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Labelling the subject

‘Am I that Name?’: Authorial Identity in Writing by Contemporary British Women Authors

« Suis-je ce qu'il m'a nommée ? » : l’identité de l’auteur dans l’écriture des écrivaines britanniques contemporaines
Michelle Ryan Sautour


Aujourd’hui l’emploi des mots « femme » ou « femmes » dans le contexte de la critique littéraire revêt une conscience du caractère hétérogène et fragmenté de l’identité féminine. Cependant, les catégories de « femme », de « femmes », voire de la « femme auteure » persistent et sont même soulignées comme champs de réflexion dans la fiction de nombreuses écrivaines. Les pratiques intertextuelles militantes des écrivaines, avec leurs narrateurs déguisés en auteur et les illusions de présence auctoriale, placent la question de la performativité de l’auteur au centre du texte. La manière dont l’auteur est appelé ou identifié joue un rôle central dans la dimension politique de la fiction. Dans cet article, j’étudierai comment la fiction des femmes auteures britanniques (Angela Carter, Jeannette Winterson, Ali Smith, Sarah Hall, Helen Simpson) démontre une conscience de la dimension politique des postures auctoriales et permet de négocier des positions dans le champ littéraire.

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1Denise Riley, in the title of ‘Am I that Name?’: Feminism and the Category of ‘Women’ in History, invokes Shakespeare’s characteristic play with identity to explore the question of labels:

Desdemona:  Am I that name, Iago?

Iago:            What name, fair lady?

Desdemona:  Such as she says my lord did say I was.

(William Shakespeare, Othello, Act IV, Scene II) (Riley 1988)

2According to Riley, this exchange exemplifies the tension between indeterminacy and the naming of ‘women’ as a political category: ‘To put it schematically: “women” is historically, discursively constructed, and always relatively to other categories which themselves change; “women” is a volatile collectivity in which female persons can be very differently positioned so that the apparent continuity of the subject of “women” isn’t to be relied on’ (Riley 1988, 1–2). Judith Butler’s well-known Gender Trouble figures this discontinuity as performativity, and today the terms ‘woman’ or ‘women’, when uttered in the realm of literary criticism, are troubled by an underlying consciousness of heterogeneous, fragmented identity. Yet, the category of ‘women’, of ‘woman’, and even of the ‘woman author’, persists and is even stressed in many women’s fictions as a key area for reflection. The militant intertextual practices of many writers, along with author-like narrative figures and illusions of authorial presence, implicitly draw the issue of authorial performativity to the forefront. Self-identification, self-naming, as well as external modes of authorial identification are shown to be processes that play a central role in the politics of women’s fiction. In this paper I will address the manner in which contemporary British women writers (Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Sarah Hall, Helen Simpson) propose a self-consciousness of the politics of authorial postures in negotiating a position in the literary field.

3In ‘Feminism and the Authorial Subject’, Seán Burke comments on how tightly the struggles of feminism are interlaced with issues of authorship: ‘Feminist ideas on authorship will be inevitably political since authorship involves the appropriation of a cultural space and serves to underpin the principle of the literary canon which—on feminist thought—has been defined in terms of patriarchal prejudice’ (145). He cites the famous ‘Madwoman in the Attic’ writings of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar who, with their ‘anxiety of authorship’, attempt to appropriate an authorial space for women in the literary tradition. He also highlights the different ways in which women authors have negotiated the authorial death, erasure, and disappearance in post-structuralist criticism of theorists such as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. Mary Eagleton, in Figuring the Woman Author in Contemporary Fiction (2005) also speaks of the ways feminism has sought to carve out a space for women in a contemporary culture of authorship:

Second-wave feminism always presumed that access for women applied to the cultural sphere as much as any other and the reshaping in the last thirty years of our cultural history, the establishment of feminist publishing companies or of feminist listings within mainstream companies, the importance feminism as an academic discourse and the current visibility of women as not only writers but as artists, musicians, cultural workers generally are all testament to that. (Eagleton 1)

