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Let It Tumble

Joanna Biggs, interviewed by Lauren Kane

photo by Hillery Stone

Joanna Biggs

photo by Hillery Stone

Joanna Biggs

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

In our May 23 issue, Joanna Biggs reviews Madonna: A Rebel Life by Mary Gabriel (whose previous biography, Ninth Street Women, took as its subject five female abstract expressionist painters in the midcentury). The essay opens at a Madonna concert Biggs attended as a child, where she experienced “the bubbly joy of dancing to ‘Holiday’ and the liberating joy of watching her gyrate to ‘Like a Virgin.’” These days, Biggs writes, she values Madonna “for the same things I valued her for when I was eight: she makes me dance, and she is always willing to smash a shibboleth.”

Biggs is an English critic and essayist who lives in New York. Her most recent book, A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again, is a professional biography of sorts. In it, she recounts her efforts to forge a career as a writer after the end of her marriage, alongside an examination of the lives of others, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Toni Morrison, who found they needed independence and freedom in order to write. This week I e-mailed her to ask about grief, blending genres, and how writing can help us figure out what to do next.


Lauren Kane: You’ve seen Madonna in concert twice, once when you were eight years old and recently on her Celebration tour. What memories have stayed with you from the earlier show? Do you think her music is better live or shared more intimately, say, singing along with friends at a bar?

Joanna Biggs: The impressions from when I was little are strong but vague: heat, a long car journey with the window down, and a TV crew that interviewed me wearing my black tulle petticoat, to my mother’s delight. I remember being disappointed that Madonna didn’t have her hair in the high ponytail but in a curly Marilyn-like style, and I remember being excited to see costumes I’d only seen in photographs. As a kid, I used to “play Madonna” with my friends, which meant putting on all the clothes you had and singing along to the tape while standing on the bed “performing,” periodically making a “costume change” by peeling off an outer layer of clothes. You can see why my mother ended up taking me to the concert.

This past December, while my friends and I waited for her to come onstage, we spent a while looking at the crowd: families, groups of young women like us, the gay community. One dude danced in the aisle through pretty much the entire concert. The best moment was when she crossed “Ray of Light” with an old track by The Prodigy, deepening the hippie brightness of her song with a rave bassline, and thereby reminding us it’s always been a banger. Everyone danced then.

But I like it best when one of her songs is played unexpectedly, and people flood the dance floor at a wedding or start singing while cooking. It is pleasing to see the songs mean something to other people, how her music brings them to life.

Your last review for us was of Liliana’s Invincible Summer, Cristina Rivera Garza’s memoir about the loss of her sister; your Madonna essay also touches on her long-held grief at the death of her mother when she was a child. What do you think are the challenges of writing about grief?

Grief is, of course, spectacularly common, and it is difficult to capture the particularity of your own, to prove the universal without becoming sentimental, trite, smooth, grandstanding, dumb, patronizing, pat, or any other of a dozen dangers. One of the things about grief that’s hard to capture is its measure. You can say—or write—“my sister died” in under five seconds, but understanding the loss, incorporating it into your days, preventing it from deforming your future can take a life’s work.

How does grief complicate or affect the perceptions we have of Madonna, whose artistic output, we might say, is more performative than contemplative?

Madonna’s grief softens her, doesn’t it? It makes her performance a tactic, a strategy: if only she could become very famous, then her mother would come back to see her. Like Joan Didion keeping her husband’s shoes for when he returned, because he would need them.

Your book, A Life of One’s Own, is partially a memoir in which you use the biographies of women writers to find a way forward as a writer yourself after a divorce. Where did you get the idea for that project? What were some of the challenges of writing a hybrid-genre book? What were some of the freedoms?

I just read when I’m lost. My parents laughed at me when I got engaged and bought a book called The Rough Guide to Weddings. (It was actually quite useful on practicalities.) Also, at certain points when the marriage was ending my friends got sick of me doom-circling these questions in conversation. No one could tell me what to do, however much I wanted them to. I thought that by writing about my problems I could learn what to do next, idiotic as that sounds. By the end of the book I realized I had been in good company while I bought myself time, and in that time I had changed. A handful of things emerged as important: love of friends and family, political engagement, my writing. And newly there was a hope, still quiet, that I might fall in love again. Someone reminded me recently that when asked at a party what my book was about, I said, “You know, the usual things, how to be in love but not in prison.” That sounds about right.    

