Bookforum talks with Sara Marcus

Sara Marcus

Sara Marcus’s Girls to the Front, an engaging chronicle of the early-’90s punk feminist movement known as Riot Grrrl, is being published today by Harper Perennial. Writing in Bookforum’s music issue, musician and author Johanna Fateman called the book an “ambitious and convincing book that makes narrative sense out of events that had so far been recorded only in mythic, unverified, and fragmentary form.” We recently sat down with Marcus, who is a freelancer at our sister publication Artforum, to discuss her writing process, feminism’s fate in mainstream culture, gender bias in book criticism, and the feminist future.

Q: I imagine that early on in writing Girls to the Front you were confronted with the challenging realization that Riot Grrrl resists definition. How did you deal with this?

A: I figured out pretty quickly that the only way to tell the “story of Riot Grrrl” would be to tell stories of individual people and stories of context, and that through a kind of triangulation, this would yield a sense of Riot Grrrl as a whole while hopefully steering clear of any reductionism. But it’s not true that there’s no common thread, and I parse this in the book: The girls were really careful to say there’s no there there, but there were specificities to the experiences, and to the networks, that are important.

Q: Though you're clearly a fan of Riot Grrrl, the book is not a hagiography. Can you talk a bit about your writing process? I'm wondering if you experimented with different voices and writing techniques in order to balance the subjective voice of a fan and the more objective, skeptical, and authoritative voice that’s expected from a historian.

A: The first drafts of parts of the book, which I turned in to my workshops in the nonfiction program at Columbia, got responses from my classmates that horrified me. People were reading what I’d written and saying, “These girls are so immature, and they’re so bratty, and don’t they realize that they’re contradicting themselves all over the place? And don’t they see that they’re making impossible demands? And don’t they understand that if they take their shirts off they’re going to be sexually objectified, and how they could they possibly take their shirts off and demand to not be sexually objectified? Why are they so unrealistic and naive?” That made me realize that I was going to have to really enlist the reader and immerse the reader in the mind-set of angry adolescent young women, regardless of whether or not the reader had ever been an adolescent young woman, angry or not. I was going to have to do the work of evoking that. So I began to think about how the book could be novelistic, in order to not give the reader any place from which to stand and look down their noses at the people in the book. Anyone can, with the benefit of hindsight, look back at what a teenager did and say, “Oh, that was not fully formed. That was a little green.” But it doesn’t mean that the stuff doesn’t matter, and if you permit yourself as a reader to lodge yourself in a space of judgment and condescension, you miss so much of what’s happening and so much of what’s important.

As for whether I experimented with different writing styles, yes, I did a lot of experimenting. The intermediate forms of the book were quite fragmentary. I was reading Moby Dick at a certain point, and feeling completely enthralled by the way Melville makes room in his text for such a ridiculously wide range of material, and so for a while I was just plopping source material into my text whole hog. At one point, the whole founding constitution of the Boston chapter of ACT UP was in there, kind of out of nowhere. And Barbara Jordan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1992. Plus, there were all these poetic fragments; I had this idea that in between all the chapters there would be inter-chapters, like in Grapes of Wrath, that were more evocative. Then I started folding those into the chapters themselves, and many of those still remain in the book in some form, but without enacting such an overt formal break. In addition, there were originally several portions where I just broke into oral history format, where I stepped out as a narrator altogether and was just transcribing and cutting together different interviews, because it was very important to me to have a structure that indicated the inadequacy and incompleteness of the text, that foregrounded the research method and the subjectivity of the material. I showed them to my editor and she was like, “These aren’t really working. It looks like you outlined the chapter and never got around to writing it.” I agonized about this for quite a while. I had already come to terms with the idea that those sections might fail; that was OK with me. But my editor pointed out that people might lose momentum there and stop reading the book, which did concern me. I took a step back and recognized that there really was a swoop of narrative that had taken form that didn’t want to be held back and didn’t want to be complicated in that particular way. I still had a lot of anxiety about the ethics of narrative in general, but there were other ways that my insistence on multiplicity and on rupture was being registered without actually being aggressive toward the reader. While revising, I realized that I had been feeling a little bit aggressive toward my reader, like: “You think you can understand this? You’re never going to understand this! You think you can own these girls’ lives by reading their stories? Well, fuck you!” I was like, maybe I can transform that into something a little more loving.

