Essay

Apparently Personal

In Who is Mary Sue?, Sophie Collins asserts the power of female creativity.
Portrait of Sophie Collins with a black t-shirt standing in front of a white wall.

“[A] woman who tries to invent in literature will fail, / whereas a woman who succeeds in writing is believed to have done / so to the extent that she has been able to accurately portray / the details of her own life.” This passage comes early in Who Is Mary Sue? (2018), the latest collection from poet Sophie Collins, and it introduces the book’s preoccupations with literary invention and the cultural mistrust of female writers. It also sets up the book’s core tension: centuries of sexist assumptions have trained readers to devalue female creativity, even as bookshelves overflow with rich, varied, imaginative works by women writers.

The term Mary Sue comes from the world of fan fiction; Paula Smith first used it in 1973 to describe Star Trek’s female characters. As Collins writes, “‘Mary Sue’ is a pejorative term used by writers and readers of fan fiction to describe protagonists who are believed to be thinly disguised versions of the fan fic author’s idealised self.” She adds that although Mary Sues don’t share a consistent character description or type, they are “difficult to identify with, poorly constructed, without depth… [and] associated with narcissism and/or wish fulfilment.” They are also universally female and, in general, written by female authors. To call a character a Mary Sue is a double insult, as it disparages both the character’s gender and that of the author.

Who Is Mary Sue? combines poetry, lyric essay, and prose collage to skewer the idea of a Mary Sue and to shed light on more subtly misogynistic critiques of women’s writing. In the book’s first collage, which forms part of a section also titled “Who Is Mary Sue?,” Collins culls quotations from interviews with female writers. The collage includes poet Sharon Olds’s objection to the term confessional poetry: “I would use the phrase apparently personal poetry for the kind of poetry that I think people are referring to as ‘confessional,’” Olds says. “Apparently personal because how do we really know? We don’t.”

Gender isn’t inherent in confessional poetry; consider Robert Lowell as just one example. Yet the term adheres to women, including Olds, who write poetry rooted in the female experience. How do we know that Olds’s speakers represent her? We don’t. The same holds true for Mary Sues. How do we know a character represents the author’s idealized self? We don’t. The two claims may differ, but the underlying assumption—a female writer’s female characters represent her—does not.

I worked as a literary event producer for four years, and during that time, I heard countless well-intentioned readers make this assumption. I worked with writers whose backgrounds and genres ranged widely, as did their audiences and relative degrees of renown. One thing, though, was constant. Female writers were asked personal questions. Male writers were not. At one particularly uncomfortable reading in Washington, DC, an audience member confronted the novelist Hannah Pittard. In Pittard’s own words: “[A] woman raised her hand and asked: ‘You write so well about trauma, but has anything really terrible happened in your life?’”

Until that moment, the evening had been relaxed and lighthearted, with both author and audience in good spirits. But when Pittard heard the woman’s question, she seemed to freeze. She answered, but later I wished I could have saved her—faked a technical problem or cut the mics. I wished I could have asked the woman, Who cares? Why does her personal experience matter? Why should she share her pain with you?

At a more recent event in DC, I heard the fiction writer Helen DeWitt describe her creative process. DeWitt reads 14 languages, writes computer code in R, and is an expert in the principles of information design. For an hour, she spoke about the ways these varied intellectual pursuits feed her writing. At the end, a listener raised his hand and asked something like, “But do you incorporate all this into your work on purpose? Or does it happen unconsciously?”

The assumptions underpinning these two scenarios were similar. Pittard’s questioner devalued her imaginative and empathic powers. DeWitt’s devalued her intention. In How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983), by Joanna Russ, a book Collins cites in Who Is Mary Sue? Russ names both devaluations. The first is the double standard of content. The second is denial of agency. Collins is particularly interested in the former. She quotes Russ: “If women’s experience is defined as inferior to, less important than, or ‘narrower’ than men’s experience, women’s writing is automatically denigrated.” She then concludes, “Thus Mary Sue becomes, in my eyes, an unwitting embodiment of the double standard of content.”

In my eyes, Mary Sue embodies denial of agency as well. If a female character is “difficult to identify with, poorly constructed, without depth,” then the female author has not done her job. One might extrapolate: the author is not working consciously. She has let her id run wild, and now she’s asking the rest of us to read it.

Who Is Mary Sue? is concerned with the id. It’s also concerned with other things women are expected to hide: menstrual blood, superstition, perverse desires. The collection’s first long prose poem, “The Engine,” opens

I was able to fall asleep anywhere except in my own bed.

I experienced a persistent vice-like pain in my stomach, often
followed by blood. I would usually take it upon myself to examine
the blood, and the blood would usually contain sediment.

