18 October 2011

Minority Report: A Review of Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers by Janet Badia

The essays in Janet Badia's Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers are tightly wound around the central thesis that there is a "reliance of literary and popular culture on the tropes meant to disparage Plath's fans, especially the young women readers among them, as uncritical consumers, as Plath addicts, and even as literary cannibals" (2). In following a discourse that "rather unabashedly constructs women readers as a body of uncritical, misguided [and] pathological readers, she traces this discourses "eruptions and evolutions throughout literary and popular culture in order to demonstrate the significant effect it has has on the production, reception, and evaluation of Plath's oeuvre" (8). She does so effectively, expertly, and carefully.

Not being female - and I did check relatively recently - leaves me possibly at somewhat of a disadvantage to read, and to be so bold as to review, a book whose focus is squarely opposite to whatever faculties I bring to it as a result of my born gender. It is a deficiency I can do nothing about. But rather than shy away from Badia's book - and its use, reliance, and concern for feminist approaches - I found myself captivated, riveted, convinced and unable to let the book sit closed for too long. The book is so good and so finely written I was happy to lose sleep over it.

Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers both is and is not a book about Sylvia Plath. It does not engage in literary criticism of works Plath produced, but rather it chronicles and analyzes Plath's reception by her critics, her readers, and by her Estate and heirs. In brief...The first chapter examines "the anxieties about women readers that permeate the vast collection of to reviews written about Plath's work" situating "these anxieties not only within the context of Plath's career [and] within the broader discourse about gender and reading that has shaped literary culture over the past few decades" (25). Chapter Two investigates Plath as her work appears in popular culture and what that means for the public's understanding of Plath and her work. In doing so, Badia gives examples "which feature a young woman who reads Sylvia Plath's work" and "the ways in which [these instances] trivialize and even pathologize young women's reading" (63). In Chapter Three the focus turns from the popular culture (or, fictive), to "an examination of these real or historical readers, focusing in particular on the female fan culture that has surrounded Plath since the 1970s" (86). This is largely an expose on Robin Morgan's poem "Arraignment" and the heckling of Ted Hughes' public appearances, and the controversies surrounding Sylvia Plath's gravesite. As it stands, it is the most explicitly feminist-oriented chapter. The fourth chapter looks at "Ted Hughes and the Plath Reader," at his "opinion pieces, personal letters, and interviews, as well as selections from their [Frieda Hughes & Ted Hughes] poetry that speak, often quite directly, to the question of how each has regarded Plath's audience and her posthumous success" (125). The conclusion turns directly towards Frieda Hughes, who has taken a much more public approach to dealing with Plath's readers than her father had been.

In the Introduction, however, I found the most that I could relate to as a reader of Sylvia Plath. This is not to say that Badia's writing and focus on women readers will exclude those of the lesser sex. It doesn't. But I do hope it leads to discussion on this blog or via emails. And when it comes to "Literary Bullying and the Plath Reader" there is possibly a more likely chance that male readers are equally as women accused, unjustly, of reading Plath for "uncritical consumption" (7). At least, for this male reader of Plath, I feel this is the case. The central portion of the introduction I feel vilifies, rightly, literary bullying and cites as examples of such the writings of Judith Kroll, Jon Rosenblatt, Harold Bloom, Mary Lynn Broe, Tracy Brain, and Christina Britzolakis. These writers and critics (and teachers) are illustrative examples and not by any means a comprehensive list of offenders and Badia by no means discounts their work. Neither do I. As stated above, Badia's study does not concern itself with Plath's writings explicitly. But it does concern itself with how Plath's writings are consumed by her readers. Essentially there is a sharp divide between literary critics and, to use Badia's terms, those "uncritical" consumers of Plath's writings. Literary critics possess the faculties "to see the deeper meaning of Plath's poetry" (11). Uncritical consumers, or possibly the "generally educated" - regardless of their gender - apparently do not. But it is apparent that the "deeper meaning" some glean from any writers or artists work is a construction, a fabrication, a connecting of things that may or may not be present in the writing analyzed.