Q: I‘ve heard that writing about a teenage passion can diminish the thrill of it, and the magic sort of disappears once you start to study it too closely. Did you find that was the case?

A: Who says that? I found the opposite!

Q: Really? That’s good news to me.

A: Oh my god! I got so into it. I did not at all feel that it lessened the passion of it, but I think that had a lot to do with how I chose to approach it. You see in the book’s Prologue one example of this, when I suddenly shift into: “More to the point: When you’re a teenage girl who is X, Y, and Z. . . . ” That “you” is not an accident; I’m trying to draft the reader into this collective adolescent consciousness.

In researching the book, I read many academic studies of Riot Grrrl ephemera. Nobody had any sense of the whole deal, but people would grab onto whatever part of the elephant they could find and then apply somebody’s theory to it. They’d enlist whatever part of the movement they had some sources for into buttressing a theoretical operation. That absolutely diminishes the passion. I felt that what Riot Grrrl really needed was for somebody to approach it as a storyteller. I knew there were so many different schemas into which I could fit the story, but I felt that would be premature when the whole story hadn’t ever been told in one place.

Q: I think the most concise summary of Riot Grrrl’s internal conflicts and eventual disintegration came from Bikini Kill drummer and Jigsaw zine author Tobi Vail, who wrote in a 1993 zine, “Everybody’s talking about what kind of girl, nobody’s starting a riot.” I think there's some hard-earned wisdom in that pithy statement, which speaks volumes about feminism's fate in mainstream culture. Why is it always about what kind of girl?

A: That’s an enormous question. I want to start by saying that any kind of subcultural or radical political expression in adolescence is going to be closely tied to selfhood, to construction of a self, and is therefore going to be closely tied to “what kind of girl” or “what kind of boy.” I don’t think that’s primarily a manifestation of a sexist gaze. With regard to Riot Grrrl specifically, some punk women didn't want to be considered riot grrrls because that meant something very particular—you were aligned with certain people, you had a certain political style. Johanna wrote in her Bookforum review, "Riot grrrls went to meetings, I didn't." But in some cities where there were never any meetings, I talked to girls who were determined to identify as riot grrrls—perhaps even more strongly because there weren't any meetings to go to. Also, some divisions came up in cases of bands of women who didn’t want to be called Riot Grrrl, because they weren’t linked to this specific thing, even though the term had begun to bleed out into the culture and mean much vaguer things. Anyway, a lot of that is the micro-parsing of subcultural identities that happens regardless of gender.

Q: The narcissism of small differences . . .

A: Totally. Are you a spirit of ’77 punk, or are you a crust punk, or are you an anarcho-punk; and if you’re an anarcho-punk are you a vegan who eats honey or a vegan who doesn’t? These things become the grounds for great divisions. Because, and this is something that I talk about in the book, that’s what you actually have control over—you can actually see yourself making a difference in your community if your community consists of several dozen people.

Q: But what’s so striking is that whenever feminism, or even a powerful woman, enters mainstream culture, it’s always about “what kind of girl.”

A: You’re thinking specifically about self-presentation, clothing, grooming, and pulchritude?

Q: Yeah, how do they look?

A: Which is an incredible way in which feminists are viewed that other activists are not. Nobody really talked about what the people in ACT UP were wearing. There’s a recent piece in Harper’sby Susan Faludi about the generational divide in feminism—the piece has its own problems, but I was particularly struck by the way that the paradigmatic rendering of generational splits in feminism is totally done via “Are you shaving, are you waxing your bikini line, are you wearing fishnets, are you wearing skirts? ‘Young women wear high heels and I fought for years not to have to wear high heels—they’re so ungrateful!’ ” I think that this is a cooptation of the socially transformative potential of feminism as a philosophy, to constantly reduce it to matters of physical self-presentation. It’s so unbelievably counterproductive to continually reinscribe differences along these lines. And it’s bought into by some of the major thinkers of the movement. It might seem that such choices work well as metaphors or as symbols, but I think they colonize the discourse in a really harmful way.