4The creation of publishing houses devoted to the work of women was an important part of this process. Virago was one of the forerunners in this process, as it was created as a means by which to recover and promote women’s writing, a project Angela Carter was actively involved in as a member of its editorial board, an act she saw as a means of empowerment: ‘I am moved towards it by the desire that no daughter of mine should ever be in a position to be able to write: by grand central station i sat down and wept, exquisite prose though it might contain. (by grand central station i tore off his balls, would be more like it, I should hope)’ (Carter qtd by Sage 1994a, 32). Carter overtly challenges the content and tone of Canadian author Elizabeth Smart’s book title By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945), which is dominated by a sense of passion and loss, a persona Carter questions: ‘many women writers do themselves pretend to be female impersonators; look at Jean Rhys and Edna O’Brien, whose scars glorify the sex that wounded them’ (Carter 1997, 499).

5As a journalist and feminist author of fiction, Carter was keenly aware of her position in what Pierre Bourdieu has identified as the ‘literary field’ (1992). Similarly, Mary Eagleton addresses the political thrust behind the author-character in writing by authors such as Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, Muriel Spark, and A. S. Byatt, and through the critical lens of theories borrowed from Bourdieu, Barthes, and Foucault, she explores how these fictions allow women authors a space for negotiation. Many women writers have indeed inscribed reflections about their position within their works, in mirror-like representations of authorial figures. Eagleton sees such writing as means of engaging in issues of authorial identity and authority: ‘Every woman writer, artist or narrator we will consider in this study has some issue with authorising and authority. As is indicated in the renewed interest in the female Künstlerroman, the female author is achieving a sense of her coming-into-being and a wider social acceptance’ (2).

6Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of this negotiation in contemporary British fiction by women is an accentuation of the playful porosity between work, life and art that has appeared in contemporary fiction such as that of Angela Carter and Jeannette Winterson. Lorna Sage has written, for example, of how Angela Carter positioned herself in relation to Barthesian and Foucauldian theories of authorship by embracing anonymity and rejecting confessional modes of writing, favoring instead the collective voice associated with fairy tale retellings. Sage’s emphasis on hybridity and on the demystification of the individual self (Sage 1994b, 3), as predominant utopian promises in Carter’s work, indicates the potential liberation in the activity of ‘talking about the self as socially determined’ (Sage 1994a, 44). Paradoxically, in the end Sage saw Carter’s position of polyvocality as being ‘entirely personal at base—a refusal to be placed or characterized or saved from oneself’ (Sage 1992, 254). This creates a curious twist on the famous feminist saying: ‘the personal is political’: as the impersonal made personal becomes political. As I have shown in an earlier article (Ryan-Sautour 2007), Carter’s well known story ‘Flesh and the Mirror’ indeed plays with autobiographical modes, melding fiction with the fantasy of the self to create a flickering illusion of penetrating to the authentic, real author. ‘Flesh and the Mirror’ simultaneously resists and cultivates autobiographical appropriation, and the reader’s attempts to capture the ‘real’ Carter give rise to unanticipated forms of speculation. Mary Eagleton has commented on this process: ‘The figure of the woman author provides the living woman author with opportunities to explore, to some extent at least, her own situation, her aspirations and anxieties. A number of texts play on the notion of the creation of a ‘real’ authorial life by their use of biographical and autobiographical modes’ (4–5). The word ‘play’ is key here, as Carter’s story does not pretend to be autobiography, yet exploits its modes to other ends.

7Leigh Gilmore, in The Limits of Autobiography observes a shift in contemporary, postmodern autobiography that posits life-writing as a means to other ends, that is a mode rather than a genre that does not seek to propose a ‘truthful’ image of an author, but rather engage in forms of self-representation to open up the self for interrogation and reflection:

Some writers, however, are more interested in the constitutive vagaries of autobiography, in how its weirder expansiveness lets them question whether and how ‘I’ can be ‘here’ or ‘there’, what the self is that it could be the subject of its own representation, what the truth is that one person could tell it, and what the past is that anyone could discharge its debt in reporting it. While their responses to these issues bring their texts closer to what is typically called fiction, I will argue that the writers in this study find their way there via an engagement with autobiography. Dorothy Allison, Mikal Gilmore, Jamaica Kincaid, and Jeanette Winterson take autobiography’s defining questions as what we might provisionally call autobiographical means to other ends. (Gilmore 2001, 9)