In that regard, literary criticism is a genre of fiction, something to which there is both a high degree of instability and improbability than something more fact based, such as Plath's biography. There are definable truths to Plath's life. That is not to say everything is known, but much is. And, in this light there are definable truths about Plath's creative writing as it pertains to its source of inspiration (her life, her emotional experiences, etc.) The application of theoretical methodologies is perhaps the most damaging and unstable of them all in assessing the value of creative writing. When one reads, or wants to read, the (auto)biography into or out of Plath's creative works it does provide an opportunity, at least, to pin down something historically concrete and irrefutable into an otherwise wide open, limitless, shifting, and trending field of interpretation. What it comes down to is that no one way of reading is right and that no one way of reading is wrong. We may and we will and we should disagree, but often in the tones of voices employed by the critics that Badia mentions as bullies we (generally speaking the uncritical consumer, irregardless of gender) are made to feel wrong. It isn't lost on me that the tone of this review has turned aggressive and that I, too, am being a bully. This is intentional. In critics minds the generally educated seem to get it wrong because they over-identify with Plath's writing (and life) or perhaps read too much of Plath's life in her writing. That doesn't make Plath's writing confessional and it doesn't make Plath a confessional poet. It makes her universal to the human experience.

If you will allow me to step (further) onto my soapbox for a bit, isn't it just simply the point that people are reading? For example, I do not have the slightest interest in the Harry Potter books, but I enjoy the fact that they are popular and that people of all ages and backgrounds read and enjoy them. Sometimes even making readers out of non-readers! And as educators, shouldn't they (generally) be supportive of all possible meanings that those readers derive from the writing? Maybe not. But, who are they (generally) to say that someones interpretation is wrong or lesser? It's the appreciation of the work that matters. In a 1961 interview, Plath herself said, "And I don't have a single gripe about people not appreciating poetry. For example, I don't like water skiing myself, why should I complain if some other people don't like poetry" (Tyler)? Plath expanded this comment - and this illustrates my rambling point somewhat - in "Context," an essay she wrote in 1962: "Surely the great use of poetry is its pleasure...Certain poems and lines of poetry seems as miraculous to me as church altars or the coronation of queens must seem to people who revere quite different images. I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people. As it is, they go surprisingly far - among strangers, around the world, even. Farther than the words of a classroom teacher or the prescriptions of a doctor; if they are lucky, farther than a lifetime."

One thing about the book design I really love is the Notes section. Not only are the notes informative, but the header for each pages lists the page range in the text for the notes contained on that page. Simple, brilliant.

As for the cover. Not very impressed. Stereotypical comes to mind? I find the images of women in a bathtub and on top of a laundry machine a bit … sexist? Maybe? Why exhibit women readers in this fashion? Is it meant to be tongue in cheek? The ghostly poem/letter extending down the page is beautiful; however, I certainly don't think either of their reading positions to be very comfortable, and the cover of Ariel is perhaps the worst Photoshop job I've ever seen, with exceptions being all of the images below... Who sits in the bath with (probably) no water in a long sleeve-buttoned blouse? And who sits, like that, on a washing machine. Mind you, I love the spin cycle as much as anyone...but this is probably a confession left for another time entirely. I tried out both positions, as can be see seen below...

This inspired me to design the cover for the forthcoming Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Men Readers.

Buy Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers by Janet Badia!


PHD said...

Brilliantly perceptive review of this book, Peter, as always. Your review has thrown up some interesting questions and I'm rather keen to read it myself now. Also LOVED your tongue in cheek pictures that accompany it - ha ha. I think you should recreate the covers of more Plath tomes!

Melanie Smith said...

Fabulous review Peter, I am loving the book. Great cover too... Must get some pics reading Plath, surrounded by rampaging children perhaps.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Melanie and PHD! Thank you for your comments.

