Our Permanent Revolution

Reviewed by Karl Jirgens

Gail Scott’s essay collection Permanent Revolution traces literary experimentation in her texts and those by other authors while challenging the authority of conventional narrative voices. These essays—divided into two sections, “The Smell of Fish” and “Spaces like Stairs—track Scott’s development as a writer, while sharing insights on global literary developments.


It’s rare to find an author swinging so comfortably between theory and literary expression. Scott’s essays, labelled “non-fiction,” embody fictive techniques including disjunctive narration and intertextuality, juxtaposed with multiple atemporal and aspatial perspectives within a polyphonic ventriloquy, a cacophonic carnival of resonating (sister-fiction/theorist) voices. Scott reduces gaps between speaker and addressee while extolling egalitarian pluralism, gender-fluid perspectives, pan-nationality, and voices of women from non-Western cultures.


Scott’s style embraces what de Saussure called parole (common speech patterns). She explores how French and English communication patterns differ while focusing on writing styles that respond to leftist, feminist, intersectional, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and lesbian ethoi. Scott censures colonialism, champions marginality, and resists fixity while treating language as an open site in which to investigate context, porosity, and volatility while dismantling conventional borders separating literary genres including memoir, fiction, non-fiction, theory, and autobiography. A key narratological question Scott poses in her essay “The Porous Text” is “Who has the right to speak?” (76).


Scott’s essays address progressive literary form. I approached reviewing this collection humbly and consulted the author, who encouraged me to proceed because I was in a good position to comment on how this book traces her evolving stylistics. As I write this, Permanent Revolution has been long-listed (top ten) for the Grand Prix du Livre de la Ville de Montréal.


If revolt remains a constant in the arts, then why is culture still distanced from feminist/artistic expression? Astute readers may notice that Permanent Revolution is the title of a work by the anti-Stalinist political activist Leon Trotsky. Scott’s essays ask readers to throw off literary-conceptual restrictions that bind us. Two unpaginated front pages titled “Praise for Permanent Revolution” offer views by several sister-authors/essayists/theorists. Anne Boyer states that Scott “evokes feminism as an ongoing experimental practice.” Bhanu Kapil notes that the book falls “in the gap between what a novel could have been and what is possible now, and that’s a kind of grammar.” I agree with Kapil. Another name for this alternative literary form is “autotheory,” which according to Lauren Fournier’s book on this topic is a hybrid of autobiography and theory. One might call Scott’s stylistic approach autotheory, or a variation of New Narrative, or fiction/theory. Some sister-practitioners discussed in Permanent Revolution include Kathy Acker, Audre Lorde, Carla Harryman, Anaïs Nin, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, France Théoret, Louky Bersianik, Nicole Brossard, Hélène Cixous, Monique Wittig, and Marguerite Duras. At key points, Scott incorporates discussions of Indigenous authors such as Liz Howard, Jordan Abel, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Joshua Whitehead. Kapil, an innovative poet, offers insights on Scott’s writing and how it challenges dominant aesthetics and theory by combining subjective and autobiographical perspectives. If this book offers a new “grammar,” as Kapil fittingly suggests, then it is a grammar that moves well beyond Jacques Derrida’s masculinist tome Of Grammatology by contesting dominant, conventional grammars or theoretical frameworks and by incorporating autobiographical materials while debating socio-political topics. Rachel Zolf observes that this collection charts Scott’s writerly formation at “the nexus of Québécoise feminist fiction/theory and San Francisco’s queer New Narrative bodily spillage.” Permanent Revolution exposes the body politic while investigating narratology, gender, and queer aesthetics. Kate Zambreno calls this approach a “conversation” with “écriture feminine.” These essays offer a refreshing, much needed, and urgent statement about the necessity of moving past conventional socio-literary constructs and thinking patterns. Scott integrates poetics, theory, and language while reimagining New Narrative’s representations of subjective experience without pretended objectivity. Scott’s engagé essays surf the fluid waves of narratology and gesture to uncharted literary territories.


In her foreword, Zoe Whittall states that she loves a novel in which form and language are privileged above plot or “what happens” (n.p.). Whittall notes that Scott’s essays consider the “history of the New Narrative movement, its current iterations,” influences, evolutions, and recent practitioners, all within a fresh expressive form, while offering salient historical perspectives on innovative literary stylistics. Scott’s preface clarifies several key points. She explains that this collection traces her own prose experiments while relating writing to ongoing social upheaval, and that these essays are in conversation with “English-language-experimental prose across the continent” (40), particularly queer New Narrative. Scott explains that the collection includes a foreshortened recreation of Spaces like Stairs (1989), a personal account of writing in the feminist movement during the 1980s in Québec. Questions of gender minorities and gender distributions are viewed through a Marxist lens that recognizes a permanent state of emergency involving how we as a species reshape storytelling or narration. Later, in “The Sutured Subject,” Scott references Mina Loy’s feminist manifesto which calls for formal revision and “absolute demolition” (63). Scott confesses that she may not agree with that manifesto entirely, but concurs with a call for fundamental change in systems and institutions. Scott acknowledges that this collection emerged during the dire conditions of a global pandemic, a climate calamity, and the oppression and murder of Black and Indigenous people. “Rage accumulates” (6).