8The ‘other ends’ are varied, although often politically oriented, but as Gilmore suggests, are intimately connected with the idea of fiction, meaning that the naming of the self is intertwined with the naming of genre. The familiar scission Foucault underlines between fictional narrators and the writer as the basis of the author function, is played with, exploited, compressed and stretched through generic indeterminacy, and acquires a strikingly political resonance in contemporary women’s writing. Eagleton notes for example Lorna Sage’s own turn to the genre of the memoir with Bad Blood, published shortly before her death, about which Marina Warner makes the following observation: ‘you can’t have the work without the life or, more pointedly, the life without the work, nor the work or the life without the art’ (Warner qtd in Eagleton 20). Michèle Roberts, in her 2007 memoir, Paper Houses, openly reflects upon the edges of her autobiographical self: ‘Who was that “I”, that young woman of twenty-one? I reconstruct her. I invent a new “me” composed of the girl I was, according to diaries, my memoires (and the gaps between them), and the self remembering her. She stands in between the two. A third term. She’s a character in my story and she tells it too’ (14).

9In the scission between the writing self and the former self arises a fictional remembered self. The intermingling of life-story and artfulness is hardly new, and the slippery boundaries between autobiographical fiction, autofiction, and autobiography are known to many, particularly given our contemporary self-consciousness of the self as performance. In navigating between fiction and the pretended truthfulness of autobiography, many contemporary women writers use genre and its codes as a means to figure the shifting contours of this performance.

10Jeanette Winterson’s work is an excellent case in point, as her works openly manifest varying degrees of autobiography, some of which focus on the trauma of childhood oppression and others that focus on her sexuality and relationship to writing and art. She blurs codes to the extent we are led to name her work as self-representation, yet at the same time see shifts and shades of truth and fiction. Gilmore comments on the resulting processes of ascription of identity to the textual and corporeal figures of Winterson that are set into action: ‘Winterson’s books and Winterson’s body have been conflated by some reviewers and readers in an attempt to gender and name her narrator “lesbian.” To do so, readers must detour through the autobiographical, a detour into the intelligible, whereby readers inscribe the identity of the author upon the dissonance in the category of identity in the text’ (126). The term ‘dissonance’ indicates the degree of discontinuity and lack of clear-cut identity politics in Winterson’s writing. She indeed complicates her authorial identity more than she elucidates it, while at the same time invoking the powerful interpellation of autobiographical truth in texts where elements of her life story flicker. Her recent memoir suggests a continued engagement with the processes of generic and authorial naming, as she returns to material she initially represented in her first novel Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1985), but in the mode of the ‘truthful’ telling of the memoir:

1985 wasn’t the day of the memoir—and in any case, I wasn’t writing one. I was trying to get away from the received idea that women always write about ‘experience’—the compass of what they know—while men write wide and bold—the big canvas, the experiment with form. Henry James did no good when he said that Jane Austen wrote on four inches of ivory—i.e. tiny observant minutiae. Much the same was said of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. Those things made me angry. In any case, why could there not be experience and experiment? Why could there not be the observed and the imagined? Why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody? Why should a woman not be ambitious for literature? Ambitious for herself.

11It is striking that these observations are made in a reconstruction of a telephone conversation with her mother, where the mother says ‘It’s the first time I’ve had to order a book in a false name.’ While Winterson, in using the first name Jeanette for her character in Oranges are not the Only Fruit, was playing with names in fictional autobiographical modes, her mother is represented as erasing her own identity in a clear negation of Winterson’s art. There is clear play with self-fabrication here, in an open embracing of life-writing that holds literary value because of Winterson’s elevated ranking in the canon of contemporary British literature, and because of the many works that have preceded this one. Her memoir is read in the light of her multi-faceted autobiographical performances.