One thing the book didn't really touch on - and it was certainly out of scope so there is no surprise there - is the pervasive & insensitive way in which Plath's suicide is ridiculed and mocked both in popular culture (newspapers and in conversations (Twitter, other social media, etc.), and also in television shows and films. What is the reason for this? Who are the perpetrators? When did it start?

I'm glad that you like the fake book cover! I'm reading Representing Sylvia Plath now and this, it seems, is one "Ravaged Face" need of a serious "Face Lift".

If anyone is interested, I'm going to be selling posters of me in the tub. Kind of like this one of George Costanza from Seinfeld.

magiciansgirl said...

Oh Peter, those photos of you and the fake book cover are some of the funniest things I've seen in a long while - thank you, I really needed a good laugh! I've been reading Badia's book, too, but I'm not finished. When I am I may have more to add

Peter K Steinberg said...

Kim! Thanks, glad I could help! We look forward to anything you care to comment on regards to the book!


George Fitzgerald said...

Great funny Photoshopping Peter! Great idea re-doing covers of books like that!

Kristina Zimbakova said...

Peter, there is one big difference between the alleged 'general readers' and the 'official' critics: they never demonstrate any let alone unique sense of humor in their book reviews that a 'general reader' does with such a flair, a case in point being the current blog review, for instance.
Critics often behave in the same manner in other forms of art, too. To me that seems like they feel they possess capacity to monopolise the privilege to 'see through' and hence truly enjoy the work of any art. Recently I read a statement by a reputable art critic in a UK daily, who said people needed 'art critics to tell them what is good art.' Please, give me a break. I've seen people who feel too humble and even fear to express how they appreciate and FEEL a a poem, an artwork and piece of classical music and hesitantly say ,'you know I am a layman, I do not much about art but I think ....'. The truth I favour is as follows: you FEEL and then (you think you) KNOW a work of any art, and that makes it good. If it doesn't stir you when you read a poem, all the highbrow explications about how it is deeply rooted in this and that mythology and similar etc constructions are to no avail at all. And any 'general reader' is more than capable of feeling a work of art and his/her judgement is equally valuable as that of any art critic.

And last, but not least, I would finish with a quite sussy quote by one my literature tutors, who said 'if a critic were able to write powerful, unique poems they would never bother writing pieces of criticism instead. They are mediocre or even worse in the former, that's why they feel they must monopolise the latter although they would die to excel as poets'.

Tiffany McCunn said...

Great (and hilarious) post, Peter!

I've often wondered, what kind of Plath fan is the right kind of Plath fan, according to Frieda Hughes? Maybe we can agree that the veneration of Plath as suicide puppet/Medea/etc... misses the mark completely, both in our interpretation of her work and her person. Does that mean anyone interested in her poetry and prose past adolescence is exempt? I don't know.

The poetry comes first, of course, but it doesn't stop there. And why wouldn't I want to know more about the woman who wrote the Ariel poems? But why do I feel a little bit terrible every time I come across a Frieda Hughes article? Am I one of the peanut-crunching crowd because I read Plath biographies, because I 've watched the "Sylvia" movie?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Kristina! Thank you for your comment. I couldn't agree more. And, I feel sometimes that I am so critical of these books because I can't do what they do. And yes, I am envious. The art critics comments from the UK paper are fascinatingly ignorant from one who seemingly should be informed.

Tiffany! Very important points about who is the right kind of Plath reader. The short answer is everyone. I think Plath's estate must recognize that Plath's appeal is far and wide. Sometimes the reason is her writing, sometimes it is her life story. There is no wrong reason to like a writer, especially a writer like Sylvia Plath. It's a personal preference thing, as Kristina pointed out above. For some the poetry does come first, but for others it might be the prose. Not that anyone really cares, but a turning point in my own appreciation for Plath was when I started only reading those things not really available: her journalism pieces, unpublished poems, prose, letters, calendars, etc. The things that are readily available online in the archive. It gives such a breadth of new ways of understanding.