[…]

I had incestuous dreams about our father.

Over the course of “The Engine” and its companion poem, “The Engine Continued,” the speaker worships satellite dishes and reads signs. In the former poem, she consults an esoteric coloring book to make decisions. She dreams she is pregnant, wakes with her breasts leaking milk, and finds herself a social and professional outcast as a result.

Collins’s frequent invocation of signs and omens can be linked to a broader reclamation of witchcraft and astrology in contemporary writing. Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás’s anthology Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry (2018) has received glowing reviews, and essayist Elissa Washuta recently won a Creative Capital grant for White Magic, a nonfiction “collection about heartbreak, sexual violation, and the artist’s process of becoming a powerful witch.”

But Collins’s signs aren’t quite occult. Mostly, they are opaque. She often notes a sign or an omen without explaining what it means. When she does explain, there seems to be a step missing, as in “The Engine”: “There was a stone on the beach, and the stone was important; when I picked it up I realised I could not go back to the city.” Collins offers signs and interpretations but not explanations.

Most of the poems in Who Is Mary Sue? resist transparency. Short and understated, they leave room for a variety of interpretations, as in the five-line “Untitled”:

The village is always on fire.
Men stay away from the kitchens,
[…]
while the women […]
initiate the flames into their small routines.

This could be a story about women imprisoned by sexism or men by cowardice. It could be a story about women living in fear or taking power. I prefer to read it as the start of a new Prometheus myth—one with a happier ending.            

That reading is a bit wild, yes, but Collins encourages wildness. She strips her poems of context, which invites readers to collaborate and imagine with her. “Eight Phrases,” a poem that is exactly as advertised, carries this technique furthest:

– My drink is getting lonely, would you like to join me with yours?

– What’s your name?

– How long does the journey take?

Each line hovers, isolated, on the page, disjunctive enough from the last that readers can fill in any story they want. Start with a pickup line in a bar, and go wherever you like. The speaker and listener are inscrutable, as is the poem’s would-be plot. Collins releases her poem from the conventions and obligations of narrative and invites readers to build on her scaffold. The story you invent might contain or illuminate your own past experiences. It might just as easily reveal your covertly held sexism, biases, or fears.

This duality powers the book. Collins’s poems always offer readers a role. Consider “Bunny,” a monologue directed at an unidentified you:

When and where did you first notice
the dust? Why didn’t you act sooner?
Why don’t you show me a sample.
Why don’t you have a sample?
Why don’t you take some responsibility?
For yourself, the dust? Personally
I’ve never suffered from or even seen
the dust. No one I know has reported issues.
these are facts. The difference between us
Is the difference between facts
and lies. You tell lies.

The accusation in those last three lines is familiar, even Trumpian. I have facts. You have lies. Such standoffs occur online and in life almost daily. Readers don’t have to be dust bunnies to relate.

Who Is Mary Sue? contains no apparently personal poems. Instead, Collins’s first-person narrators seem to resemble Faye, the protagonist of Rachel Cusk’s acclaimed trilogy of autofiction novels: Outline (2014), Transit (2017), and Kudos (2018). These books resist “a conventional representation of self,” Collins writes admiringly in her preface. Faye is distant and unknowable. Collins describes her as “a frayed hole, a conspicuous lack of identity,” a “persisting absence.” The absence might confuse some readers, but judging from the books’ popular success and laudatory critical reception, it also intrigues them.

The absences in Who Is Mary Sue? are similarly beguiling. Collins’s short, first-person poems often have the most visible absences. Her speakers communicate in short, declarative statements whose meanings are ambiguous. In “Beauty Milk,” one of the collection’s first poems, Collins writes                   

I don’t matter.
I am a blemish,
a fragment,
an apartment.

I am a multiplication
and a made-up belief.
I am nothing for days afterwards.

These self-definitions elude easy interpretation, and they set the tone for the rest of the book. The shorter and plainer the sentiment, the more elusive its meaning to readers. In the preface, Collins writes that “adults often experience an anxiety of self-presentation: the fear of misrepresenting their own ideas.” Her poetry seems to do the opposite. Her speakers never doubt themselves, and they never explain.

There’s a striking contrast between Collins’s poems and her essays and collages. The latter two contain plenty of explanations. The collage in the “Who Is Mary Sue?” section features explanations from Olds, Cusk, Lorrie Moore, Jamaica Kincaid, and Lucy Ives. (As befits a book centered on female creative agency, the collages contain work only by women.) In each case, the writer explains to an interviewer that her work is not autobiographical. The central quotation features Ives explaining that the unnamed narrator of her novel nineties (2013) is not “actually called Lucy,” as the interviewer suggests. Ives responds that the narrator’s 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.”