  • 1 In these three stories, all published in Fireworks, the unnamed narrator can only be linked to Cart (...)

12Many of these traces emerge from play with naming or not the ‘I’ or the narrator, much as Carter’s aforementioned play with the ‘I’ in autobiographical writings that were published as fiction: ‘A Souvenir of Japan’, ‘Flesh and the Mirror’, ‘The Smile of Winter’, and ‘The Quiltmaker’.1 Gilmore speaks of Foucault’s game of anonymity when he was interviewed as ‘the masked philosopher’ suggesting in his actions as well as in his other work ‘how names think for us’ and how a lack of knowledge of an author’s name would lead to ‘a highly charged encounter in which reader and writer would be compelled to discover their relation to each other in the present tense. You don’t know me, anonymity insists: now what?’ (Gilmore 144). According to Foucault, such anonymity would allow the effects of a book to ‘land in unexpected places and form shapes that I had never thought of’ (Foucault qtd in Gilmore 144). However, it might easily be postulated that a reader will continue, because of generic codes, to seek out the name of the author. Winterson’s writing in particular uses this reflex to other ends, playing upon naming and/or anonymity in order to draw the reader to perceive the artfulness of identity. Games with naming within the text influence the processes of interpellation and counter-interpellation that Jean-Jacques Lecercle sees as being an integral part of literary communication:

The imposture that is inseparable from reading inverts the active-passive polarity. What takes place through imposture is reading as counter-interpellation. The interpellated reader, although subjected as much as subjectified, is not powerless. She sends back the force of interpellation as Perseus’s shield, held as a mirror, sent back the Gorgon’s gaze and petrified her. The author, therefore, is captured in his turn by the counter-interpellation of imposture. If the reader, qua implied, is a creation of the author, the author himself is nothing but a fantasy of the reader. (Lecercle 89–117)

13The generic indeterminacy of contemporary writing often complicates the reader’s seeking out of the author, as the question of correspondence between narrator and author becomes a realm in which the reader’s fantasies are deployed and destabilized.

14Ali Smith’s writing highlights a continued engagement in contemporary writing with the modes of self-representation and generic uncertainty introduced Carter and Winterson’s early fiction. In her recent collection of essays Artful she proposes a piece called ‘On Time’. Initially one of four lectures Smith gave at St. Anne’s College early in 2012, the essay begins as a sort of elegy to the ghost of a dead lover. Because of the 1st person narrative, and the generic codes of the essay form (it should be noted that many of her stories read as short essays), the audience/reader is tempted to believe this really happened to her, that her partner of 25 years, Sarah Wood, who is openly referred to in her stories and in the paratexts that frame her works, has died. The piece sends the reader seeking details, as the fictional sense of loss is used as a construct to explore ghosts and time in literature. Not fiction, but rather a talk, later transformed into an essay, yet wielding the force of fictional pathos. The affect of this piece, that is otherwise loosely structured, points to Smith’s play with the impalpable movement of fiction as a fluid phenomenon rather than as static, generic fact.

  • 2 See Ryan-Sautour 2013 for a detailed study of this story and Ali Smith’s collection of the same tit (...)
  • 3 In a short piece for The Telegraph in 2006, arts correspondent Nigel Reynolds quotes Linklater, one (...)

15This fluidity is intertwined with processes of naming in her short story, ‘The First Person’,2 where the first person narrator overhears a conversation in a café about the novel being like a ‘flabby old whore’ who was ‘slack and loose’ and the short story being like a ‘nimble goddess, a slim nymph’ (Smith 4),3 leaving the narrator wondering ‘how many of the books in my house were fuckable and how good they’d be in bed.’ (Smith 4) This ‘I’ is later identified as ‘Ali’ in her conversation with a ‘friend’ also given a name ‘Kasia’ (who also appears in the epigraph to the story) and is identified in the story as a short story specialist. The passage plays with names, echoes, and the sense of ‘me’:

         I waited for the automaton voice of the hospital phone system to tell me all about itself, then to recite robotically back to me the number I’d just called, then to mispronounce my friend’s name, which is Kasia, then to tell me exactly how much it was charging me to listen to it tell me all this, and then to tell me how much it would cost to speak to my friend per minute. Then it connected me.
         Hi, I said, It’s me.
         Are you on your mobile? She said. Don’t, Ali, it’s expensive on this system. I’ll call you back.
         No worries, I said. It’s just a quickie. Listen. Is the short story a goddess and a nymph and is the novel an old whore? (Smith 5-6)

16Manipulation of proper, ‘real’, names and self-conscious reflection on the story as repetition contribute to the ‘slice of life’ effect of portraits or conversations between disembodied narrators and characters that typify her story-writing. The result is an uncanny sense of fiction as an intermittent event in the process of reading. Fictions of the self blend with story-telling. Like Winterson, Smith has often been labeled as a ‘lesbian’ writer, a label she is not opposed to: ‘And anything and everything which gives people who can be marginalised a sense of strength is really important, really crucial, a source of strength and support’ (Smith qtd in Akbar). Yet she also seeks to question categories: ‘But I’m always going to be interested in the thing which is beyond category’ (Smith qtd in Akbar), a process that is wrapped up with the intensity of the short story: ‘Short stories consume you faster. They’re connected to brevity. With the short story, you are up against mortality. I know how tough they are as a form, but they’re also a total joy’ (Smith qtd in Akbar). The title of this story, which is also the title of the collection holds the first person category of ‘I’ up for scrutiny, and this investigation is indeed not simply part of fictional representation, but is the story.

17Helen Simpson, a contemporary author who only writes short stories, proposes a similar game with self-representation and boundaries. It is telling that her career began when she entered a biography contest and won, except her biography was pure fiction: ‘And the story of my life I made up. I first of all wrote it straight, it was so boring—basically I did homework, so I made up a life story for myself. I gave myself four or five brothers and I had dramatic divorcing parents’ (Simpson qtd in BBC World Service author profile). This led to her job as an editor for Vogue magazine, and she eventually became a full-time writer. This quotation serves as a prominent defining feature of her authorial persona. Today she writes fiction openly inspired by her personal life as wife and mother. She later revisits this initial ‘myth’ of her authorial beginnings in ‘Homework’ (Simpson 2010). The story tells of a mother who helps her son write three pages of an English homework assignment on the following theme: ‘Write about an Event that Changed your Life’ (Simpson 2010, 95). The mother coaches and cajoles her son into writing a fictionalized version of his parents’ divorce. As an obvious echo of her beginnings as a writer, the story serves as a reflection of the author’s statement about fictionalized life-story. The resulting authorial figure is dizzying to apprehend.

          ‘Listen, you’re doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, aren’t you,’ I continued. ‘Do you think Shakespeare got asked whether he’d ever grown donkey ears?’

         George smiled briefly

          ‘Right. So you see your mum on weekends and one weekend she tells you she wants to go to Peru and asks if she can borrow the Duke of Edinburgh rucksack. She promises she’ll send you postcards, it’s just something she’s got to do to move forward in your life.’

         George scribbled away, not happy with where the story-line was going but incapable of coming up with an alternative. I felt powerful, like a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat.

          ‘I still don’t think it’s allowed,’ he said.

          ‘Of course it’s allowed,’ I said. ‘You’ve got to have things happening, see, or it’s not a story. Think of the films you like. Car chases. Explosions. Sharks.’ (Simpson 2010, 102)

