Book Review: Hustvedt, The Blazing World

Diary Index Book Reviews focus on the role and representation of diaries or journals in contemporary fiction. Warning: may contain spoilers.

In 1971, the art historian Linda Nochlin posed the question “Why have there been no great women artists?” She writes:

‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ The question tolls reproachfully in the background of most discussions of the so-called woman problem. But like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist ‘controversy,’ it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: ‘There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.’

Nochlin proceeds to interrogate the assumptions that undergird the concept of the “great artist” — assumptions that resolutely link artistic genius to masculinity.

A few years ago I taught a women’s literature class that focused on representations of women artists and I assigned Nochlin’s essay, as well as many other works of feminist criticism that explore the challenges that women face in attempting to gain entrance into, let alone prominence within, the visual arts and literature. One of the most frustrating aspects of the class was that many of my students found the question, “Why have there been no great women artists?”, to have no urgency or relevance. They pointed to Beyoncé and Lady Gaga and concluded that things had changed. There are great, hugely accomplished, and wildly famous women artists now, they would argue to me, so these issues are outmoded and the questions unnecessary. (Lest we find the accomplishments of women in pop music satisfactory evidence, we need only look to the VIDA Count or this recent NY Times Style Magazine profile of little-known women artists for the other side.)

Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World (Simon & Schuster, 2014)
Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World (Simon & Schuster, 2014)

Siri Hustvedt’s new novel, The Blazing World, confronts the question head-on: A female visual artist named Harriet Burden, fed up with her marginalization, undertakes an experiment to test the gender biases of the art world. She shows her art under the names of three male artists and the shows are received with accolades and the artists declared geniuses. As a plot, there is not much more to it, but the structure of the novel is complex. It is, of course, a diary novel — or, perhaps more properly described as a partial diary novel, as Hustvedt employs a collage structure, placing a series of different genres against each other: academic prose, personal reminiscences, newspaper articles, interview transcripts, and so forth. Amidst these various texts are several sections from Harriet’s journals.

The faux “Editor’s Introduction” that opens the novel tells us that Harriet had an unusual journal-keeping practice:

She kept many journals simultaneously. She dated some entries, but not others. She had a system of cross-referencing the notebooks that was sometimes straightforward but at other times appeared byzantine in its complexity or nonsensical … Many of the journals are essentially notes on her reading, which was voluminous and darted in and out of many fields: literature, philosophy, linguistics, history, psychology and neuroscience. For unknown reasons, John Milton and Emily Dickinson shared a notebook labeled G. Kierkegaard is in K, but Burden also writes about Kafka in it, with several passages on cemeteries as well …. (4)

The editor devotes a great deal of time describing the notebooks as they are, from a scholarly perspective, a wonderful archive for reconstructing the life of the artist and her grand trick on the art world, about which some questions remain unanswered. I found the description captivating. I could imagine sitting at a library table with Burden’s alphabetically labeled journals spread out before me like a puzzle, waiting to be deciphered.

However, when Hustvedt provides us with a glimpse into these notebooks I found myself … bored. I think this response was brought about by the following: There is really no mystery why Burden did what she did, so gaining access to her motives and thinking did not feel necessary to me. There are other mysteries mentioned in the novel but they are held at arm’s length, and are not addressed in Burden’s notebooks. Basically, there are no big reveals, despite the structure of the novel eliciting an expectation that the journals (especially one that was hidden and discovered late) would provide precisely that. Also, having set the bar high in the Editor’s Introduction regarding the staggering erudition of the artist, as evidenced in her journals, the excerpts read instead like a lot of name-dropping, with little by way of earth-shattering intellectual insight.

Finally, I think Hustvedt runs up against a fact that many people would find surprising: most diaries are pretty boring. Diaries are so fragmented, insular, and repetitive that reading them is a challenge, particularly to readers who are trained to read for plot, character development, or themes — basically, if you’re trained to read fiction. Most writers of diary fiction err on the side of fiction; they imagine diaries that are remarkably novelistic and make moves that a real diary simply could not make. Hustvedt is to be applauded for following through with genre specifics — Burden’s journal does, to me, have the flavor of a real journal — but suffers the consequence of being just plain boring. Ultimately, that’s what I concluded about all the other genres that compose the text too; they are all really uninteresting — or, rather, they conspire to make what might have been an interesting story into a dry dissertation. Instead of conveying to me the agony of Burden’s experience — what it’s like to claw at the door for entrance, only to be denied because of gender — I felt emotionally disconnected from the character, even when reading her private journals.

One of the books I taught in the class on women artists in literature which, in my opinion, does a better job of capturing the plight of the woman artist and the kinds of ethically complicated schemes women undertake to become recognized as artists is Mary Gorden’s Spending. Not a diary novel (alas) but funny, sexy, and incredibly attuned to the way a visual artist perceives the world (texture, color, etc.) — it remains one of my favorites and the one I will assign if I ever teach this class again. Hustvedt’s The Blazing World will not, I think, make it onto any of my syllabuses, not even the course I am teaching in the Fall on diaries and diary fiction.

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