Hannah Schneider: Everything Except Exactly What We Mean
On Darcie Wilder's literally show me a healthy person and Sarah Manguso's 300 Arguments
My best friend bought me Darcie Wilder’s literally show me a healthy person for Christmas and immediately said she had also purchased a copy for herself. We promptly took over my parents’ living room couch to read them and guffaw at the simultaneously crass and deeply vulnerable quotes that often made us feel “read for filth”. I found myself thinking, “I am not the only one that feels this way,” and, more importantly, “My art looks like this… and this can be taken seriously?”
“I just want a boyfriend who tells me we are breaking up when we break up,” I read aloud to someone I wasn’t dating who would then breakup with me in coming weeks by ignoring me for a week after I got a UTI. Finally, we had “a talk.” I made us watch vines afterwards.
The book is labeled as a novel, but the text borders on poetry, confessional flash essay and unintelligible drunk text. These passages are an amalgamation of vulnerabilities and experiences that illustrate the casual cruelty of this particular millennial’s twentysomething-hood.
Wilder reminds readers that millennials, despite our consistent connection via texting and social media, are often saying everything except for exactly what we mean. We are afraid that saying what we mean could make us look weak, gross, or both. Being a person is a cruel, desperate, sometimes funny, experience-- especially in your twenties, especially if you’ve endured ample emotional trauma. This depiction of womanhood lays bare the details we are encouraged to withhold. Wilder’s confessions reveal her flaws in congruence with her desires and realities-- something rarely done in a way to forsake all literary piety. Chelsea Martin’s Caca Dolce made the weird middle school girl in me, the one that used to steal the sticky tack from behind my teachers’ posters, relish when I read about her spoon abstinence this fall. And then along came Wilder, willing to break every rule I’ve been forced to follow and be celebrated for it. My consistent thought when reading Wilder’s novel was “yes, finally, literature needs more typos!!!”
Wilder’s novel is a part of a small, but quickly growing, divergence from and transcendence of genre by women writers. Most similar is Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments. Her aphorisms and honesty sync with Wilder’s truths in a way that speaks to the rules women writers are often expected to follow, ones that Wilder and Manguso have taken steps to subvert. Where they diverge is contextual. Both writers’ subversive nature appear generational and audience driven. Where Manguso seeks to advise-- Wilder confesses.
My first reaction to 300 Arguments was that I should have read my mother passages from it instead of literally show me a healthy person. She would have grasped the level of vulnerability that I was attempting to share with her, while perhaps not being offended. Maybe she wouldn’t have approached me later inquiring about what “molly” was and if I was “doing it.”
These two works are in conversation with each other, making similar arguments with different tools. They made me question what rules writers are allowed to break when confronting literary boundaries. At first, I thought that their respective audiences shaped their language, which leads us to question what changes between the makeup of Wilder’s audience and Manguso’s audience. Graywolf is a serious yet posh indie press, Tyrant follows a certain “spring break no rules for dedicated writers” aesthetic.
However, between these differences Manguso and Wilder form a middle ground: Manguso was brave with her disruption of form and Wilder compounded with a bravery of form and disclosure. Flexibility and accessibility must be considered within the contexts of these two books. Perhaps Manguso wished to push further boundaries with her aphorisms only to be told that she had to adhere to literary standards in order to be taken seriously or to fit with the literary dialect that Graywolf has established for itself. Part of the success of Wilder’s book is notably from her unique position in the literary world and Twitter: Darcie has done a brilliant job of building an audience for literally show me a healthy person-- that may have granted her the power, and permission, to break the rules she wanted to at an already nonconventional indie press like Tyrant.
Until I read literally show me a healthy person, I didn’t think I could write about sex and fucking and being sad and getting dumped with candor and expect to be taken seriously. I thought I had to choose between dedicating myself to the careful craft of literature and deciphering why the first and only time I cried about my most recent breakup was in a McDonald’s. Suddenly there was a book in the world accomplishing this style of writing with vigor and humor and in doing so-- she gives permission to her readers to do the same.
Sarah Manguso possesses a wise tone in her writing that is steady, assured, and instills in the reader a confidence that they could achieve at some point in their future. Manguso has a steady, resolute intention in 300 Arguments that seeks to remind, to validate, and to hold accountable. Manguso doesn’t possess the aspirational voice of a nonfiction writer giving one unsolicited life advice but rather space to consider what it means to make statements about one’s experience in the world as a woman writer.
Darcie has broken the rules of what is okay to bring into the light, or as some adults would put it: manners. The implications of a book riddled with typos, a lack of punctuation, caps lock rambling, and numerous other intentionally grammatically incorrect decisions is that more people could do this. There are very few people who can grasp the narrow, often pious, standards of writing within the literary world. And Wilder has made it possible for more writers to forsake the rules altogether.
Manguso and Wilder consistently remind readers that they are the experts of their lived experience. They occupy far ends of the same spectrum: one of using form to carve a new space for themselves. A space in between genre, in between truth and disclosure. The two diverge as Wilder edges towards more vulnerability and honesty while Manguso leans towards a lens based in distance and wisdom. Wilder eschews manners, a move that pushes her narrative space towards an argument for the broader acceptance of what women reveal in a public forum.
Manguso reminds me there is much I have yet to experience, Wilder allows me to feel that what I have lived through, so far, holds more potential meaning than the absolute trash fire it feels like. I trust Wilder’s voice because her narrative allows itself to be fallible and insecure in addition to its confidence and unapologetic brilliance. By showing these dualities, Wilder gives the reader a secret entrance to the narrative, you can see yourself living her words. Manguso’s voice posits a confidence I don’t have, yet, but rather than feeling alienating, it gives me hope that one day I can achieve her steadfast nature. Wilder’s aphorisms encourage me to recall my own humiliation, to lay out its validity as something I can draw from in my work.
The truly liberating fact of Wilder’s novel lies in her refusal to apologize for what she feels: her vulnerability, weakness, gruesomeness, and desire. That she is willing to illustrate what she wants in her grief, during sex, for dinner, in her loss, and in her life, was to me a revelation. Before I read this novel I understood that women writers were allowed to be edgy, while maintaining a level of grace and poise, like Manguso’s work in 300 Arguments. This is not to discredit the importance of Manguso’s work in its subversion of genre— but rather we are starting to see an exciting conversation occurring. These two writers exemplify a break from form, genre, and writing from women that adheres to an infuriating criterium of “weird but not too weird, slutty but don’t characterize yourself as a slut, smart but not arrogant.”
For Darcie and Sarah to make statements and aphorisms as they have in their books is an act of reality construction. A space in which the speaker is simultaneously the lived experience, the truth teller, the expert, the woman, the writer, and not one person can pipe in with a “yeah, but actually.” Manguso and Wilder use their respective narrative styles to excavate the self and society—cementing themselves as a new school of simultaneous social critics and narrative experimentalists.