Good fiction typically provides few good answers but many good questions. The great novels and stories can often be, however incompletely, expressed as a single, overarching question that the author is working out via narrative. Is the American dream an illusion? (The Great Gatsby); should a person marry for money? (Sense and Sensibility); can the son of God be born in human form and sacrifice himself to save humanity? (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).
Good essay, like good fiction, is also mostly engaged in the act of asking questions. But the forms differ in a few crucial aesthetic respects, leaving aside the basic fact of fictionality, which, as we know, can be an overstated difference—nonfiction is often partly invented and much fiction is true, or true enough, but never mind that. Centrally, fiction possesses a narrator that obscures the author. Largely as a function of the narrator’s existence and also simple novelistic convention, most novels seek to attain a smooth narrative surface, an artifactual quality. A great deal of received wisdom regarding fiction craft has to do with the author disappearing in the service of creating John Gardner’s “vivid, continuous dream.” This isn’t to say that essayists don’t also obsessively and endlessly revise to create a polished surface, but the goal is typically not authorial effacement. Maybe an easier way to say it would be that both fiction and essay revolve around formulating questions, but essay very often works the act of questioning—of figuring out what the question is—into the form.
Joan Didion pioneered what we think of as the modern essay, a self-conscious blend of journalism, criticism, and personal experience. Some Didion essays are intensely focused on one subject, for instance, “On Keeping a Notebook.” But the most Didion-y of Didion’s essays are ones like “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” and “The White Album,” that meander through subject and theme like a car driving home from work via L.A.’s surface streets. “The White Album,” for example, combines the description of her mental instability and compulsive dread with a more panoramic view of her bad-trippy east-Hollywood neighborhood in the late ’60s, a personal account which ripples out into larger cultural considerations: the Doors, the Manson murders, and California—always California.
Didion’s stylistic legacy serves as both influence and study for Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls, an excellent collection of individual essays and also, to my mind, a fascinating example of the book-length possibilities of the essay form. Dead Girls begins in what seems straightforward-enough fashion with Part One, The Dead Girl Show, a quartet of thematically unified essays examining the centrality of the figure of the dead girl in American popular culture. These include “Toward a Theory of the Dead Girl,” about the glut of recent dead girl TV shows including True Detective, The Killing, and Pretty Little Liars; “Black Hole,” about growing up in the serial killer-y Pacific Northwest; “The Husband Did It,” about true-crime TV shows; and my personal favorite, “The Daughter as Detective,” about Bolin’s father’s taste in Scandinavian crime thrillers. (A side note: It’s not a requirement that you have mystery-addict parents to enjoy this essay, but it could hardly fail to charm someone who, like myself, grew up in a house crammed with Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö mysteries.)
Having established its seeming method in Part One, the book veers sideways into Part Two, Lost in Los Angeles, essays largely about Bolin’s experience as a 20-something living, for no especially good reason, in L.A. Aimlessness becomes a dominant theme, as the book shifts gears into writing about freeways, Britney Spears’s celebrity journey, and wandering around graveyards. Perhaps in an attempt to pre-empt readerly confusion at the book’s shape-shifting, Bolin has made it clear, both in press and in the introduction: This is not just a book of essays about dead girls in pop culture.
I understand this concern and will admit to feeling a slight confusion about Bolin’s project immediately after Part One. But proceeding through Part Two, and then Three, Weird Sisters, about teenage girlhood and the occult, I found myself increasingly glad the book had morphed and kept morphing. The book’s intelligence has a questing quality, a pleasant restlessness as it moves from literary criticism to personal anecdote to academic cultural/political critique and back again, like a jittery moth that never lands for too long on the light it circles.
The way Bolin modulates subject and approach metaphorizes both the breadth and slipperiness of her main thematic concern: narratives of female objectification. The book generally proceeds from objective to subjective, mimicking the detached and objectifying eye of its central detective figure in Part One, then moving steadily into subjective, personal territory. Like Indiana Jones switching a bag of sand for gold, Bolin substitutes her younger self as the Dead Girl and, in doing so, bestows the Dead Girl agency, brings her to life.
