face value and accepted. The phrase is attributed to a woman, Paula Smith in a 1973 parody of “Star Trek”, and chiefly used in fanfiction to describe an invented character who is too accomplished, flawless, who usually ends up rescuing the hero and is often thought to be a thinly-disguised version of the author.
“‘I don’t know if I should be sending this to you,’ wrote one young author in her cover letter to a magazine. ‘I’m afraid it’s a Mary Sue. Only I don’t know what that is.'”
There are two blank pages after this: space to consider the implications of a new writer offering an apologetic cover letter, using a term like Mary Sue without knowing its meaning and to consider if writers might be censoring themselves due to the fear of having their main or narrating characters dismissed as Mary Sues.
Joanna Russ wrote “How to suppress women’s writing” and Sophie Collins quotes an anecdote where Russ was on a panel with two (male) professors considering applications to a university’s creative writing course,
“…Russ recalls disagreeing with her two male colleagues on the believability of a short story by a woman which ends with the female protagonist lying in bed next to her sleeping husband, wishing she had the courage to mutilate him with a piece of cooking equipment.
“In part two, Russ remembers being impressed by a woman’s poem in which a girl returning home from a date with a boy she does not like (throughout the evening the girl has to ‘work at it’) opens the white refrigerator in her mother’s kitchen to find that its interior is ‘entirely covered with red cabbage roses’.
“The male professors find the anger of the story’s protagonist over-stated and the poem’s essential image unrecognisable, disengaged.
Neither woman is admitted to the creative writing course.”
Clearly neither of the male professors are familiar with Sylvia Plath’s “Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper” and are unable to appreciate the social conditioning that encourages girls to “be nice” or that fighting back against someone bigger and heavier than you tends not to end well. Readers don’t find out whether the two applicants were accepted elsewhere or gave up writing so it’s not possible to assume that the two male professors’ actions led to two writers no longer using their talents, which is where the anecdote seems to be heading. It doesn’t consider the argument that the two writers might be better off at another university which doesn’t dismiss their writing.
One quote on a page:
“She wrote it, but the protagonist’s all her. (A Mary Sue!)”
Another quote on one page
“Thus Mary Sue becomes, in my eyes, an unwitting embodiment of the double standard of content.”
A quote from Lucy Ives in response to a question about an unnamed narrator:
“The narrator’s name could be Lucy, but her name is certainly not ‘Lucy Ives’ or at any rate she isn’t me… the narrator doesn’t have a life in the same way that you or I do, which is of course obvious, but all the same I want to say that I don’t intend for this narrator to have a life; I intend for her to tell this story.”
The first irritation is the definition of a Mary Sue is taken at face value and accepted. A Mary Sue is not gender specific (male versions are sometimes referred to as Marty Stu but often just called Mary Sue), but was given a woman’s name because most fanfiction writers are women. Sophie Collins’ definition overlooks this and assumes sexism is at work. There’s no exploration of why fanfiction, often written off as derivative and lacking value because original fiction is thought to be superior, is so appealing to women writers.
At no point it is queried why a term arising from a specific genre of fiction is being taken to apply to any fiction by a writer who happens to be a woman. This weakens the central premise of “Who is Mary Sue?” because Mary Sue is taken out of context and held as a lens to distort writing that isn’t fanfiction and it doesn’t appear to be the commentators who are doing this.
Sophie Collins in “Who is Mary Sue?” is setting out to explore the standards women’s writing are held to and the conflation of women’s fiction with autobiography by using fragments to suggest women’s voices are only heard in between gaps or when readers are forced to read them. It does so from a cerebral viewpoint, leaving blanks for the readers to figure out the emotional resonance and impact of ideas explored in the text. I appreciated its intelligence, but failed to warm to it.