18In response to her son’s suggestions of making the ‘mum’ swim in the China Sea, the mother ‘I’ narrator refers to the importance of the game of not being ‘able to tell what’s real and what’s made up’ (Simpson 2010, 102), thus underlining the slippage between illusions of ‘truth’ and fiction in her own stories. Helen Simpson writes about women, family, and parenthood in a manner that merges sentimentality with the dark irony and humor of domestic life. In a review of Simpson’s In the Driver’s Seat (published in G.B. as Constitutional), Susan Reimer labels her work ‘mommy-lit’, or ‘Hen-lit’ as you would call it in Great Britain: ‘British writer Helen Simpson is one of the best of the MommyLit authors and in her new collection of 11 short stories, In the Driver's Seat, she finds humor—albeit dark humor—in the despair of women in their middle years and the gumption with which they face their disappointments’ (2007). Like Angela Carter, Simpson’s stories invite the reader to associate the experiences of the narrators with her authorial figure, although she disclaims such links in interview. Most apposite is the role she is led to play as the figure of the emblematic ‘mother’, a role that is reinforced by a story published on Mother’s Day for The Telegraph on 10 March 2013, entitled ‘Cake’ that involves a mother’s dialogue with her child mixed in with the different steps of a recipe, a construct for reflections upon children, life, and death.

  • 4 ‘Toute une jeune génération d’écrivains nés dans l’ère de la culture de masse (Angot, Beigbeder, No (...)

19This leads to yet another aspect of negotiating the literary field, that is the authorial postures that emerge in a society where the mediatization of the authorial figure has become a dominant force in the construction of authorial masks and personas. Jérôme Meizoz, inspired by Alain Viala, evokes the term ‘posture’ (2007) to reflect a dual realm of investigation that examines the convergence of the sociological, performative ‘character’ of an author (interviews, readings, blogs; elements of what Pierre Bourdieu identifies as aspects of the literary field) and the discursive ethos that emerges in literary self-representation. Such postures, as a means of occupying a position in the literary field, could be forms of self-representation in the realm of non-fictional discourse and performances (readings, interviews, talks) that have come to dominate the contemporary literary field, or literary ‘game’, another term evoked by Bourdieu. Meizoz gives the example of Angot, Beigbeder, Nothomb, Donner, Despentes and Houellebecq in the French literary scene as being writers who have emerged from mass culture, and the public mise en scène, that is performances that create controversy around their writing.4 According to Meizoz, literary communication has become increasingly modeled after the demands of publicists and the media. This is embodied by the ‘plateforme’ in Houellebecq’s novel of the same title (19-20) and appears as an additional element in stories by women who self-consciously navigate the realm of authorial identity as posture.

20Sarah Hall’s recent ‘The Beautiful Indifference’, like Carter’s narrator in ‘Flesh and the Mirror’ features a narrator/character contemplating her appearance in a mirror while waiting for her lover. The anonymous character is figured as an author. We learn she is a writer through the accumulation of details such as ‘travelling a lot’ (41) and the ‘reading’ (41) the previous night. The reading is later referred to as ‘her event’. The literary ‘event’ has indeed become an institutionalized phenomenon in literary Britain. This author figure, however, is depicted as having failed to adopt the ‘correct’ authorial posture:

         Often she discarded books. Whenever she made this confession people were astonished. It had come up again at her event last night. A woman in the front row had been appalled during the closing session.

         How do we get our children to read more? All they do is play violent video games

         Why should they read? I don’t. Given the choice I’d much rather do something else. Including blow things up.

         You’re joking? You can’t really be serious?

         Can’t I? Why not?

         Silence. Murmurs in the crowd. She was not adopting the correct role of advocate. (Hall 46)

21The narrator figures this ‘I’ as being in tension with the events of her literary persona and life. She is even, ironically, a reluctant reader: ‘In truth, she disliked books. She felt a peculiar disquiet when opening the pages. She had felt it since childhood’ (46). The piece immerses the reader in a seemingly confessional tone of a woman’s step into suicide. At the end of the story, after it has been mentioned that the narrator has bought pain-killers at three different pharmacies, she suggests she will commit suicide:

         She had on heeled shoes from being in the city, from being with her lover, from moving among the public as if she was someone else. And the striped dress. What would they say about her attire, if they found her in the bracken. Perhaps they would say she had prepared. She sat in the car. She could still smell his wet hair, remember the feeling of its damp warmth between her fingers. Remembering their exchanges was like engaging in them again. …

         The hills were around her. She took up her purse, opened the car door and stepped into them. It was like opening a book. (66)

22Here, rather than life being art, death is equated with opening a book, a literal take on the ‘death of the author’ that lends an eerie metafictionality to the story. It also inadvertently refers to the imbrications of fictional performance and authorial identity. There is also a reference to what people will say after her death, thus pointing to how the narrative of identity is also produced through the discourse of others.

