Elisa Albert and the Art of Literary Swagger

Few contemporary authors embody feminine swagger like the author of After Birth and Human Blues

The girl climbs the stairs to the open book. Art collage.
Lily Meyer

My favorite compliment to give a novel is to say it has swagger. What I mean, in part, is that it has charisma, balls, a seductively bad attitude — but the craft of literary swagger is, by its nature, not an easy thing to pin down. In fact, one of swagger’s major characteristics is that it changes unstoppably. Writing with swagger breaks rules, morphs nonstop, and defies both itself and all efforts to contain it. As a result, it’s impossible to fake or imitate. Resemblance is the enemy of swagger.

Swagger, as a contemporary phenomenon, is very much associated with hip-hop. The best explanation I’ve found of the anti-resemblance rule comes from the artist and hip-hop pioneer Fab Five Freddy. In sociologist Tricia Rose’s 1994 book Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Freddy says that inventing new styles is “what makes [making art] feel so good — that pressure on you to be the best. Or to try to be the best. To develop a new style nobody can deal with.” Swagger is precisely such a style. It earns attention not only by being good, but by being good in a startling and exhilarating way.

Part of what makes swagger thrilling is that it is both transgressive and defiant. Swagger-y books delight in breaking both literary and social rules, which means that writers blessed with swagger are often unusually able to attract attention against steep social odds. In the queer theorist Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinity, the rare academic work that has swagger, he writes that, in studying and embracing his own butchness, “I have been able to turn stigma into strength.” Quite often, this is precisely what swagger does. The media theorist Dick Hebdige has written that subcultures like punk get sucked into a “cycle leading from opposition to defusion, resistance to incorporation.” Swagger sits right in the middle of that cycle. It opposes the mainstream, but is seductive enough that parts of the mainstream adopt it anyway.

Swagger, then, has the power to get a person taken seriously. Perhaps that’s why it’s so often associated with masculinity. In our sexist culture, it’s much easier for a man than a woman to hold and attract attention, unless, of course, the woman is doing so by having sex with men (call it Samantha Jones-style swagger). No surprise, then, that swagger is coded male. Of course, I don’t mean that only dudes can have swagger — if you doubt me, go read Halberstam — but that feminine and feminist swagger are rare in contemporary literature. It’s easy to find female protagonists who drift unhappily around academia, or Florida, or widowhood. It’s also easy to find female characters who perform male perspectives, sincerely or in a winking, self-aware way: Consider Tiff, the protagonist of the writer Nell Zink’s swagger-y debut The Wallcreeper, reacting to her own dislike of anal sex by saying, as a dismissive man might, “Girls are lame.”

It is much tougher to track down a novel that derives narrative power from an unusual, confident, and defiant take on being feminine or living in a female body — which, to me, is what feminine swagger should be. Few contemporary writers embody feminine swagger like Elisa Albert, a novelist whose work is equal parts Philip Roth, Sarah Silverman, and, well, her. Albert is in a rarefied group of writers — her peers include Gina Apostol, Elaine Castillo, Jackie Ess, Madeline ffitch, and, sometimes, Zadie Smith — who use their considerable charisma and delight in transgression to draw attention to unsung and unseen parts of life in a female body, or a body outside the norms of conventional masculinity.

Albert has a style nobody can deal with. Reading her 2006 debut story collection, How This Night is Different, is like sticking your finger in a socket. Reading her 2016 novel After Birth is like getting shouted at for several hours about postpartum pain. It’s a filthy, ferocious, and absolutely unrestrained yowl of maternal anger. It’s half novel and half screed against OB/GYNs, focused on the birthing body and on how much its protagonist, Ari, hates everything involved in hospital birth.

I take issue with much of the exceedingly pro-home-birth ideology presented in After Birth, but damn, do I like Albert’s prose. She writes in breathless, profane, italics-laced floods of opinion and reaction that are as captivating as they are infuriating. I love having my attention grabbed, and I love that Albert grabs it while writing about perineal tears. Given how male-oriented swagger can be, it’s an especially electrifying use of swagger to force readers to think in detail about birth and its non-baby consequences, a pair of topics our squeamish and misogynistic culture loves to avoid. Not all books with swagger need agendas beyond holding readers’ attention, but After Birth is an excellent example of swagger’s capacity to serve one.

In her newest book, Human Blues, Albert once again uses swagger to draw readers’ attention to an experience that receives precious little cultural attention: fertility treatment. But this time, she doesn’t ground her swagger in the torrent of furious detail that powers After Birth. Instead, she gives it all to Aviva, her a hyper-feminine, hyper-charismatic protagonist.

Aviva is a folk-punk singer with an insane amount of swagger. She’s sexy, funny, and hugely compelling. She’s also womanly in an abrasive, hippie way that involves some suspect obsession with the sacred mysteries of the female body. In the album that makes her famous, she takes a strong position against assisted reproduction, which she is infuriated by for reasons she can’t fully explain — though it’s fair to suspect that her anger is linked to the fact that she badly wants to get pregnant and cannot conceive without medical help. Aviva’s swagger helps her get away with taking this stance in public, and makes it both possible and easy to enjoy reading about her while being infuriated by her ideas. What it does not do is direct any attention whatsoever to how it feels to undergo or consider undergoing fertility treatment, though in theory, these are the book’s twin subjects.

In Human Blues, swagger becomes a distraction. Intriguingly, so does femininity. Aviva uses both to hide from her emotions — a trick Albert renders transparent to the reader, but one that seems to work for Aviva in her marriage and life. Ultimately, Aviva manifests a version of femininity that, hippie though it is, comes closer to being Samantha Jones swagger — a performance of hang-up-free sexiness — than to replicating what After Birth achieves. Human Blues is a show of one woman’s sometimes-effortful womanhood. It’s enjoyable to watch, but, for all that the novel held my attention, I wish it had tried harder to direct it somewhere.

All the fun and frustration of reading Human Blues makes me wish, as I often do, for more novels full of feminine swagger. Albert’s swagger, which gets its energy from anger — both the anger that animates her protagonists and the anger her work evokes in readers like me — is just one register in an entire scale of possibilities. I’d like to see female and feminine writers trying loudly and unabashedly to be the best across the emotional spectrum. I want joyful swagger, tragic swagger, eager swagger, sick swagger, PMS swagger. I want swaggers that I can’t even imagine, let alone deal with — ones that show me some new angle on, or aspect of, my own body or gender or life. Swagger can do that. It’s a great teacher, and I’m always ready to be taught.

Lily Meyer is a writer, critic, and translator.