One of the essays that I admire is “The Attack of Difficult Women Prose.” I’ll focus on it, while commenting on several others. This essay’s title asks why “Women” are under (cultural) erasure. The sluggish rotation of culture’s wheels is one reason why any artistic or literary revolution must be permanent. “The Attack of Difficult Women Prose” begins with a short summation of challenges faced by writers seeking profiles and promoting books. Historically, such challenges have proven especially difficult for women writers and even more difficult for writers investigating innovative prose forms that do not privilege plot, but instead pursue structural innovations. Scott investigates such “difficult” writing by considering what she calls the alchemy between art and estrangement, particularly during times of left and right political populism. In her analysis, Scott alludes to Derrida’s comments on Karl Marx while eschewing materialist values. She recounts a personal experience in which her novel My Paris, which features few active verbs and is written largely in present-participle phrases, was defined by a critic in a prestigious Canadian literary journal as “lesbian aesthetics” (25).


Controversies over aesthetics have arisen for centuries. Virginia Woolf’s initial forays into “stream of consciousness” writing were initially met with derision. James Joyce’s development of that style was censored and censured, but later embraced as an exemplar of literary innovation. Scott’s “rage” justifiably arises over the aforementioned sluggishness. Her frustration ascends in response to literary critics who too often fail to recognize the merits of innovative literary stylistics. Scott notes that when unadventurous critics are confronted with alternative literary forms, they turn to labels such as “feminist,” “lesbian,” “left-wing,” “experimental,” or “Anglo-Québécoise” (25). She observes that it is as if such critics have never read Beckett.


Scott’s reference to Harryman’s book of essays, Adorno’s Noise, is accompanied by allusions to Nin, Elizabeth Taylor, and Alice B. Toklas. Scott takes “cou-rage”—French etymology: “heart anger” (25)—by acknowledging that at least some writers and critics are aware of the merits of revolutionary stylistic innovations. Arguably, since Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno maintained that society and culture formed a historical totality, and contended that the pursuit of freedom in society and culture was inseparable from the pursuit of social enlightenment, Scott’s essays aim to enlighten us; likewise those of Harryman. In Adorno’s Noise, Harryman explores gender and works by Nin, Acker, Sun Ra, Robert Smithson, Kenzaburo Oe, Elizabeth Grosz, and Jocelyn Saidenberg. Critic Robert Halpern says in an endorsement of Harryman’s book Adorno’s Noise that her multi-voiced style “reinvents the essay as form, but it doesn’t stop short of reinventing thinking” (1). With reference to Harryman, Scott considers intersections between abstraction and narration in literary forms, including prose poetry. Scott pursues Nin’s gesture of opening a window as an act of liberation coupled with a sensual bodily impulse, and suggests that some of Nin’s published letters serve to explain women to men in a non-emasculating and reasonable way. Perhaps Henry Miller’s letters to Nin are insufficient for such explanation, regardless of the writers’ torrid affair. Perhaps more could be said about Nin’s passionate affair with Miller’s wife, June. Scott’s essay asks whether Nin will ever become a “full participant in public discourse” (26). Interestingly, the Guardian has reported that Nin has become an internet sensation, noting that aphorisms such as “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are” are quoted globally. Humans have a tendency to project anxieties and desires onto others and so we create “monsters.” A reference to “monsters” arises in Nin’s autobiographical novel, Seduction of the Minotaur, which features protagonist Lillian’s self-psychoanalysis. The setting is taken from Nin’s diary account of her first trip to Acapulco in 1947. The title alludes to a minotaur in the labyrinth of the unconscious and the challenge of overcoming that monster by developing one’s insightfulness.


Related to insight is Scott’s deployment of language. In “The Sutured Subject,” Scott discusses literary sutures. Alain Badiou explains that while Jacques Lacan frequently deployed the notion of the suture, it was first discussed by Jacques-Alain Miller in his essay “Suture (Elements of the Logic of the Signifier),” which was delivered as an intervention at Lacan’s seminar on “Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis” (1965) and published in Cahiers pour l’Analyse in 1966 (Badiou 24). But in her essay, Scott moves beyond neo-Freudian perspectives by stating that literary sutures juxtapose “memory/body/gesture onto languages of the street” (61).


Coincidentally, Scott (61) and Badiou (25) agree that global capitalist political systems strive to make it difficult to challenge regimes of knowledge/power. I think of Foucault when arguing that similar regimes of power shape the literary world. To return to Nin and the socio-political importance of insight, essay collections such as Permanent Revolution and Adorno’s Noise provide the impetus to turn our cultural wheels. In Scott’s essay, the literary suture connects the subject and signifying structures with the author’s mind and body. Put simply, how you say something reveals much about what you say. Think of cinematic techniques: splicing, juxtaposition, montage, voice, perspective, and distance. For Scott, the “subject” takes on at least two meanings: 1) the subject of any story; and 2) the author-as-subject (including their unconscious mind). Nin’s autobiographical fiction serves as a precursor to what some call “auto-theory,” others call “fiction/theory,” and still others call developments arising from “New Narrative”; all represent subjective experience honestly, using innovative stylistics while incorporating bodily reactions.