23Winterson has also commented on media and authorial performance in reference to Ali Smith, whose persona is that of the self-effacing author. According to Winterson, Smith evades media coverage: ‘At a time when authors are expected to sell their books the way evangelists sell God—the tour, the TV, the newspaper column, Smith has no ambition to be known outside of her work’ (Winterson 2003). In Winterson’s engagement with Ali Smith’s self-effacing image, she is also inadvertently cultivating her own persona. This quotation was taken from her blog, where Winterson engages with the public. Authorial postures are indeed a strong element in building up the amalgam of discourse around an author’s name, a phenomenon Michel Foucault underlined in his ‘What is an Author’. Adam Mars Jones’s review of Winterson’s memoir indicates a perception of this process: ‘The high point of her cult of herself as a writer must be the 1991 introduction to the Vintage reissue [of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit]’. Mars Jones’s review highlights ‘fabulation’ and the figure of the martyr as dominant postures in the memoir. These postures, both self-constructed and reinforced by discourse from other sources, not only frame the fictions, but also, as shown above, become fictionalized in turn. Jeannette Winterson as Lesbian writer, Ali Smith as disappearing writer, Angela Carter as militant, yet self-refracting feminist, Helen Simpson as semi-autobiographical mother writer, Sarah Hall as on-edge performative writer—these are vast simplifications of labels that emerge through the interaction of stories and author identity in the sedimentation of discourse around an author’s name over time. An author’s authorial posture indicates an additional element in the author function as it undergoes temporal shifts, and produces a fluid, changeable frame of a performative rather than a ‘real’ authorial figure who is constantly ‘becoming’ in the literary field.

24Helen Simpson’s ‘The Festival of the Immortals’ proposes a self-conscious, parodic revision of such processes, particularly as the story contrasts the contemporary context of literary events and postures with authorial figures of the past. As Ailsa Cox observes, the story proposes an overt reflection about reading and the figure of the author as an object of consumption (2013). It features two women, retirement age, who knew each other when they were young and are reunited at a festival featuring ‘immortal’ authors who return from the grave to give readings: Defoe, Charlotte Bronte, Shakespeare and George Eliot amongst others. This ‘festival of the immortals’ is organized by the daughter of one of these women named respectively, Viv and Phyllis. They are avid readers, and Phyllis is even in a life-writing class, where she is working on her ‘memoirs’ which she finds to be ‘matter-of-fact and chirpy and boring’ (Simpson 2010, 109). Through an interplay between these women’s consumerist reading habits, and ironic comments about the authorial ‘characters’, the reader is made aware of the gap between canonical authorial identities and the postures proposed in the text. The incongruence creates a high degree of humor: Shakespeare irreverently arrives in a helicopter (Simpson 2010, 110–111), and Alexander Pope ‘roared up in a fantastic high-powered low-slung sportscar, always a new one, always the latest model’. Jane Austen is characterized as being ‘very sarcastic in interviews if you asked her a question she didn’t like’ (Simpson 2010, 111).

25Viv appears to be on a first name basis with members of the Bloomsbury Group, and comments on Virginia Woolf’s humor, an image that appears irreconcilable with more reverent perceptions of a solemn Woolf that tend to dominate literary discourse:

         Oh, she was wonderful. What a talker! She kept the whole marquee in stitches—spellbound—rocking with laughter. But then they changed the copyright law, something to do with the EU, and now it’s life plus seventy years, and she went back in again. So she won’t be allowed to return until 2011 at the earliest. Very galling as we might not still be here by then. (Simpson 2010, 108–109)

26And the previous year’s festival was dominated by confessional talk about illness:

