The Enduring Popularity of Fictional Critic “Madame Realism”

Lynne Tillman, photo by Christopher Gabello. Courtesy Interview Magazine.

Even self-assured egos have their sensitive spots. This was certainly true of Madame Realism, a fictional critic who, from 1984 until 2007, analyzed art and culture within short stories written by Lynne Tillman. First collected in The Madame Realism Complex (1991), these yarns were re-released in 2016 as The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories. In our critical environment, even the sharpest tongues are dulled by the social and financial power of galleries and museums – their economic solidity sharply contrasting with the precariousness of freelance. Speaking through fictional characters, Tillman took on the mettle of an incognito spy. Moreover, weaving daydreams and puns with seemingly aimless observations, her texts illuminate what has been disavowed by journalistic prose and rapid-fire opinionating: the critic as mutable human.

In “Dynasty Reruns: Treasure Houses of Great Britain,” Realism muses indignantly. Having visited an exhibition of aristocratic treasures at the British National Gallery, she wonders to herself whether she was “expected to be grateful to, or respectful of the aristocracy for having first created, then preserved Western civilization.” Later, as she’s drifting to sleep, Realism smiles and thinks of the American TV show Dynasty. It’s a sly moment, linking the ad nauseum display of imperial power to cheap rerun television. It’s also a perfect specimen of the clever metonymy that often winks through this collection, taunting the bland transparency of magazine criticism.

The Complete Madame Realism, MIT Press and Semiotext(e).

Tillman hit upon her ventriloquist’s method early. Having declined an invitation to pen an essay on surrealism, she later recognized an opportunity for feminist word-play. Ruminating upon the neglect of female surrealists, Tillman wrote a story under her new alias – a pun replacing the “sir” or “surrealism” with a stately female pronoun. On rare occasions, this joke seemed to hide a raw nerve. In “On the Road with Madame Realism,” Tillman writes that “Those indignant people who wrote to Art in America are right … I’m not a professional museum-goer.” It’s difficult to distinguish, here, between coy deflection and veiled hurt. The novelist Colm Toibin picked up on these emotive layers when he shared a book tour with Tillman. In the introduction to another collection entitled What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (2014), he remembers a person “both casual and nervous,” whose “confidence was matched by a guardedness, an unease, and a way of maintaining distance that might have been theatrical.”

The ambiguity signaled by that “might” is one of this book’s central pleasures. The word represents the contingency that inspirits Tillman’s writing. Across radically-shifting subject positions, a passive voice recurs – countervailing and undercutting assuredness. In this way, her writing foregrounds a condition that is both common and terrifying in these politically volatile times: sometimes we know things, but more often we don’t. So Tillman continually asserts the value of articulating intuitions and urges. In the book’s most lasting sentence, she discards both groupthink and the pressure to rationalize idiosyncratic desire, with a single blithe preference: “Some people go north in the fall to watch the leaves turn, I go south to watch them cling.”

Throughout the book, Tillman echoes the destabilizing feeling of being certain in one moment, and unsure in the next. To this end, equivocal hypotheses intersperse emphatic pronouncements. Writing about Cindy Sherman under Tillman’s own name, she explains that, “If Sherman were a novelist, I’d propose: she has incorporated the reader into every text, by allowing for a subjective space …” Drifting into literary analysis, this wondering line suggests Tillman’s own un-confidence in her ability to interpret photography.

Cindy Sherman, “Untitled Film Still #56,” 1980.

The writer of these words is at odds with the one who penned the following statements: “It’s often written that … [Sherman’s] photographs are about her identity. They are not … they are about us. Human beings want to look at themselves … It is an incessant desire, impossible to satisfy, which creates more pictures. Humans stare at each other longingly, or with disgust, anxiety, curiosity.” Her reference to social media flirts with a downward, elitist gaze. But Tillman marshals support from Gertrude Stein and Edith Wharton, whose quoted words break the essay regularly, forming a smoky modernist backdrop. She also has candor on her side, observing that disgust, anxiety, and curiosity are powerful conspirators in shaping our obsession with the publicly-shared image. Anyone who has spent nights scrolling through loneliness can feel the truth in this observation.

Though this collection represents only a fragment of Tillman’s output, her writing is curiously knowable in fragmentary form. There are sentences that appear as glancing aphorisms, and that can be independently folded open before being woven into the larger essay. When I arrived late to one of Tillman’s talks, several years ago, I was mesmerized by her scrupulous phrases, which floated like slow darts to the back of the room. Consider this line – an essay unto itself – from “Madame Realism’s Conscience,” wherein our narrator fantasizes encounters with titans of American politics: Johnson, Nixon, Kennedy.

“Without access to power’s hidden manifestations, visibility is tantamount to reality, a possible explanation for the authority of images.”

The word “access” splits, to describe both the cross-section of power that good criticism opens, and the literal fantasy of accessing Washington’s halls of influence. As these dual functions tussle for space in a reader’s head,  it is instructive to linger at their crossroads. Tillman’s more obvious plays on words, have the effect of illuminating such double meanings, which are buried more deeply in the text. Within her ludic style of argumentation, the processes of roaming reflection and steely criticality trade back and forth. Her prose narrates the story of critical thinking as a perpetually unresolved collusion of sentiments.

Within academia, such compound reflections on thought-as-process are encouraged. Not so in the discursive world in which most of us operate, which prioritizes rapidly-cycling, polemic expression. Here, in the everyday capitalist ether, layered and knotted meaning are anathema to the production of the self. Though opposed to populist oversimplification, Tillman’s compound voice equally evades academicism. When she quotes Sigmund Freud (as she often does), the writing rises momentarily towards arcane elitism. But it’s hard to imagine that Tillman is unaware of Freud’s musty unfashionability. And so the psychoanalyst’s quotations instead lend her own prose a dash of split personality, posing a relentlessly analytical self against another more theatrical one; self-aware of pretence, but unabashed.

If Tillman’s stories and essays did not touch down in the barbarous absurdities of life, her adventures in thinking might come off as indulgent. But touch down they do, with deceptively eviscerating criticality. In “Lust for Loss,” Madame Realism delivers a cool skewering of male chauvinism through the ghost of Virginia Woolf. Visiting Normandy, Realism muses that she herself “would have liked to have been privy to the goings-on in one of the D-Day war rooms. But there hadn’t been any women in them. I’d have to rent a war room of my own, she laughed …” I laughed with her, but it was a pinched laugh – stymied by the persistence of hyper-violent capitalist patriarchy. As I was writing this piece, a Washington war-room brimming with frustrated testosterone made a widely decried decision to let rockets loose on Syria.

One passage in a story titled “To Find Words” cuts to the heart of Tillman’s renewed popularity. The piece is one of three about a writer named Paige Turner. In it, Turner explains that she has “nothing to say.” Her exasperation echoes a familiar feeling for those baffled by the overwhelming state of the world; and especially those discouraged from speaking by a society that considers education a luxury commodity. Reading this passage, the sensation was of listening to an eloquent version of my own millennial angst, searching for purchase in an unfolding political consciousness.

“Should I begin?” Turner wrings her hands, and wonders whether she must ask permission. She continues, “It hurts. You hurt. I cannot speak. Lie down, make yourself comfortable, adjust the light. I’ll speak for you.” It’s easy to lose track of who’s addressing whom. But the guiding sentiment remains. The reader has an ally in the unknowing that surrounds all articulation.

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