Q: As a young woman writer writing about a feminist subject, I fear that your book could be marginalized in a way that perhaps wouldn't occur if you were a dude penning a paean to Bob Dylan. And yet, considering Riot Grrrl in its political, social, historical, and aesthetic context seems to me to offer a vitally important perspective not just on feminism or a particular DIY music subculture, but on American culture at large. The recent conversation about the coverage of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom gets at a similar point. Do you think there's still a gender bias when critics determine what constitutes a great book?

A: I think the question of gender bias is no longer a subjective question for me to give my opinion on. Double X ran their analysis of how many books by women versus men were reviewed in theTimes, and how many got the one-two punch of the weekday and the weekend review. I don’t think anyone can really dispute that it’s an issue, and I’m super gratified to see how broadly it’s being discussed. Meghan O’Rourke’s brilliant essay in Slate got so perfectly at the issues involved. I’m relieved to hear people talking about how it’s subtly, insidiously harder for people to give women’s writing credit for being ambitious and broadly relevant and Great. If there are any elements in a work that read as small—for instance, the book’s issues play out on the stage of interpersonal relationships, or the main characters are all young women—these tend to brand the whole work as small in a way that doesn’t seem to happen to men’s work.

When I was at Columbia, they would invite agents up to have cocktail hour and sushi with us and we would wander around tipsily pitching our books to people. And the agents would all listen to my spiel and say to me, “That sounds like a niche book.” Was that because it was a book about young women? Who can say? I certainly don’t think of it as a marginal or “niche” story. I have a very polemical stance on this. I chose, in this book, to follow the stories of young women who aren’t in bands, in addition to the stories of the musicians, in order to assert that the lives and struggles of teenage girls matter, and that, furthermore, you can know some very important things about a historical and political era by looking at the lives of teenage girls. And this was particularly true of the years in the early ’90s in which the book takes place, for reasons that I lay out in some detail: I show how societal anxieties about young women’s bodies and sexualities were acting as synecdoches for the culture wars as a whole at that moment. I hope people recognize and catch on to that, instead of seeing the book as being purely a Please Kill Me–style history of a moment in American music.

Q: One of Riot Grrrl’s most liberating ideas is that girls can make their own culture without anyone’s permission and without being tied to past styles or strategies. Can you talk a bit about what you call “the feminist future” in the book and current projects that inspire you?

A: I can’t write while I listen to music, and consequently, I listened to very little music for a three-year period that ended quite recently. Since turning in the book a few months ago, I’ve been happy to discover that there are a lot of really good bands right now. I have the Grass Widow record running through my head on complete repeat, all the time. I’m so excited about Frankie Rose and the Outs. Mountain Man is another great band; I’m doing an event with them in upstate New York, in Troy, in November. I don’t know if any of these bands see what they're doing as a feminist project per se; I think the individual members might well call themselves feminists, but it gets into a little bit of a wacky territory to say, “Grass Widow is part of the feminist future.” Are they? Or are they a band of women? It does make me really happy that there are so many wonderful women making music.

So what is the feminist future? I’m super excited by the profusion of feminist discourse on the Internet. There are blogs by feminists in high school that read a lot like Riot Grrrl zines: There’s poetry, and photographs of ads they find offensive, and rants about why the ads suck, as well as thoughts about strategy. Something nice about the Internet is the leveling out: There’s not a big gulf between being in high school and wanting to enact your media criticism, and seeing yourself as part of a conversation with the website Feministing and the feminist essays on Double X and all the rest. I think that it’s incredible that at this moment there are so many conversations about generational conflicts within feminism, and some people are saying that there’s a fourth wave right now—there’s kind of a Fibonacci thing with how much more quickly each successive wave comes on. I think the fifth wave is going to be next week. It’s a shame that the “wave” rubric reifies the sense of competition and the sense of rupture, but it’s positive insofar as it allows women within a certain age bracket (in this case I’m talking about women who are currently in their early to mid-twenties) to feel that they have an opportunity to set some terms and to define some issues.

Q: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Where can people go to get information about upcoming Girls to the Front events?

A: The book’s release party is Saturday, October 2, at Bruar Falls in Williamsburg, and then I leave on the 5th and I spend much of October on tour, with a few New York City readings sprinkled through October and November. All the events are up on For people who fancy a more interactive experience, the book has a Facebook page, and I’m also onTwitter.