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."
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...
Buy Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers by Janet Badia!
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." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
- 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 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: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
- 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.
- Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
- Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (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. 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. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
- 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. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
- 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. "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. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
- "Banking on his passion for Plath" by Melissa Davis Haller. UMW Today. Spring 2005.
- "Sylvia Plath's Three Women to be staged in London" by Alison Flood. The Guardian. 3 December 2008.
- "FBI files on Sylvia Plath's father shed new light on poet" by Dalya Alberge. The Guardian. 17 August 2012.
- "There Are Almost No Obituaries for Sylvia Plath" by Ashley Fetters. The Atlantic. 11 February 2013.