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Hybridity felt natural to me—I hardly invented it, look at Virginia Woolf—and two of the essays in the book started out as pieces in the London Review of Books, where combining literary criticism, biography, and memoir wasn’t unusual, or even much remarked on. As that form developed into a book, I think readers wanted more: sometimes they wanted names and places and details about my marriage; sometimes they wanted me to sit up straight and be a literary critic proper. Perhaps I pleased no one. I never thought of hybridity as deliberate frustration. I wanted, rather, to be more honest about the way I was reading, to admit that I was often a bad reader: impatient and inconstant and incomplete; emotional, childish, and naive. For me the freedom to write in this way connects with autofiction, too. Mary-Kay Wilmers, the previous editor of the LRB, used to tease me about that mode: after the death of the author, she would say, the life of the reviewer.

As a critic, what catches your attention? What advice would you give a writer starting out on a career as a critic?

One rule I have is that if two friends separately mention a book, I’ll read it. But I also like things that everyone is reading—Elena Ferrante, Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk, Sally Rooney, Dolly Alderton—and thinking about how they work. I feel invested in the traditions and, for lack of a better term, stories of women’s writing. What forms do women use? Why? What stories do they tell, and why? That can lead me to weird little books, books in translation, books that are barely books at all. I’m drawn always to a certain richness or boldness; I know I’m going to like something if there’s death, sex, and family all in the first fifty pages.

To become a better critic, you read. Magazines big and little. In general you want to be reading two books a week and following your own interests within that reading. I also think that trying to write in the genre you’re criticizing helps, too, as it brings a certain sensitivity to the way you think about the choices the writer had to make. I feel embarrassed about some of the things I allowed myself to say about books when I was young, before I’d written one.

What’s your typical writing day like? What do you do when you’re stuck? What is the hardest thing about writing a piece of criticism?

I don’t have whole days to write—normally I wake up early and write before work—but if I do have a day, I go a bit feral and will wear the same soft clothes until I finish. Meals are all foraged, improvised things: popsicles in the summer, toast and tea in the winter.

When I’m stuck, I try to do the simplest next thing and remember I can fix it later—and if I can’t, one of my editors will help me. I feel that it is a great privilege to be able to write about books in the depth I do, and even more so to work with excellent editors and fact-checkers who push me to justify what I’ve written, cut out the more egregious parts (my first drafts can be sentimental), and force me to be more precise. I also do sillier things like dance all out to “Like a Prayer,” or move to sitting on the floor with my laptop on the seat of a chair, or call someone to talk nonsense, or go to bed early—anything to take the pressure off. Let it tumble, as my dad says.

Historically, my problems with writing are to do with confidence: Who am I to say this? I think that’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to people like Madonna and Simone de Beauvoir who have this unshakable sense that what they have to say is important. But I try to bracket the question of whether I’m any good, or should be writing at all, and just write the next sentence.

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What are you reading right now? Who are your favorite writers to revisit?

I’m reading—deep breath—Ulysses. It’s funny and weird and moving, and I’m glad I waited so long. But that book is big and stays on my desk. As I move around the city, I’m carrying Minor Detail by Adania Shibli and Elisa Gonzalez’s newish collection, Grand Tour. And then before bed I pick up either The Rachel Incident by Caroline O’Donoghue or Bee Wilson’s The Secret of Cooking, to my mind a covert divorce book. I stopped cooking after I got divorced but have recently started again, thanks to Alison Roman and to Wilson, whose ethos makes sense to me: missing from all recipes, Wilson says, is the mood of the cook, who should be taken care of first.

I love rereading Austen, particularly Persuasion, which I find myself doing annually. It’s amazing how much of that plot I can be enchanted by all over again.

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