Last year had been really fascinating, if a bit morbid; they’d taken illness as their theme—Fanny Burney on the mastectomy she’d undergone without anaesthetic, Emily Bronte giving a riveting description of the time she was bitten by a rabid dog and how she’d gone straight back home and heated up a fire-iron and used it herself to cauterise her arm. Emily had been very good in the big round-table discussion, too, the one called ‘TB and Me’, very frank. People had got the wrong idea about her, Sarah said, she wasn’t unfriendly, just rather shy; she was lovely when you got to know her. (111)

27In Simpson’s story of authorial ‘haunting’ she draws our attention to the historical dimension of authorial identity, questions Andrew Bennett addresses in his comprehensive study: The Author. It is also a reminder of the tensions that have emerged between individual authorial performances, or discourses of intention in tension with postructuralist theories that have dethroned the sovereign author. Illusions of sovereignty persist, and have given way to individual negotiations of self in relation to the field of discourse that surrounds the names of various authors. For practical purposes, I refer to this fluid identity as the performative, or even fictional author. Such fictions feed into the writing of contemporary authors who exploit generic indeterminacy to examine their movement and contours in relation to the realm of fictional writing and fictionalized identity outside the story. We might also say that the processes of interpellation Lecercle sees as being tied up with the process of reading in the respective attempts of author and reader to engage with the other, might also be deployed in relation to the performative fictions that accumulate around an author’s name as a shifting persona that I have shown here both exists outside of the realm of story and feeds into story. This introduces a troubling, highly performative porosity between art and life, and life and names, raising fiction to the status of a fluid phenomenon that flows between author and reader in stories with slippery borders. We have certainly moved here beyond the autonomous art of the modernist period, as these authors not only break through the barriers of authorial isolation, but find in this breaking process material for fleeting fictions with an ethical force.

28As suggested by the title to this article, the concepts of ‘Women’s fiction’ or ‘Women’s writing’ are simultaneously deconstructed and reified as labels that drive the performative, slippery fictions of authorship in contemporary ‘women’s’ writing. Play with authorial identity is clearly not a phenomenon that is limited to women’s writing, but it appears as an important means by which many women authors engage with the processes of naming one’s self and being named, of negotiating labels both adopted and imposed, as these writers engage with complex mechanisms of identification and identity.

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1 In these three stories, all published in Fireworks, the unnamed narrator can only be linked to Carter because of an ‘Afterword’ that clearly identifies Carter as an author who lived in Japan.

2 See Ryan-Sautour 2013 for a detailed study of this story and Ali Smith’s collection of the same title.

3 In a short piece for The Telegraph in 2006, arts correspondent Nigel Reynolds quotes Linklater, one of the organizers of the National Short Story Prize, as proposing the following provocative analogy: ‘The novel is a capacious old whore: everyone has a go at her, but she rarely emits so much as a groan for their efforts. The short story, on the other hand, is a nimble goddess: she selects her suitors fastidiously and sings like a dove when they succeed. The British literary bordello is heaving with flabby novels. It's time to give back some love to the story.’

4 ‘Toute une jeune génération d’écrivains nés dans l’ère de la culture de masse (Angot, Beigbeder, Nothomb, Donner, Despentes ou Houellebecq), assument désormais pleinement la mise en scène publique de l’auteur à travers les fréquentes polémiques portant sur leur personne et leurs écrits. L’échange littéraire s’étant peu à peu calqué sur les exigences de la publicité et de l’image, ces mises en scène sont devenues partie intégrante d’une nouvelle manière d’envisager l’existence publique de la littérature : c’est la “plateforme programmatique” du narrateur Michel dans Plateforme (2001)’ (19–20).

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Michelle Ryan Sautour, « ‘Am I that Name?’: Authorial Identity in Writing by Contemporary British Women Authors »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 46 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Michelle Ryan Sautour

Michelle Ryan Sautour is Maître de Conférences (Associate Professor) at the Université d’Angers, where she is director of the short story section of the CRILA research group and Associate Editor of Journal of the Short Story in English. Her research focus is the speculative fiction and short stories of Angela Carter and Rikki Ducornet with a special emphasis on authorship, reading pragmatics, game theory, and gender. She has published in Marvels and Tales, Journal of the Short Story in English, Études britanniques contemporaines, and in several edited collections.

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