Regarding her self-definition, Scott raises questions about gender, race, class, and social constructions of so-called “whiteness.” I think of my father, who was almost murdered on his job site even though he was a white male. Turns out he was the wrong type of white male, a Latvian refugee-foreigner, outside of accepted norms. Intergenerational PTSD partly defines my subject position, as does my service as editor of Rampike magazine, which published many of those referenced in Scott’s essays, including Acker, Brossard, Derrida, Margaret Christakos, Charles Bernstein, Michel Tremblay, Philippe Sollers, Claude Beausoleil, Meredith Quartermain, and Sylvère Lotringer, among others—as well as Scott herself.


Reading Scott’s essays, I also think of Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own (1986) and how she identified a “lost continent” of female literary tradition, neglected by male critics, now rising like Atlantis from the sea. I think of oppressed social groups around the globe in need of urgent help. Many face death daily. If some readers grow weary hearing about oppression, then it’s important to remember that living with oppression is far more difficult. Nin’s notion of “insightfulness” provides a key to coping with our “monsters” of polity.


In “The Attack of Difficult Women Prose,” Scott’s comments on gender allude to male scopophilia, or the “gaze,” in contrast to feminine sensual bodily contact. Scott then turns to Beckett and Juliet Stevenson (who acted in Beckett’s plays) while alluding to thinkers such as Viktor Shklovsky, Derrida, Marx, and Eileen Myles regarding gender spectrums, ageism, and inequities involving the Nobel Prize for literature. Scott reports that Stevenson said that she couldn’t relate to Beckett’s writing because it emphasized structure and stylistics over subject matter, but she came to admire it once she acted in his productions (28). With Beckett in the background, Scott comments on “adventurous prose,” which diminishes differences between author, narrator, and character, while considering literary defamiliarization, which she states seems inappropriate during a global pandemic because reality is already defamiliarized. Such considerations lead Scott to ask in “The Sutured Subject” whether a novel is an act of “ventriloquism” (60). In “The Attack of Difficult Women Prose,” Scott challenges the values of conventional literary critics while extolling Duras and Bernstein, who both renounce an overall “lack of cultural commitment” when critics evaluate prose narratives or “writing” (29).


Scott laments lost times when “writers wore upstart intellectual performance as a badge of honour” (29). She commends the virtues of speaking up, and relishes Margaret Atwood’s comment that a particular CBC interviewer might be better off reading Harlequin romances. This essay closes with comments on Shklovsky’s formalist novel Zoo and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which address surveillance and control anxieties in different ways. Scott references Rod Smith’s views on political exhaustion and a resulting complacency. The essay concludes with an allusion to Dostoevsky and a question about whether authors are no longer arbitrators between language and thinking in the face of powerful and oppressive socio-economic forces (30-31). In closing, Scott acknowledges youth who appear to be aware that open individual expression is less important than balancing independence with interdependence. The essay finishes with an unanswered question about what is meant by “balance of power in the Polis” (31). For me, that question recalls that we are part of an interconnected world. Scott’s closing reference to youth reminds me of open-minded literary movements such as Solarpunk. Perhaps appropriately, Permanent Revolution leaves questions about formal literary innovation open.


I would say more, but I’ve reached my word limit. So I leave readers to discover the important values of Permanent Revolution, and I conclude with Christakos’ afterword. Christakos provides a valuable time frame for this book’s essays, which serve as catalyst and document of “writing-as-change.” Christakos states that the essays serve as aesthetic experiments, with two primary “lobes” (148). The first involves a union of Scott’s recent and revised essays from the past twenty years under the title “The Smell of Fish.” The second lobe includes selections from Scott’s essays on feminist writing in Spaces like Stairs, revised here under the same title. It seems to me that Christakos’ word “lobes” gestures to both brain function and earlobes or listening functions.


In Permanent Revolution, Scott candidly addresses radical poetics, literary form, and social change while representing the queer and the political, as well as the necessity of a permanent revolutionary stance that embraces fluidity of identity, gender, and innovative narrative. I encourage readers to purchase Permanent Revolution, which is handsomely produced by Book*hug. It is a remarkable collection of valuable, groundbreaking essays.


Works Cited

Badiou, Alain. Number and Numbers. Translated by Robin MacKay, Polity, 2008.

Doyle, Sady. “Before Lena Dunham, There Was Anaïs Nin—Now Patron Saint of Social Media.” Guardian, 7 Apr. 2015, www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/apr/07/anais-nin-author-social-media.

Fournier, Lauren. Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism. MIT Press, 2020.

Harryman, Carla. Adorno’s Noise. Essay Press, 2008.

Scott, Gail. Permanent Revolution. Book*hug, 2021.

Whittall, Zoe. Foreword. Permanent Revolution, by Gail Scott, Book*hug, 2021.



1 Halpern says this in a blurb to Harryman’s Adorno’s Noises

This review “Our Permanent Revolution” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 16 May. 2022. Web.

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