Part Four, the longform essay “Accomplices,” brings the project to an end and to a thematic whole. In a way, it embodies the entire book, incorporating the major concerns—growing up, white female objectification and privilege, romance and the lack thereof, Los Angeles—into a self-aware meditation on the author’s sentimental education in the context of literary counterparts like Rachel Kushner and Eileen Myles and, yes, Joan Didion. Bolin seems to be asking whether there is, inherent in the act of writing the classic coming-of-age “Hello to All That” essay, as she puts it, a self-objectification that echoes the deadly cultural objectifications critiqued earlier in the collection. “How can I use the personal essay,” she asks, “instead of letting it use me?” Part Four anatomizes the entire Dead Girls project, simultaneously encapsulating the book and acting as a Moebius strip that returns the reader to the more stylized and essayistic distance of the opening chapters.
To be clear, there are many standout and stand-alone individual essays in these sections. The aforementioned “Daughter as Detective,” which, in addition to its many virtues, contains the unforgettable description of Bolin’s father as a “manic pixie dream dad.” “This Place Makes Everyone a Gambler,” a deft personal history of reading and rereading Play It as It Lays, that weaves together L.A. noir, Britney Spears, and Dateline NBC. “Just Us Girls,” a touching cultural study of adolescent female friendship. But the book’s biggest triumph, in my opinion, is of a larger, formal nature, as Bolin marshals her themes and interests into a book-length reflection, of and on, the persistent figure of the Dead Girl.
Alice was kind enough to field a few of the questions that occurred to me in writing this review, mainly regarding how this book’s singular form came to be.
The Millions: Can you provide a little general background about how the book got written? I’m curious which essays were written first. Also, if there were any pieces that it became apparent needed to be written in the interest of book-length cohesion. I’m especially interested in “Accomplices,” which serves so well as an embodiment and critique of the project.
Alice Bolin: This is a little hard to answer because most of the previously published essays in the book are drastically changed from their earlier forms. I would say the book really started with “The Dead Girl Show” and the essays in the second section about California, which I started writing, hilariously, the second I moved there. I started most of those pieces in 2013 and 2014 in Los Angeles, and that was when I started to see the ideas I’d been working with coming together in some vaguely book-like shape. Most of the essays in the third section, “Weird Sisters,” existed earlier, though, in different versions—I realized late in the game that my preoccupations with witchiness and teen girl pathology pretty obviously dovetailed with the Dead Girl thing.
“Accomplices” was the last piece I wrote for the book, and I knew that it was my opportunity to pull up some of the narrative paths I’d laid down earlier, both about Dead Girls and about my own life. The book as a whole is about questioning received narratives, so I had ambitions for it to work as sort of a (sorry) palimpsest, putting forth suppositions and then writing over or revising them. I want there to be some dissonance for the reader.
TM: At what point did the theme of The Dead Girl emerge? Was it obvious from the start? The collection approaches this subject from so many angles; I’m interested in if there was a certain amount of retrofitting in the revision—that is, were there already completed or published essays that you went back to and revised with the dead girl subject/theme in mind? Or did it all kind of hang together as it does from the start?
AB: I think once I wrote “The Dead Girl Show,” I saw that Dead Girls were a theme that I had been interested in for a very long time. I had already been writing about thrillers, true crime, detective fiction, and horror movies, genres where Dead Girls were everywhere. After that I was thinking about other ways I could write about Dead Girl genres—like in the Nordic Noir essay—and about subjects from other pulp genres that could throw those essays into relief, like pop music or reality TV. I didn’t really do much retrofitting that I can remember, except maybe lines here and there. I have my MFA in poetry, so I have borrowed a lot of the ways I think about a collection from poetry books—that you allow your preoccupations to dictate the shape of the book, instead of the other way around.