This is both an aesthetic choice—one Collins seems to share—and a political statement. None of her narrators have lives that readers can easily envision. They serve no purpose other than to speak. Many are close to “persisting absence[s],” such as Cusk’s protagonist Faye. One could take the quotations in Who Is Mary Sue? as an explanation of this technique: were Collins to write an I who seemed to have a life “in the same way that you or I do,” she could expect readers to assume that I was Collins herself.

Male authors face the same assumption, especially when writing in first person. Zadie Smith addresses it in “The I Who Is Not Me,” her inaugural Philip Roth Lecture at the Newark Public Library. Smith eschewed writing in first person until Swing Time (2016), her fifth novel, because she wanted to keep herself off the page. Yet as a reader, she “confused Portnoy with Roth,” referring to Roth’s once-controversial novel Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). When she began writing Swing Time with its nameless, first-person narrator, she searched for “a space that allows for the writer’s experience and the reader’s simultaneously, a world in which Portnoy is at once entirely Philip Roth and not Philip Roth at all.”

But the question of whether Portnoy was Roth has rarely discredited Portnoy’s Complaint, and Portnoy is now taught as a Jewish American Everyman. In contrast, Cusk’s presumed self-absorption has often been used to discredit her work. Reviewing Outline in the New York Review of Books, Diane Johnson referred to Cusk as “a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist.” In a New Statesman review of Transit, Leo Robson wrote that “Faye is either a narcissist … or a would-be empiricist” and that if the latter is true, it proves “a lack of invention on her creator’s part.” To avoid similar accusations, the Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector hid the details of her biography—so her readers claimed she was a man. A more recent example: until a male reporter allegedly identified the pseudonymous writer Elena Ferrante in 2016, some readers swore that she, too, was male.

No wonder Collins shies away even from Zadie Smith’s dual I. Her first-person poems are more in the mode of Lispector’s The Passion According to G. H. (1964), whose first-person narrator seems to embody a quote from the poet Denise Riley: “My autobiography always arrives from somewhere outside me; my narrating I is really anybody’s, promiscuously.” In “Beauty Milk,” “The Engine,” and the rest of Collins’s first-person poems, the narrating I could be anybody’s.

Most of Who Is Mary Sue? trains readers to understand this promiscuous I. Collins’s essays and collages offer instruction; her poems offer practice. Only one poem moves into Smith’s dual space—and does so in the third person. The book’s final poem, “Postface,” focuses on a character new to the collection. Described only as “the author,” she’s “experiencing a poor quality of life, emotionally speaking.” She signed a book contract but can’t focus and “wishes to quit her body.”

In the poem’s second section, the author “tells those who show interest that she is thinking about shame.” She seems to be assembling a collage; she spends time in archives, and reading the feminist scholar Sara Ahmed, “She transcribes, In shame, I am the object as well as the subject of the feeling.” In the third and final section of “Postface,”

The author enjoys a renewed sense of the mind’s ductility.
She works on her book.
She notices that she no longer wishes to quit her body as such.

There’s a neat-ish, albeit brief, narrative arc here, the kind that the rest of Who Is Mary Sue? resists. There’s also a clear temptation to believe that “the author” is Collins. Her interests seem to overlap with Collins’s, and her biography does too. In another collection, it might be a safe bet to assume “the author” is “actually named Sophie.” In Who Is Mary Sue?, this poem is a final test. Can readers tell the difference between Collins and “the author”? No. Does that make them equivalent? We have no idea. 

Who Is Mary Sue? is a master class in open-ended reading. By combining poetry with feminist criticism, Collins helps readers break the confines of entrenched sexist expectations. By presenting myriad examples of impersonality, she also helps readers break the confines of apparently personal poetry and invites them into the imaginative process as poets or oracles themselves. In “A Course in Miracles,” she writes,

Sacred figures manifest for reasons that are often unclear
Such manifestations have been referred to before now
as avatars
Those who have received divine avatars
provide differing accounts which
[…]
cannot be proven false

The differing accounts that readers form of Collins’s poetry cannot be proven false. One reader may find the collection entirely personal; another might find it remote as deep space. Who Is Mary Sue? will speak in as many voices as it has readers. Male writers have long been offered this multiplicity. Who Is Mary Sue? is a welcome example of a female writer claiming it for herself and for others.

Originally Published: March 11th, 2019

Lily Meyer is a regular reviewer for NPR Books. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Atlantic, Electric Literature, Tin House, the New Yorker, and more. She studied creative writing at Brown University and at the University of East Anglia. She won Sewanee Review’s first annual fiction contest, judged...