The articles by Frieda Hughes are mostly perplexing. I recall one of them when she said (complained, maybe) that there were people out there that knew more about her mother than she did. My response is: the information is out there if you care to know it. The most recent article in the November Vogue is the first in a long time to be almost supportive of her mother, and display some kind of pride in being her daughter (not just the daughter of Ted Hughes). I do hope that this represents a shift in Frieda Hughes' public expression of emotion about Plath.

I'm pissed off right with Frieda Hughes about the Sylvia movie!


magiciansgirl said...

I do understand some of the turmoil, angst and anger that Plath's family may feel about Plath's life and work being so public and discussed so widely. Especially since their own lives often come under scrutiny and interpretation, too. But I also find it strange that they are so vehement about the same, when it's the popularity, sale and discussion of her work - and life - that add to their coffers. Without this attention, they wouldn't have earned very much from her estate and the dissemination of her work would have suffered. I know Ted felt that her work deserved an audience, and knew that Plath would have wanted to be lauded as a poet/writer. But that would never have happened without there being so much lit crit of her work and the exposure to her work in colleges, etc. It’s a “bitter fame” indeed, but what would have been a better alternative? Anyone whose work and life are in the public arena, and their families, have to deal with virtual strangers and critics disparaging and obsessing about them, actors and artists in particular. Like it or not, it’s part of the trade-off. And this is not a new phenomenon - even Byron had groupies - the difference being that we are living in an age wherein information - good or bad - is widely and quickly disseminated and is not easily controlled by the subjects of the speculation. I think that Ted really had no idea how Plath’s fame would snowball and what direction it would take. By the time realization hit him, it was too late to retract anything. How much of Plath’s work is really autobiographical is debatable I suppose, and it’s not the only lens through which to read her work. But it can’t be dismissed. If readers and critics ‘confuse’ Plath’s work with her life, or her life with her work, then Plath is to ‘blame’(I use the word loosely), not her readers, biographers or critics.

Tiffany said...

I didn't say I liked the movie, just that I watched it. :P

Anonymous said...

Peter, I really did "laugh out loud" at this post. Thank you!! Jess

Annika said...

Thank you for a great laugh Peter, much needed!

Peter K Steinberg said...

Tiffany, you're still guilty as charged...especially if you paused it at the end to make a cup of tea, as Frieda Hughes seemed to think people would be inclined to do!

Jess & Annika, you're most welcome! Glad to make a fool of myself any chance I get!


Peter K Steinberg said...

Very excellent points above Kim, and apologies for taken a couple of days to say so. Especially regarding Plath's "bitter fame", and I like how you assign "blame" away from those who are reading Plath and put it on her. I agree "blame" should be applied loosely and have been trying to think of a better word for it. Maybe to shift it away from Plath we can dump "blame" on Olive Higgins-Prouty for encouraging Plath to write about her experiences (this is something Plath wrote about in her unpublished typescript "Tea with Olive Higgins Prouty"). Though, this is something Plath had been doing for almost from the start.

Something that Badia's book really brought home to me comes from text printed on the back cover of the book, "If one is to believe the narrative told by literary and popular culture, Plath’s primary audience is a body of young, misguided women who uncritically—even pathologically—consume Plath’s writing with no awareness of how they harm the author’s reputation in the process." Harm the author's reputation? I should think people like Edward Butscher and David Holbrook (sorry, R.I.P) did more harm than the women - and MEN - who read Plath. What I find frustrating has been when people try to tell the general reader how to read Plath. As a reader of Plath, a great fan of her writing, I am always interested to read what others get out of the poems, but none of it is definitive.


Carl Rollyson said...

You really made me want to read the book, Peter, since it obviously has to be acknowledged in the last chapter of my Sylvia Plath biography, the chapter in which I deal wth the phenomenon of Sylvia Plath and how she became such a cynosure.

suki said...

Book arrived today but has no cover. Only the silver hardback. What happened to its readers?

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.