TM: The book’s critical mode seems to move somewhat from objective to subjective, and then, in Part Four, comment on that move. That is (and I realize I might be oversimplifying here, since all these elements exist in all the essays), Part One is predominately cultural critique, and then parts Two and Three become increasingly personal. To what extent was this movement something that organically emerged in revision, and to what extent was it conscious?
AB: It’s interesting, because in my original draft I had the California essays first, and the Dead Girl essays second—they seemed most important to me, but then my editor was like “Uh, shouldn’t Dead Girls be first since that is the title and the whole point of the book?” She was so right. Someone else has pointed out that the book works like a Dead Girl show, with the Dead Girl as bait at the beginning of the book, but the rest of the narrative arc being about something totally different. I love this, but it didn’t really occur to me, except maybe intuitively. I definitely wanted the fourth section to critique the strategies of earlier essays, but beyond that, the organization was more by subject than method. I actually wanted to cut the third section late into the drafting process, if that tells you anything about how uncomfortable I am with writing about my own life!
TM: To me, because of the thematic unity and movement of the book, Dead Girls has a somewhat novelistic quality or instinct. Is this something you’re interested in doing? More generally, what’s next?
AB: This is such a nice compliment! I am absolutely interested in experimenting with fiction. I had a sort of epiphany in the past few months about how my own attitude toward myself in the book is a lot like the detachment novelists have toward their characters—it’s the only way I can break through (or maybe… use?) my self-loathing. Anyway, yes I am interested in writing an autobiographical novel sometime in the future, with more details TBA, in maybe like 10 years. I’m also thinking about another very girly essay collection about magazines, social media influencers, and the vintage internet, and more generally, the way women have mediated and monetized their personalities.
It’s easy to buy into the classic image of the isolated female author: the eccentric Brontë sisters, wandering the moors; lofty George Eliot, sequestered in her London villa; a melancholic Virginia Woolf, loading her pockets with stones before stepping into the River Ouse. Male writers, on the other hand, often come in pairs: Fitzgerald and Hemingway on their riotous drinking sprees, Wordsworth and Coleridge hiking together through the Lakeland hills, Byron and Shelley encouraging each other’s sexual escapades.
As two modern-day writers, we’ve long found it intriguing that legendary male authors are cast as social creatures while their female counterparts are remembered as cloistered figures. We became close friends more than a decade-and-a-half ago when we were taking our first tentative steps on the long path to publication. In the years since, we’ve supported each other every step of the way: commenting on countless drafts, sharing details about literary agents and competition deadlines, and offering a sympathetic ear when the going got tough. Our experiences as struggling young writers suggested to us that history’s best-known female authors would also have welcomed a literary friend, especially, perhaps, during those difficult early stages of their careers.
But if these women had enjoyed relationships like ours, we realized that such bonds had rarely made it into the annals of literary history. And so, our interest piqued, we set out to investigate.
The case of Jane Austen particularly captured our imagination. She devoted 24 years to writing before securing her first publishing deal—a feat of endurance that put our own experiences into perspective. Could she have forged a friendship with a fellow writer, we wondered, who gave her the strength to keep going?
A fleeting reference in a biography provided the first clue to a hidden creative alliance that would eventually take us to old census records, volumes of unpublished diaries, and our discovery of two previously unknown Austen family documents. It turned out that Anne Sharp, a governess to Austen’s niece, and a household playwright, was a dear friend to Austen. Despite the gulf in their social positions, their shared status as amateur writers functioned, for a time, as a kind of leveler. Ignoring the raised eyebrows of Austen’s relatives, the two women enjoyed lengthy conversations, acted together in one of Sharp’s theatricals, and went so far as taking a six-week vacation together.
By the time a publisher finally brought out Sense and Sensibility in 1811, Austen had been working on the novel intermittently for 16 years. Even after Austen’s books had become fêted by high society, attracting admirers as powerful as the Prince Regent, she continued to value the insights of this unpublished working woman. When Emma came out in 1815, Austen set aside one of her 12 precious presentation copies for Sharp—the only friend she singled out for such an honor. But Austen continued to seek Sharp’s appraisals, and the governess remained happy to oblige. While sharing her delight in the character of Mr. Knightly, for instance, Sharp admitted that she was not convinced by Jane Fairfax, who dreads the future mapped out for her as a governess. It’s a telling criticism, since Sharp was so well placed to judge. On a later occasion, when Austen asked for feedback on Mansfield Park, Sharp again summed up her thoughts on its strengths and weaknesses. “As you beg me to be perfectly honest,” she concluded, “I confess I prefer P. & P.”—a view shared by many readers over the centuries to come.
In 1817, Austen would pen from her sickbed her last ever letter to this “excellent kind friend.” After Austen’s death, Sharp received three deeply personal mementoes: a pair of Austen’s belt clasps, her silver needle, and a lock of her hair. And yet, when, half a century later, the great author’s descendants penned her first full biography, they excluded even a single mention of Sharp.
By expunging any trace of this class defying friendship, Austen’s relatives maintained their carefully crafted image of her as a conservative maiden aunt, devoted above all else to kith and kin. This kind of omission is all too common. The important literary friends of Charlotte Brontë, Eliot, and Woolf have all suffered similar fates.
The Brontë sisters are rarely envisaged away from their father’s moorland parsonage, but Charlotte in fact ventured far from her Yorkshire home. In the early 1840s, the 25-year-old—encouraged by her old boarding school friend, the future feminist author Mary Taylor—traveled to live and study in Brussels. Taylor, who believed in female financial independence, was certainly a force to be reckoned with. She pushed Brontë to pursue her dreams of publication, and ultimately shaped the radical elements of her friend’s novels such as Jane Eyre and Shirley. Taylor’s important impact on her friend’s career, however, is rarely acknowledged.
The studious neglect of Eliot’s literary friendship with Harriet Beecher Stowe is even more surprising given the towering stature of each author. Despite never having the opportunity to meet, the two literary legends maintained an 11-year, transatlantic correspondence that came to an end only with Eliot’s death in 1880. In deeply personal missives, the two discussed their families, scandals that befell them, and, of course, their work—with Eliot’s final novel Daniel Deronda bearing the imprint of Stowe’s whirlwind bestseller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But this historically important alliance has been seriously overlooked by biographers.
Unlike the literary allies of Austen, Brontë, and Eliot, Katherine Mansfield’s name has frequently been paired with Woolf’s—but for all the wrong reasons. While they regarded each other as important friends, the competitive nature of their relationship has led to the widespread assumption that they were sworn enemies. Woolf’s burning literary drive, it is too often assumed, must have extinguished the possibility of friendship with another ambitious woman.
By contrast, all the great male writing partnerships involved large doses of rivalry and yet the likes of Coleridge and Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron, and Hemingway and Fitzgerald are regarded as rambunctious comrades.
When the two of us began our research, we were propelled by curiosity about whether our literary heroines had female writer friends at all. But, having soon discovered that behind every great woman was another woman, our focus shifted to the question of why these crucial influences are so little known.
We initially wondered whether these writers themselves had contributed to this obscurity by guarding their privacy—an understandable stance in the days when a woman could court controversy simply by attempting to publish her words. But, through the process of uncovering a veritable treasure trove of female alliances, we came to the conclusion that there are also more troubling reasons for the disregard shown towards these crucial relationships.
Persistent images of isolation can be used to weaken female power by giving the impression that there are no tried-and-tested models of intellectual collaboration between women. A one-off genius, set apart, is an aberration who poses little threat to centuries of patriarchy—as is the ambitious woman, cast as the enemy of her peers. Especially in today’s uncertain climate—when women are fighting for control over their own bodies, and when their contributions are so often dismissed—we must resist such insidious tactics of divide and rule. The rich history of sisterhood offers a shaft of light during dark times: it is imperative to turn to the example of female forebears—women who always knew that they could best achieve greatness by aligning themselves with other women.